On the futility of politics

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For a while I’ve wanted to write something about why Baha’is choose not to get involved in politics. I’ve kind of dragged my feet on this, mostly because it’s a difficult topic to write about, and is fraught with potential pitfalls. But given the number of international conflicts and other major news stories that have sprouted up  over the past couple of months, and the immense attention that some of these have received in the news and social media, I figured it was as good a time as any.

If you’re wondering why the Baha’is have not stood up and spoken publicly on these various conflicts — Israel vs Hamas, Ukraine vs Russia, the St. Louis protestors vs the police, etc. — then you are probably not alone. That’s because Baha’is actually make it a point not to make their voices heard on specific stories like these. I remember during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, as faith-based groups around the world were holding protests against the possibility of an American invasion, hearing the voices of some well-meaning activists criticizing the relative silence of the Baha’is. How can a religion so committed to peace and justice be so content, as I heard one person put it at the time, to “sit on the sidelines”?

The simple answer is that part of being a Baha’i is to make a commitment to stay out of politics, and to avoid taking sides in terms of one party, group, or nation over another, even as we stand in favor of certain principles.

This commitment goes back to the teachings of Baha’u’llah Himself, who wrote:

Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders.

Abdu’l-Baha, who gave us practical interpretations to many of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, expanded on this idea, warning us to stay away from divisive issues and political squabbles:

Speak thou no word of politics; thy task concerneth the life of the soul, for this verily leadeth to man’s joy in the world of God. Except to speak well of them, make thou no mention of the earth’s kings, and the worldly governments thereof. Rather, confine thine utterance to spreading the blissful tidings of the Kingdom of God, and demonstrating the influence of the Word of God, and the holiness of the Cause of God. Tell thou of abiding joy and spiritual delights, and godlike qualities, and of how the Sun of Truth hath risen above the earth’s horizons: tell of the blowing of the spirit of life into the body of the world.

From my perspective at least, ‘Abdu’l-Baha by no means discouraged Baha’is from taking stands in favor of or against certain principles, and to encourage them only to focus on purely spiritual matters.  ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself advocated for representative democracy in his homeland of Iran in the late 19th century, arguing that a nation’s leaders must listen and respond to the concerns and interests of their people. Later in life, while traveling in America, he made ostentatious gestures in public to declare the equality of whites and blacks, sometimes at the cost of offending his white hosts. The life of Baha’u’llah Himself might be seen by non-Baha’i historians, quite rightly, as a tireless lifelong struggle for a range of political goals: dignity for the poor, the eradication of prejudice, the establishment of world government, the emancipation of women, etc. He is believed to have planned one of the most famous moments of Babi/Baha’i history, the iconoclastic Tahirih’s public removal of her veil in a then-revolutionary demonstration of gender equality, signifying a violent breaking from previous cultural traditions.

In other words, the Holy figures of the Baha’i Faith were not pacifists careful to shy away from controversy, nor did they encourage their followers to equivocate on who they were or what they believed. So what, then, is the problem with taking sides in politics? It’s that siding with one group, party, nation, etc. over another (as opposed to standing for or against ideas and principles) may feel good and just, but ends up exacerbating conflict rather than solving it. It is indeed tempting to think that if only the right candidate, party, lobbying group, or army could triumph, then the world’s problems would fall one by one like dominoes. Using this logic, then, all we need to do as individuals is to pick the right side in each political conflict, election, etc. and push as hard as we can against the opposition. Yet this approach is limited in actually solving the world’s problems. That’s because, though we may occasionally make a positive impact in the short-term, we end up supporting the very system of adversarial, self-interested conflict that gives rise to so many of these problems in the first place.

From a Baha’i vantage point, there can be no lasting solution to what ails the human race without unity, and without ditching our collective fetish for conflict and competition. Baha’u’llah writes:

Though the world is encompassed with misery and distress, yet no man hath paused to reflect what the cause or source of that may be… No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny.

In another passage He tells His followers:

O people of Justice!… The brightness of the fire of your love will no doubt fuse and unify the contending peoples and kindreds of the earth, whilst the fierceness of the flame of enmity and hatred cannot but result in strife and ruin.

Cynics might respond that conflict is in fact the natural state of human society, rather than unity. But to assert this is to ignore the innumerable ways we needlessly promote conflict among ourselves, and crowd out some of our natural tendencies for cooperation and coexistence. One of the great illustrations of this is the modern university campus, where students are indoctrinated early into the language of “Us versus Them”. When I was a college student, I noticed some classmates who were into politics and leadership obsessing over competition and taking sides. One year, during a time of intense violence between Israel and Palestine (near the start of the Second Intifada), our college’s elected student body for some reason found it necessary to endorse one side over the other in the conflict. (They picked the Palestinians, though this is beside the point.) What was the productive purpose of this exercise?, I wondered. What meaningful contribution towards peace and the betterment of people’s lives was made by the arbitrary judgment of a handful of college go-getters about a part of the world that most had never visited? Who exactly was swayed towards thinking differently about that particular conflict as a result of the student council’s endorsement? In that particular case, I could only imagine that taking such a “stand” simply evoked emotional responses on both sides, causing them to entrench themselves even more stubbornly in their respective views.

Examples of needless compartmentalizations of issues into opposing groups go way beyond the college campus, of course. At every turn, we are encouraged to stake out our own differentness and demarcate imaginary boundaries among ourselves. I still need an explanation, for instance, for why newspapers, on the one hand holding fast to objectivity and journalistic integrity, seem to feel obligated to “endorse” a particular candidate to its readers during election season.

So if we don’t take political sides on issues, how do we stand for what we believe? First and foremost, let’s be clear on some of what the Baha’i Faith actually stands for in terms of its teachings, in the broad context of the conflicts going on today. Among many other things, the Baha’i Writings call for the nations’ leaders to cease their buildup of arms and refocus their energy and resources on the wellbeing of their peoples; assert the unequivocal equality of all races; demand that the poor and disenfranchised be treated with dignity and honor; and call for all of the world’s nations to intervene, militarily if need be, to stop one country’s aggression against another. Baha’is are active in governmental organizations, from the local to the international level, in advocating for these principles. To take one example, the Baha’i representative office at the UN has specifically argued in favor of reforming the UN Security Council. It has not, for instance, pointed fingers at the US, China, Russia, or any other nation for the ways those countries use their veto powers.

To take another example, recently the Baha’is of the US have become much more active on the issue of global warming. To simply avoid this issue because it has become (needlessly) politically charged, with one major political party against and the other in favor of action, would be to deny the legitimacy of science and effectively silence the Baha’i community on possibly the single most important issue of our time. Silence, in other words, is not an option. Yet, Baha’is can not and will not support specific parties or political candidates simply because they are committed towards action on climate change, however tempting.

All of these high-level efforts are secondary to those of the countless Baha’i children’s class teachers, youth mentors, devotional gathering hosts, and study circle guides, etc. trying their best to make a change at the most basic level, that is, the human heart. Frequently on this blog I’ve asked some form of the question: Is it us? Phrased differently, I’ll ask this: What is it about us as a species that allows for our armies to callously kill civilians, or our industry leaders to obfuscate and deny a looming environmental disaster, or our police forces to treat certain groups with disproportionate suspicion and violence? Maybe it’s something lower, more basic, than who we elect or what laws we enact that needs to change. When we start to admit this to ourselves, our political discourse can move forward towards something more constructive, and perhaps the imaginary chasms separating two sides of each issue will no longer seem so wide.

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10 thoughts on “On the futility of politics

  1. I appreciated your article on politics and the Bahá’í Faith. You made some very significant points and I would like to share a few observations.

    One could easily assume, given the emphasis on service to humanity, that the Bahá’í Faith is a political movement as well as a religion, or at the very least supports current political movements that espouse progressive causes that specifically address social welfare.

    This is far from the truth. The Bahá’í Faith is non-political, non-partisan and practices non-interference in all political movements. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    “The attitude of the Bahá’í’s must be two-fold, complete obedience to the government of the country they reside in, and no interference whatsoever in political matters or questions.”

    There are multiple reasons for this approach to politics. For instance, Bahá’ís are building a new world order. The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh is independent from the conflicts and contention that make up present day politics. The Bahá’í Faith upholds the unity of the human race and does not divide it by supporting contentious ideologies. This guidance from the Guardian clarifies the task of Bahá’ís:

    “The believers are building a refuge for mankind. This is their supreme, sacred task, and they should devote every moment they can to this task.”

    Bahá’ís are free to vote in general elections, in countries where it is legal to do so, but must not identify themselves with a political party, campaign, slogan or individual who is running for political office. Bahá’ís do not discuss politics among themselves, as this would quickly cause divisions. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    “We should – every one of us – remain aloof, in heart and in mind, in words and in deeds, from the political affairs and disputes of the nations and governments. We should have no political connection with any of the parties and should join no faction of these different and warring sects.”

    Bahá’u’lláh Himself has prohibited Bahá’ís to discuss politics, as Shoghi Effendi points out:

    “He hath even prohibited the believers from discussing political affairs.”

    The Universal House of Justice further comments:

    “The divisive nature of politics runs counter to the fundamental Bahá’í belief that unity is essential to the progress of civilization. Thus, it is clear that a Bahá’í would not express support for one political candidate over another. Written and oral endorsements, together with praise or criticism of a candidate, would fall into this category. Nor would he or she take actions that could be easily interpreted, during the electoral season, as support for one candidate over another, such as the posting of a candidate’s photo on a social media site. “Absolute impartiality in the matter of political parties should be shown by words and by deeds.”

    What may appear to be a progressive movement in one country, a movement that can lead to greater common good, may be the antithesis of what benefits another country. Therefore, if involved in politics, Bahá’ís in different countries would promote opposite ideologies for different reasons. The Bahá’í Faith is about the unification of the human race: the betterment of all mankind. Its vision is world embracing. Politics is generally concerned with the here and now for immediate gain. Very seldom, if ever, do political leaders consider permanent worldwide solutions. Politics is solely for the temporary advancement of one ideological strategy over another.

    Politics is divisive. It seeks to establish ascendency by using a heavy hammer to crush real or assumed political enemies. This type of divisive behavior, fraught as it is with slander and calumny, is responsible for much of the suffering in the world today. Therefore Bahá’ís:

    “…shun politics like the plague and be obedient to the government in power in the place where we reside.”

    Bahá’ís are obedient to government, and a just government is defined in the Bahá’í Faith as a duly constituted government. Bahá’ís cannot be seditionists, plotters or ill wishers of any constituted government. Bahá’ís demonstrate exemplary citizenship.

    The conviction of the Bahá’í community that humanity, having passed through earlier stages of social evolution, stands at the threshold of its collective maturity; its belief that the principle of the oneness of humankind, the hallmark of the age of maturity, implies a change in the very structure of society; its dedication to a learning process that animated by this principle, explores the workings of a new set of relationships among the individual, the community and the institutions of society, the three protagonists in the advancements of civilization; its confidence that a revised conception of power, freed from the notion of dominance with the accompanying ideas of contest, contention, division and superiority, underlies the desired set of relationships; its commitment to a vision of a world that, benefitting from humanity’s rich cultural diversity, abides no lines of separation – these all constitute essential elements of the framework that shapes the approach to politics…

    “Bahá’ís do not seek political power. They will not accept political posts in their respective governments, whatever the particular system in place, though they will take up positions which they deem to be purely administrative in nature. They will not affiliate themselves with political parties, become entangled in partisan issues, or participate in programmes tied to the divisive agendas of any group or faction. … Bahá’ís vote in civil elections, as long as they do not have to identify themselves with any party in order to do so…. Bahá’ís will not be party to any instigation to overthrow a government. Nor will they interfere in political relations between the governments of different nations….Wherever they reside Bahá’ís endeavor to uphold the standard of justice, addressing inequities directed towards themselves or towards others, but only through lawful means available to them, eschewing all forms of violent protest.”

    Consider, too, the spiritual principles involved. Courtesy, as an example, is a spiritual quality. It is not just a type of behavior that is pleasing to most people, or to be used for gain. It is a fundamental spiritual quality – fundamental to the essence of our own character. Spiritual qualities, such as kindness, humility, love, trustworthiness, patience and purity of heart reflect the spiritual progress we have made. Bahá’u’lláh reveals:

    “We, verily, have chosen courtesy, and made it the true mark of such as are nigh unto Him. Courtesy is, in truth, a raiment which fitteth all men, whether young or old. Well is it with him that adorneth his temple therewith, and woe unto him who is deprived of this great bounty.”

    Another spiritual principle that must mark progress in all relationships, political or otherwise, is trustworthiness, as clarified by Bahá’u’lláh:

    “The fourth Taráz concerneth trustworthiness. Verily it is the door of security for all that dwell on earth and a token of glory on the part of the All-Merciful. He who partaketh thereof hath indeed partaken of the treasures of wealth and prosperity. Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. All the domains of power, of grandeur and of wealth are illumined by its light.”

    Yet another fundamental principle of the Bahá’í Faith is that backbiting and gossip are strictly forbidden. Yet these activities are present in political discourse. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

    “That seeker should, also, regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.”

    Therefore, the very machinery of political discourse is toxic, as it creates social unrest, grief, disillusionment and disunity. Its outcome can only be violence.

    Non-involvement in politics should not imply Bahá’ís don’t familiarize themselves with current events or reach out to leaders of thought and government officials. The Universal House of Justice clarifies the importance of Bahá’í involvement:

    “The Bahá’ís may, indeed are encouraged to, mix with all strata of society, with the highest authorities and with leading personalities as well as with the mass of the people, and should bring the knowledge of the Faith to them; but in so doing they should strictly avoid becoming identified, or identifying the Faith, with political pursuits and party programmes.”

    The Bahá’í Faith is the foremost, progressive edge of a worldwide movement toward the betterment of the world. Bahá’ís educate themselves on current conditions and fully participate in every way possible consistent with the vital principle of political non-involvement.

    Robert Wilson

  2. I have found there is a difference between official pronouncements from Bahai institutions and what individual Bahais say privately and sometimes publicly. Many Bahais I know do make statements about political matters. It is usually done in private when they think they are around those who are politically like-minded. It is common for me to hear Bahais I know make derogatory comments about Republicans and the Tea Party. While George W Bush was president I heard several Bahais say all sorts of nasty things about his decisions and him personally. So long as they thought they were safe and around others who held the same political beliefs they showed no concern for refraining from commenting about politics. I’ve heard some of these same Bahais ridicule other Bahais who were not present at the time for voting for Republicans.

    Local Bahais also involve themselves in groups and matters that are political and confrontational in nature. One Bahai is occasionally on the local news as a representative of one of the several groups of which he is a member. I had one Bahai tell me it is ok for him to vote in Democratic partisan primaries because he does not have to register as a member of that party. This is a man who has been a Bahai for over 40 years, served as LSA chairman for many years and is well known in the area. However, in private he calls certain people and groups all sorts of negative names.

    One thing Bahais can always count on, though, is no official criticism of Israel. One, because there are plenty of Ashkenazi and Persian Jews in the Faith who maintain strong ties to their ethnic heritage. Secondly, because the UHJ knows they can’t offend the Israeli government. They have already agreed not to teach Israelis the Faith and do not allow Bahais serving there to socialize with local Israelis. It is comical to watch Bahais in the US react angrily to what happened in Ferguson, yet they can’t bring themselves to show anywhere near the amount of outrage when it comes to what happened to the Palestinians.

    • Thanks for this heartfelt comment. There was a lot here to respond to so here goes, in bullet form…

      – This comment of yours was a perfect illustration of why Baha’is should take seriously our responsibility to stay silent on politics. Just from the tone of your comment I can tell that some of these experiences left you disenchanted and frustrated, and, to be diplomatic, didn’t serve the interests of unity.

      – Baha’is are not perfect — none of us is — and we need to keep this in mind. Shoghi Effendi cautioned an individual believer that “Perhaps the greatest test Baha’is are ever subjected to is each other”. That goes for everyone, even people who have been Baha’is for a long time and are elected to administrative institutions. People make mistakes and every one of us, to varying degrees and in different ways, struggles to live a Baha’i life.

      – I don’t think the Baha’is’ silence on Israel and Palestine has anything to so with the fact that some Baha’is come from Jewish backgrounds. I think it’s that, on the subject of the recent war, it’s very unmistakably a divisive, hot button issue, and there is no logical way that a Baha’i can inject himself or herself into the debate without getting political. Even non-Baha’i people here in the US don’t feel comfortable criticizing Israel in public, because the topic can so easily stir up people’s emotions. Contrast this with the protests in Ferguson, which I think some Baha’is feel is very clearly an issue of racism and therefore “safe” to be involved in from a Baha’i perspective. I personally feel that arguing in favor of one side in either conflict/issue violates the Baha’i Writings’ guidance on politics, even as one of them seems more clear in terms of how it fits with the Baha’i teachings. Baha’is should be working to end war and the killing of innocent civilians, as well as to end racism, but not via political means.

      – The Universal House of Justice is not compelled to hold its tongue on Israel’s alleged human rights or international law violations because the Baha’i World Center is in Israel. I don’t think Israel will somehow kick out the Baha’is in that case or remove some of their benefits or something. Likewise, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States didn’t resist criticizing the invasion of Iraq because the National Baha’i Center is in Illinois. There are a hundred examples we could bring up here. Individual Baha’is make mistakes and get political sometimes, but we should expect our institutions at least to stick to this principle.

      – By the same token, that Baha’is do not seek to spread their Faith in Israel is not some sort or political agreement with the Israeli government. This is a teaching and a tradition that goes back to the time of Abdul-Baha, when today’s Baha’i holy places were in Ottoman territory, and the area’s inhabitants were mostly Arabs.

    • Not sure exactly what you’re asking. Are you asking if Baha’is reject the contributions of political figures such as Ghandi and Mandela? The answer to that is No. Baha’u’llah actually wrote: “Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear.” The world needs just, honest political figures.

      Note that you’ve picked as your examples two of the least divisive figures possible. Ghandi very deliberately talked about religious unity as India headed towards partition, going so far as to assert that “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian”, etc. And Mandela of course refused to demonize white South Africans after Apartheid, despite nearly three decades behind bars, maybe to the point of saving the nation and putting it on a path to reconciliation. If anything, the fact that Ghandi and Mandela were so successful in their goals validates the notion that unity, not division, is where the real power to change the world lies.

  3. So let me put things more simple an correct me if I’m wrong , Baha’is should not get involved in politics so imagine Nelson Mandela was a bahai we would still have an South Africa with apartheid because Nelson Mandela as a Bahai could not get involved in politics! Do you sincerely think this makes any sense!

  4. So if Churcill was a bahai he could not get involved in politics I wonder what shape Europe would have been now , in case of India they would never have a politician like Gahndi if he was a Bahai and so on….etc
    Does this not scare you I get chills just imagining a worled with out political movements verry scary…….I think we all should

    • I think I need to make this my last answer to readers’ questions. Maybe I’ll do a mailbag Q&A as a post some time. I’m now realizing that I’m in danger of spending more time replying in the comments section than actually writing new content.

      As to your question… Baha’is are not pacifists. In fact, Baha’u’llah wrote that if one nation shows aggression towards another, it is the responsibility of all other nations to stop that aggressor. Hopefully than gives you some clarity on your Churchill/WWII question. Governance, including national defense, are not synonymous with politics.

      Here’s another question: If the whole world were filled with Baha’is, could there have ever been the possibility of a world war in the first place?

      I’m glad you are enjoying the site, but note that it’s designed for people who genuinely want to learn about the Baha’i Faith and discuss how its teachings can be practically applied.

  5. Meaning of Politics ( Wikapedia)

    Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. A variety of methods are employed in politics, which include promoting one’s own political views among people, negotiation with other political subjects, making laws, and exercising force, including warfare against adversaries. Politics is exercised on a wide range of social levels, from clans and tribes of traditional societies, through modern local governments, companies and institutions up to sovereign states, to the international level.

    A political system is a framework which defines acceptable political methods within a given society. History of political thought can be traced back to early antiquity, with seminal works such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and the works of Confucius.

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