Since my childhood, I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with Christmastime. Mind you, what Christmas actually represents (or is supposed to represent) was never the issue. Growing up in a Baha’i family, we respected and honored the personhood of Jesus Christ. I was introduced to Jesus’s life and teachings in Baha’i Sunday school, in fact, and later on in life discovered that the Baha’i scriptures are filled with passages honoring Him. During my elementary school years, my mother insisted I take part in the annual Christmas pageant, a responsibility I begrudgingly accepted, even as my Jewish classmates were conspicuously free to sit it out. This was the case even as we had no Christmas tree in our home and didn’t exchange presents (we had our own Baha’i holidays, after all). “People need to know that Baha’is believe in Jesus”, my mother insisted.
On the other hand, every year as the holiday approached, Christmas served as a reminder that I didn’t quite fit in. Like many kids whose parents came from abroad, the awareness of difference set in at a young age. I was a brownish kid with dark eyes and an unruly mop of coarse black hair. My clothes were slightly odd, and my lunch box contents even odder. The holiday felt like the sum total of everything that made me different, with reminders everywhere — Christmas lights strung up on every house, Christmas movies on TV, Christmas songs on the radio — that we were just different.
I am hesitant to say it, but as an adult, I still find much of this time of year unbearable. It’s not the feeling of being different, per se, but more so the fact that Christmas in much of American culture has become a vulgar monument to materialism. The cacophony of TV commercials, the aggressive driving on the highways back and forth to the malls, the scramble to catch the hottest post-Thanksgiving sale — it all just makes me want to withdraw and stay inside. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to point out the irony that the anniversary of the birth of Christ, who angrily confronted the money-changers and demanded dignity for the poor, is now commemorated by a mad, collective dash to buy new plastic toys and electronic gadgets.
In recent years, however, I’ve discovered a way some people celebrate Christmas that is somewhere in between religious devotion and rampant consumerism. I sense it was the way more people in this country marked the occasion in the past, before some of the more materialistic elements took over. I would describe it as this: Christmas as a symbol — whether religious or secular — of love, hope, and peace and earth.
There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of the United States these days. About two-thirds of us believe the country is on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, academics observe evidence of a free-fall in our democratic institutions. Others are more somber, likening the current environment to the beginnings of a sort of diffuse, decades-long civil war. I, personally, do not find any of those assessments to be overly alarmist. In other words, I think we are in deep trouble.
When I say “deep trouble”, I’m not talking about our public policies. Indeed, there is cause for deep frustration there: we are doing too little to curb global warming and other forms of environmental catastrophe, our tax code and other economic policies are still heavily slanted towards the very wealthy, healthcare and higher education costs are ballooning, and on and on.
In fact, what’s even more worrying is that the capacity of the American society to assess, discuss, and ultimately solve difficult problems seems to have been destroyed. The degree of political polarization has become so intense that it is already starting to manifesting itself occasionally in the form of violence. As I and countless others have written, a culture of perpetual anger, outrage, and finger-pointing has become endemic. It is no wonder that our elected officials refuse to negotiate and compromise with one another. If they are truly representative of us, then why would they?
Everyone, of course, has their own ideas of what has, and is still going, wrong. Here are mine, in deliberately simplistic terms:
We all have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. This is not unique to the American people, and it is not unique to the year 2020. Call it whatever you will. “Selfishness” is all-encompassing enough. “Narcissism” is not overly harsh. As I’ve argued on this website countless times, we tend to think we (or those in our group) are always right, and we make little effort to question our own thinking, consider the opinions of those we disagree with, or ponder how we might improve ourselves.
Technology has probably made it worse. It used to be the case that we all listened to and read the same news. Those days are over. Social media now makes it such that information that is pleasing to our egos gets pushed in front of our eyeballs, while uncomfortable things are sent to the back, thereby hardening are existing beliefs and prejudices. Meanwhile, the IT revolution has made sensationalism the only way for news outlets to make money. Cable news has become a form of reality TV, and newspapers struggling to stay afloat are reduced to clickbait factories. This is how so many of us eventually come to embrace irrational, myopic, and — in some cases — extreme beliefs.
Elections in America have become extraordinarily expensive. It costs a tremendous amount of money to win higher office in this country now. The election that just passed cost $14bn, more than doubling the election of four years ago, and exceeding the entire annual economic output of 81 countries. A significant contributor to this has been the weakening of constraints on campaign finance, and of requirements to disclose the origins of campaign money. The effect is that political candidates’ tone and messaging are pushed to the extreme in a bid to excite those who are actually inclined to donate, a subset of voters who are less likely to be moderate and more likely to be highly partisan.
There are plenty of people out there who are eager to tell you about points #2 and #3, but few that are ready to acknowledge point #1: We have a deep-seated spiritual and emotional problem. Not surprisingly for anyone already familiar with the Baha’i Faith, I see this as the main issue. It is the actual fire; the other two things are simply its accelerants.
Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the faith whom Baha’is revere as a Messenger of God, essentially asked all human beings to efface their own egos, put aside their prejudices, and embrace a culture of love, unity, and fairmindedness. He asked these things of us not simply for the sake of goodness and virtue, but because without making these changes, human civilization is prone to destroy itself. Likening God’s teachings to the prescriptions of a divine Physician, he wrote: “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day… Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy.”
Making these changes is not easy. Rather, it requires the individual to truly humble him or herself and seek the assistance of the Divine, in a similar way that a participant in Alcoholics Anonymous defeats addiction by humbly calling on the assistance of a Higher Power.
Among the things that the Baha’i teachings asks us to change about ourselves which, in my opinion, are directly related to this country’s current predicament are:
– Not pointing fingers at others. “Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.” We can stop indulging our own personal fantasy that we are somehow woke, and it is others who are in need of education.
– Being fair-minded about what is true and what is not. “[B]e adorers of the sun of reality from whatsoever horizon it may appear.” And: “[S]ee with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others… know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” No matter how good it feels to see messages on social media that confirm what we already believe, we must actively question ourselves, and seek out and consider the views of others.
– Never seeing another human being as an opponent. “See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.” We have got to stop talking about people who disagree with us as somehow on another team, or even worse, as members of some enemy army.
To start to turn around American society does not require all of us to instantaneously become Baha’is, or even for us all to start believing in God. But we must somehow start living and breathing these principles, and thus begin to regenerate our culture. If we do, then the flames that have been fanned by technological and political changes might start to die out. In practical terms, the social media algorithms pulling us towards narrow-mindedness will begin to dull, our neat intellectual echo chambers will start to become more porous, and the inflammatory rhetoric of our politicians will eventually to fall upon deaf ears.
Incidentally, Baha’i scripture itself tells us that this type of awakening is not only possible in American society, but it is in fact inevitable. “May America become the distributing center of spiritual enlightenment,” prayed ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1912, asserting that the nation would one day come to “lead all nations spiritually”. Shoghi Effendi later clarified that America’s lofty spiritual destiny would be attained only after considerable hardship. “Then, and only then,” he wrote, “will the American nation… be able to fulfill the unspeakably glorious destiny ordained for it by the Almighty.”
That last passage was written during the unparalleled darkness of the Second World War. The world’s challenges are different now, of course, but in many ways they are equally daunting. The forces of technology and political division in this era of history are immense, and many people are now coming to recognize the terrifying abyss that those forces threaten to pull us down into. The task before us as Americans is to pull ourselves in the opposite direction, with even greater force, towards things like humility, fair-mindedness, understanding, and togetherness. Let those principles guide us, and perhaps we’ll be worthy of our noble destiny.
Much of what I’ve written on this blog of late hasn’t been directly connected to the Baha’i Faith and issues of spirituality. Well, this post is going to be an exception.
This post is, first and foremost, for people who consider themselves agnostics and atheists. If you consider yourself in that broad category, please keep reading.
I am going to make this as direct and straightforward as possible: I think more people with ambiguous or even skeptical feelings towards the existence of God should think about becoming Baha’is.
How could this possibly be, given that a bedrock principle of the Baha’i Faith is that God exists? It’s because, as I have written about before, the concept of God in Baha’i doctrine is purposefully mysterious. God is described as ultimately “unknowable”, even as we are encouraged to cultivate our own sense of spirituality, and to “know and love” our Creator.
The best way I could think to articulate this is through a dialogue between two people. So, if you will indulge me, here is an entirely fictional discussion between “Jack”, a once-agnostic person who came to call himself a Baha’i, and this blog.
Note that Jack is not a real person, but much of what you’ll read below is inspired by numerous individuals I’ve met over the years who became Baha’is, some of whom had some measure of spiritual inclination and belief before they found the Baha’i Faith, and others who were pure atheists. I tried to capture the spirit of some of those conversations in the rest of this post. Note also that though Jack is depicted as someone with a Christian background (I had to pick something), the spirit of the conversation I hope applies to people of all backgrounds.
Today marks 200 years since the birth of the Báb in 1819, an occasion that Bahá’ís are celebrating around the world.
A video was commissioned for the occasion, which I had a chance to watch last weekend (you can watch it here). The most striking part of that video for me? The words below, from a poem by Tahirih, the great heroine of the Báb’s faith and one of the titanic women of Middle Eastern history. The full poem, entitled “Look up!” is as follows:
No ranting shaykh rules from his pulpit throne
No mosque hawks holiness it does not know
No sham, no pious fraud, no priest commands!
The turban’s knot cut to its root below!
No more conjurations! No spells! No ghosts!
Good riddance! We are done with folly’s show!
The search for Truth shall drive out ignorance
Equality shall strike the despots low
Let warring ways be banished from the world
Let Justice everywhere its carpet throw
May Friendship ancient hatreds reconcile
May love grow from the seed of love we sow
Tahirih, known around the world also as Qurrat’ul’ayn and Zarrin-Taj, was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the Bab’s life and mission. She was an unapologetic iconoclast, and in discovering the Báb’s message I can only imagine the exhilaration she felt, like finding a long-lost home where you finally felt like you belonged, and which in your heart you always knew existed.
In times gone by, iconoclasts broke physical idols, the meaningless distractions and symbols of arbitrary power. Today we are tasked with breaking other idols, though this time instead of physical totems they are rigid dogmas, destructive prejudices, and stale institutions.
Which idols are we to break in our own lives? I hope you let the spirit of the Báb and the poetic words of Tahirih be your guide.
Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.
In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.
As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.
Like I’ve discussed a few times on this blog (like here and here), the past couple years have not been America’s proudest in terms of race relations. Regardless of whether you feel the nation’s actual situation has worsened, or rather that greater transparency and awareness are revealing more clearly how bad that situation has always been, one thing is for sure; Americans are feeling a greater level of anxiety around race than they did just a few years ago. A Gallup poll recently found that 35% of respondents worry “a great deal” about race relations in the country, the most since the organization started asking the question 15 years ago.
The great irony here is that even as Americans’ collective anxiety over race has risen, our society’s most vital institution — the nuclear family — is more racially integrated than ever before. A generation ago, about one-in-a hundred babies born in America could be considered multiracial; that number is now about one-in-ten. Not surprisingly, our attitudes about interracial marriage have dramatically changed as well. Back in 1958 just 4% of Americans said they approved of black-white marriage. Today that number is 87%.
But never mind all that for a moment. Let’s talk about something that really matters: TV commercials. Because the way I see it, the number of interracial romances, families and friendships you see on TV says a lot about American attitudes towards race.
I’m not aware of any quantifiable data on this (I’m either too lazy or too unskilled to find it, if it exists), but it seems to me there’s been an explosion of racial diversity in the past few years in commercials as well as print and electronic advertising. A couple years back General Mills sparked conversation with a TV spot for Cheerios that featured a white mom, a black dad, and their adorable biracial kid, a decision which somehow stirred controversy and nearly made racist internet trolls’ heads explode. But since then, there’s been an unusual number of mixed race couples and families in mainstream advertising which have seamlessly blended in to the landscape. Both American Airlines and Amazon, I noticed, recently had promotional images on their websites of black-and-white couples (in the case of the latter, with their biracial kids). Ford ran a commercial for its Escape SUV featuring a pretty black girl with a beaming smile camping with her white boyfriend, accompanied by Rachel Patten’s “This is My Fight Song” in the background. Another ad by JBL features young, attractive joggers, one white and the other black, exchanging subtly flirtatious glances over the subject of tangled headphone wires. For a while USA Today has run a TV commercial of a handsome Indian-looking guy and nerdy-but-cute blonde chatting casually on a park bench. Keep in mind these are just the ads I’ve actually seen and can remember off hand. Needless to say there are many more. None of them alone is earthshaking, but together they say something significant, I would say.
Screenshots from the websites of American Airlines (above) and Amazon (below).
There are subtle changes happening in movies as well that mirror these trends, even at a time when the Oscars has been notoriously criticized for a lack of ethnic diversity in its nominees. Take for example the career arc of Will Smith, who for years has been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Even though he is universally recognized as one of the industry’s hottest sex symbols, it’s telling that for the bulk of Will Smith’s career his films barely acknowledged his sexuality, and even when they did, he was only allowed on-camera romances with non-white actresses. It took until 2015’s otherwise forgettable Focus for him to kiss a white woman in a movie. Don’t get too wrapped up in the travesty of an actor as handsome and charming as Will Smith being needlessly bottled up for all those years. Instead, let us acknowledge the fact that last year, Warner Brothers finally saw it as financially lucrative to expose American moviegoers to two hours of him in love with a smoking hot Margo Robbie.
To be clear, movies or advertising companies or whoever else who put interracial couples front-and-center are not doing so out of some sense of civic duty or expression of high-minded ideals. This is about money. But making money in this case is about recognizing and responding to consumer tastes, and the fact that advertisers are so much more likely to feature mixed-race couples and families than they used to be is undoubtedly the result of painstaking research and careful insight suggesting this strategy now works with the broad American public. Do not for a second think this is an accident; multiple companies are clearly concluding that consumers will react positively to different races of people meshed together in the same ad, movie, or whatever.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of this trend’s importance and its actual impact on people’s lives. Even I find it curious that pop culture now seems to have a fascination with black women coupled with white men. (Indeed, that’s the set up for many of the TV spots mentioned above.) In that sense, one could be tempted to brush the trend off as just a shallow fad. And even when companies seek to make a statement of multiculturalism in their ads, sometimes they miss the mark badly and their efforts have exactly the opposite effect, as was the case just a few weeks ago when The Gap released an ad showing a white child model awkwardly resting her elbow on her black counterpart.
The heavier and more serious criticism, of course, is that even as our pop culture changes, real life racism, from criminal justice to bank lending, has its roots planted deep in this country’s social soil. We do not, in fact, live in a so-called “post-racial” America. Nonetheless, even as it’s important to be real about our nation’s shortcomings when it comes to race, I think it’s far too easy to be negative and dismissive about how the country is changing, both in terms of demographics and attitudes.
Abdu’l-Baha said of America’s race problem nearly a century ago that “marriage between these two races will wholly destroy and eradicate the root of enmity” between blacks and whites. That surely isn’t an overnight solution, nor is it a solution all on its own. But reflect on the tenfold increase in the proportion of multiracial kids being born in America, and imagine the effect it’s sure to exert on how we recognize and value eachother over the next one, two, or three generations. The increasing regularity and social acceptance of mixed-race couples and families isn’t just an ancillary story in America’s broader racial narrative. This is about drowning racism in the purest form of human love: that shared between man, woman, and child.
Even as we recognize where we continue to fail as a country, let’s acknowledge the positive. Who we date, marry, and have children with is changing rapidly and for the better. And increasingly, our pop culture suggests our attitudes are changing as well.
I’m too late to share this for the Easter holiday, but I figured it was still worth it. I came across this beautiful passage recently reading the book The Promulgation of Universal Peace, a collection of talks given by Abdu’l-Baha a little more than a century ago.
During Abdu’l-Baha’s journey through Europe and North America in the early 20th century, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ were a common topic. That may seem strange given that the whole point of Abdu’l-Baha’s trip was to introduce Westerners to a new faith and a new spiritual message. But seen in the context of the Baha’i Faith’s core teaching — that all religions are in fact reflections of a single spiritual truth, and all human beings are members of a single family — the fact that Abdu’l-Baha tended to talk in terms familiar to a Western audience makes a great deal of sense.
In any case, here is Abdu’l-Baha speaking to a small group of listeners in Brooklyn in 1912. (With some abridging by me*.)
The divine Prophets came to establish the unity of the Kingdom in human hearts. All of them proclaimed the glad tidings of the divine bestowals to the world of mankind. All brought the same message of divine love to the world. Jesus Christ gave His life upon the cross for the unity of mankind. Those who believed in Him likewise sacrificed life, honor, possessions, family, everything, that this human world might be released from the hell of discord, enmity and strife. His foundation was the oneness of humanity. Only a few were attracted to Him. They were not the kings and rulers of His time. They were not rich and important people… But their hearts were pure and attracted by the fires of the Divine Spirit manifested in Christ. With this small army Christ conquered the world of the East and the West. Kings and nations rose against Him. Philosophers and the greatest men of learning assailed and blasphemed His Cause. All were defeated and overcome, their tongues silenced, their lamps extinguished, their hatred quenched; no trace of them now remains. They have become as nonexistent, while His Kingdom is triumphant and eternal.
The brilliant star of His Cause has ascended to the zenith, while night has enveloped and eclipsed His enemies. His name, beloved and adored by a few disciples, now commands the reverence of kings and nations of the world. His power is eternal; His sovereignty will continue forever, while those who opposed Him are sleeping in the dust, their very names unknown, forgotten. The little army of disciples has become a mighty cohort of millions. The Heavenly Host, the Supreme Concourse are His legions; the Word of God is His sword; the power of God is His victory.
Jesus Christ knew this would come to pass and was content to suffer. His abasement was His glorification; His crown of thorns, a heavenly diadem. When they pressed it upon His blessed head and spat in His beautiful face, they laid the foundation of His everlasting Kingdom. He still reigns, while they and their names have become lost and unknown. He is eternal and glorious; they are nonexistent. They sought to destroy Him, but they destroyed themselves and increased the intensity of His flame by the winds of their opposition.
Through His death and teachings we have entered into His Kingdom. His essential teaching was the unity of mankind and the attainment of supreme human virtues through love. He came to establish the Kingdom of peace and everlasting life. Can you find in His words any justification for discord and enmity? The purpose of His life and the glory of His death were to set mankind free from the sins of strife, war and bloodshed…
…To be a real Christian is to be a servant in His Cause and Kingdom, to go forth under His banner of peace and love toward all mankind, to be self-sacrificing and obedient, to become quickened by the breaths of the Holy Spirit, to be mirrors reflecting the radiance of the divinity of Christ, to be fruitful trees in the garden of His planting, to refresh the world by the water of life of His teachings—in all things to be like Him and filled with the spirit of His love.
Note: In the process of writing this I learned that this particular speech was given the day after Abdu’l-Baha arrived by boat to America from Europe. A historical chronicle of this particular day in his journey is here.
At my first job out of college, one of my coworkers told an unforgettable anecdote about a research project he once worked on as a student. At the time he was helping an economist study marriage patterns across the US, and they needed to understand how marriage laws differed by state. So my coworker went to the library, approached the librarian, and had the following exchange:
Research assistant: “Hi. I need to find out the minimum legal age of marriage in each US state. Can you help me?”
Librarian: [Long pause, stares back suspiciously.] “She’s too young for you.”
I bring this up because a) I find this story hilarious, and b) it illustrates that economists have long been curious about how marriage patterns impact economic outcomes. A NY Times blog post from a while back summarized some of the recent research on this, specifically with a focus on income inequality. The way we commonly choose a marriage partner, it turns out, could be playing a significant role in America’s growing income divide.
From the article:
These days, an investment banker may marry another investment banker rather than a high school sweetheart, or a lawyer will marry another lawyer, or a prestigious client, rather than a secretary. Whether measured in terms of income or education, there are more so-called power couples today than in the past, one manifestation of a phenomenon known as assortative mating, or more generally the pairing of like with like…
Money and talent become clustered in high-powered, two-earner families determined to do everything possible to advance the interests of their children…
The numbers show that assortative mating really matters. One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.
This was a shock to me when I read it. Income inequality in the United States is at its worst in nearly a century. Most people seem aware of this, but how we get married is rarely one of the reasons cited for the trend. Instead, it’s the usual mix of globalization, technology, and union decline that most use to explain the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. On occasion, smart economists highlight deliberate government actions over the past few decades, like cutting taxes on investment income or relaxing bank regulations, for the explosion of incomes at the top. But social dynamics aren’t usually part of the discussion.
Nonetheless, the finding that marriage can have such significant implications for inequality makes a great deal of sense to me personally. Back when my wife and I were new parents living in a mostly middle class Connecticut city, we had many late night, anxious conversations about the mediocre schools in our town on the one hand and the area’s stratospheric cost of private education on the other. Southern Connecticut, it turns out, is like a souped-up microcosm of America in that regard; public institutions are under fiscal pressure just like everywhere else, relegating the kids of blue collar native-born Americans and first generation immigrants to middling schools, while the area’s bankers, executives and hedge fund managers drive up the cost of living, from houses to school tuition to haircuts. As kids clump together in socially and economically-segregated schools, they’re more likely to interact with and marry those just as privileged as they are, deepening the inequality gap over generations.
What’s the solution to this vicious cycle? First, public policy can make a huge difference by improving the quality of public schools, such that rich, talented parents actually want to send their kids there, and that those kids might mix socially with their less privileged peers. As I understand it, this was a key ingredient in the post-WWII economy, one characterized by stable growth and low inequality; good public education during that time not only produced talent and raised the economy’s productivity, but it also helped maintain a flat society.
But as in many cases, public policy can’t do the job on its own. Solving a social problem as weighty and challenging as this one requires individuals and families to change how they live and interact with others. As I wrote recently on the subject of race, it’s not good enough to have character and integrity in a vacuum. If you want the issue of racism in America to improve, we will have to seek out friends, coworkers, and family members of different races, and consciously include them in our personal lives.
So it is when it comes to class and social status. Given that these days we so commonly live in sequestered little communities where our neighbors have similar incomes and similar education levels, if we actually care about the societal implications of runaway social and economic segregation in America, we can’t just sit there and wait for a solution to descend from heaven. To get out of our comfort zones and to “forcibly agitate” our lives, in the language of that aforementioned blog post, might be the only way to break the cycle.
This takes a radical change in how we live, but on an even more basic level, a major shift in how we view other human beings. Abdul-Baha, for one, asks no less of us than this:
See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness. And in this new and wondrous age, the Holy Writings say that we must be at one with every people… they are not strangers, but in the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such.
That’s not easy, of course. But what’s the alternative? The problem of growing inequality and the deepening stratification of society won’t fix itself. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t be absolved of responsibility. Then again, neither can we.
I recently started reading a book of transcribed interviews with Joseph Campbell, the famous philosopher and mythologist. I found some of his ideas so fascinating — and in some cases so in tune with how Baha’is think about religious truth — that I felt the need to write a blog post just to share them here. I hope those reading this find Campbell’s words as interesting as I do. Continue reading →