You know how you can read something one day, get something out of it, and then read it again next week and get a fresh new insight? That’s often what happens to me when I read the Bahá’í Writings. Most recently, I’ve been working hard to finish reading all of the recent messages of the Universal House of Justice—the 8 February 2013 and 1 May 2013 messages announcing the convocation of the worldwide youth conferences, for example, and the 1 July 2013 message to all the conferences; the 2013 Ridván message; and Insights from the Frontiers of Learning, the long but fascinating companion document to the wonderful new film Frontiers of Learning.
Anyway, a friend of mine shared the last sentence of the 8 February 2013 message the other day, and I took the opportunity to read it again with fresh eyes. In it, the Universal House of Justice writes of its hope for the youth of the world, giving an overview of the kinds of qualities that characterize the “new race of men” anticipated by Bahá’u'lláh—a race not defined by nationality or ethnicity, nor by superhero-style mutations or magical powers(!), nor indeed by any material considerations, but by the strength and maturity of their character, by their spiritual qualities. To give a little context, the Bahá’í International Community gave some very useful commentary on this term in its Statement on Bahá’u'lláh:
The distinguishing feature of humanity’s coming of age is that, for the first time in its history, the entire human race is consciously involved, however dimly, in the awareness of its own oneness and of the earth as a single homeland. This awakening opens the way to a new relationship between God and humankind. As the peoples of the world embrace the spiritual authority inherent in the guidance of the Revelation of God for this age, Bahá’u’lláh said, they will find in themselves a moral empowerment which human effort alone has proven incapable of generating. “A new race of men” will emerge as the result of this relationship, and the work of building a global civilization will begin.
In the last paragraph of the 8 February 2013 message, the Universal House of Justice enumerates some of the qualities that youth will need in order to make a difference in the world—qualities related to moral and spiritual empowerment. Let’s examine them here, point by point. “In our prayers at the Sacred Threshold,” the message reads, “we entreat the Ancient Beauty that, from out a distracted and bewildered humanity, He may distil…”:
- “Pure souls endowed with clear sight.” Bahá’u'lláh’s “first counsel” in the Hidden Words tells us that the first quality we must have is a “pure, kindly and radiant heart.” Our behavior, our motives, and our thoughts must be pure, free from stains of prejudice. And we must have clear sight—not that kind of physical sight which sees and dwells upon the seemingly irreconcilable differences present within humanity, but that keen spiritual vision which sees “the end in the beginning”, seeing every person as a member of a world-embracing human family, an organic whole full of diversity, each one blessed with a divine nature, with talents and capacities that enable them to know their Creator and to serve humankind.
- Youth “whose integrity and uprightness are not undermined by dwelling on the faults of others.” As we make daily effort to grow spiritually and bring our actions into accordance with the teachings of Bahá’u'lláh, we come to understand how crucial it is to overlook the faults and shortcomings of others. Not only does this allow us to avoid estrangement, discord and similar headaches in our dealings with others, but, as Bahá’u'lláh states, it prevents our own faults and our own abasement from taking center stage in the eyes of others. Recalling the words of Jesus Christ, we must remove the beam in our own eye before we look to the speck in our neighbour’s.
- Youth “who are not immobilized by any shortcomings of their own.” The converse of the above is also true; even as we avoid dwelling on the faults of others, we should extend the same courtesy to ourselves. As we grow spiritually and strive, step by step, towards greater perfection, we naturally become acutely aware of our many imperfections. Far from allowing these to paralyze us, though, we must soldier past them and continue striving. Each and every person alive struggles with their own manifold faults and shortcomings, and the very purpose of life is to root these out and replace them with heavenly virtues and divine qualities—and this is impossible without action. (After all, Bahá’u'lláh exhorts us to “let deeds, not words, be our adorning”.)
- Youth “who will look to the Master and ‘bring those who have been excluded into the circle of intimate friends’.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—the “Servant of Bahá” who was widely known as “the Master”—is looked upon as a perfect example of what it means to be a Bahá’í. There are countless stories of how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reached out in loving-kindness to people who were generally excluded due to being of a different race (as in the story of the “black rose”, or his dinner with Louis Gregory), or being poor and infirm (as in the story of Lua Getsinger and the sick man), and on, and on. Putting this example into practice will not only bring about transformative change within the worldwide Bahá’í community, but in society at large, as people of different backgrounds make genuine effort to get to know one another and unite in sincere, loving fellowship.
- Youth “whose consciousness of the failings of society impels them to work for its transformation, not to distance themselves from it.” It’s easy for anyone to see how depressingly corrupt society has become in this day and age: news reports are perpetually full of stories of scandal and iniquity, dishonesty, fraud, greed, exploitation and oppression. In the face of such a source of despair, we need a stronger source of hope, as do our families, our friends, and our communities. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it very clear that negative feelings and forces can, and must, be overcome by positive ones: thoughts of war must be opposed by stronger thoughts of peace, and thoughts of hatred destroyed by more powerful thoughts of love. Becoming familiar with this dynamic helps us understand that even the simplest positive actions we take can have far-reaching effects, if they are confirmed by God. Rather than feeling ourselves powerless to change things around us and retreating into ourselves, we must persevere in serving, in helping, and in loving those around us, knowing that if we are sincere, the example we show will touch their hearts and encourage them to do the same.
- Youth “who, whatever the cost, will refuse to pass by inequity in its many incarnations and will labour, instead, that ‘the light of justice may shed its radiance upon the whole world.’” Justice, Bahá’u'lláh states, is the “best beloved of all things” in God’s sight; were it to shed its light upon men, He declared, “the face of the earth would be completely transformed.” The fact that injustice is rampant—whether social or economic, whether directed towards individuals, groups, nations, or the entire world—doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done about it. To give but one example, the Universal House of Justice highlighted the issue of economic injustice in its 2012 Ridván message, citing “dishonesty in one’s transactions or the economic exploitation of others” as practices that Bahá’ís would naturally eschew. That message further stated that the application of the Bahá’í principles of fairness and equity in our own lives (which presumably includes the including the voluntary sharing of wealth) would allow us to uphold a standard “far above the low threshold by which the world measures itself”. By maintaining a high standard of ethical (just) behaviour for ourselves and labouring for the upliftment of others, then, we can not only avoid crisis and chaos—the natural consequences of dishonesty and exploitation—but build up the sort of true, collective wealth that builds civilizations rather than dissolving them.
The energies released within the Bahá’í community in recent years is astounding. With the momentum generated by the 41 regional conferences in 2008–9 being kicked into high gear by the announcement of the 114 youth conferences this summer, and with the framework for action laid out by the Universal House of Justice taking firm root in communities throughout the globe, the world seems truly at a turning point. However dark the immediate horizon may be, the efforts of those who are labouring together with growing confidence for constructive social change—”invincible champions of justice” who are not dismayed by the pessimism that prevails elsewhere—must be proof that there is light, and indeed a very bright light, on the other side.