countering hate and violence

Someone posted a question on the Baha’i group on Reddit, asking “What can be done by one person to counter hate/violence in the world?” It was a great question, so I decided to try and give it an answer. Here goes.

As I see it, the most potent antidote to a rising tide of hate and violence is to help yourself and others around you—especially young people—to raise their capacity to show spiritual qualities such as love, kindness, steadfastness, justice, reliance on God and compassion, and to serve humanity selflessly.

Get involved in a junior youth group and give young people a space where they can learn what it means to transform themselves and their community at the same time. Or get involved as a teacher of children’s classes so you can give younger children the spiritual foundation they’ll need to become agents of change within their communities. Work with a teaching team so that you don’t burn yourself out, and so that you can coordinate your actions with others.

It’s important that we not underestimate the uplifting and transforming power of these seemingly simple acts of service. Carried out consistently, persistently, and with a spirit of service, they can completely change the face of our communities—not only Baha’i communities, but the greater community.

If you want to see what this can eventually lead to, check out the Frontiers of Learning video. In particular, the section from Colombia brings me a lot of hope, but all of them show the transforming power of collective action within the framework of the Plan.

the five-year plan

So some people on Reddit were talking about Bahá’í jargon recently, and someone asked for the definition of the Five-Year Plan—because it’s been “evolving so much, I don’t know what it currently is anymore”. Here, then, is a stab at a definition.

Literally, the series of Five Year Plans are simply global plans, carried out under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, to implement the Divine Plan as elaborated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His Tablets of the Divine Plan. There have been other “Five Year Plans” in the past, but the current series of four consecutive plans began in 2001 and will last until 2021, to be followed by further plans.

The current series of plans has been characterized by two principal, complementary movements, which have remained the focus of each plan in the series:

  1. The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process—which offers them training to offer specific, concrete acts of service, including but not limited to the “core activities”—study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups, and devotional meetings;
  2. The movement of clusters from one stage of development to the next, where each stage is characterized by a higher level of intensity, organization, and systematization.

The first in the series of Five Year Plans (2001–2006) introduced these two complimentary movements, and provided an opportunity for national Bahá’í communities to define “clusters” as distinct geographical divisions within their countries. This was done to break down the task of measuring community development and growth to a more manageable sub-national level.

This was also when most people were introduced to study circles and to the materials of the training institute. At this time, not many people grasped the purpose of the training institute, believing it to be yet another deepening program among many others. This perception gradually began to shift as Bahá’ís began to implement the institute process across the world, building up experience and reflecting on which kinds of implementations worked and which didn’t. Children’s classes and devotional meetings were also introduced as core activities, to be open to all.

The second in the series of Five Year Plans (2006–2011) introduced the junior youth spiritual empowerment programme as an element of the plan, as communities worldwide identified the need to engage young people between the ages of 11–14 as a particularly receptive population. At this point, what’s now known as Ruhi Book 5 was added to the main sequence of institute courses, allowing participants in the institute process to receive training on how to engage and empower junior youth to arise and serve humanity.

One of the main numeric goals of this particular plan called for the establishment of 1,500 intensive programs of growth in clusters around the world. This entailed the establishment in these clusters of a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process in which new collaborators could be trained in specific acts of service and then arise to carry forward that same process. As Bahá’ís embraced the process and arose to serve, striving to understand what an intensive program of growth should look like in their clusters, a great deal of learning was generated that would inform future plans.

The third in the series of Five Year Plans (2011–2016) set a new numeric goal of 5,000 programs of growth worldwide. In this case, the requirement was that there simply be a program of growth—i.e., an institute process operating at any level of intensity. At this point, many of the clusters that had established an intensive program of growth during the previous plan began assisting believers in adjoining clusters to establish the institute process there. The concept of “milestones” was also elaborated during this plan; using this terminology, the numeric goal for this plan was for 5,000 clusters (or fully one-third of all clusters worldwide) to reach the first milestone.

It was also during this plan that the construction of new Houses of Worship were announced in several countries and clusters worldwide. The importance of nurturing the devotional character of a community through devotional gatherings become much clearer as Bahá’ís gained a better understanding of the connection between worship and service, and the unique role of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in community life.

The fourth in the series of Five Year Plans (2016–2021) is the one we’re in now, and it calls for raising the level of intensity in each of the 5,000+ clusters targeted during the previous plan, so that each of these clusters can be said to have an intensive program of growth in place (i.e. a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process). In other words, each of these clusters are to reach the second milestone or beyond during this plan. At this point, enough learning has been generated through the experiences of Bahá’í communities around the world that the framework of the plans is clear and needs only to be exploited to its fullest potential.

tl;dr: An evolving series of plans with the overall aim of developing the capacity of more and more individuals, communities and institutions to serve humanity. Each plan in this series has had its own particular focus and goals, but each one has built on the last and served to carry forward two complimentary movements: The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process, and the movement of clusters from one stage of development (or organization/systematization) to the next.

youth and “the western way of life”

Thanks to /u/Rinky-Dink on Reddit for sharing a recent, and still relatively unknown, letter from the Universal House of Justice about the challenges faced by Bahá’í youth in upholding a Bahá’í standard and way of life in the context of Western culture and sexual mores. There is a lot of meditate on in this meaty, hard-hitting letter, which touches on God’s purpose for humanity, the forces shaping human society, the role of religion in promoting human well-being, and our own capacity as individuals to rise above our faults and shortcomings to become champions of a new, spiritual civilization. The entire letter, which you can find online at bahai-library.com, deserves a thorough reading and plenty of thoughtful study. I’ve excerpted one paragraph below that especially jumped out at me on my first reading. Read it, and feel free to contribute your own insights in the comments below!

Throughout the world, in diverse cultures, Bahá’ís encounter values and practices that stand in sharp contrast to the teachings of the Faith. Some are embedded in social structures, for instance, racial prejudice and gender discrimination, economic exploitation and political corruption. Others pertain to personal conduct, especially with respect to the use of alcohol and drugs, to sexual behaviour, and to self-indulgence in general. If Bahá’ís simply surrender to the mores of society, how will conditions change? How will the people of the world distinguish today’s moribund order from the civilization to which Bahá’u’lláh is summoning humanity? “Humanity”, the Riḍván 2012 message of the House of Justice explained, “is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire.” “A single soul can uphold a standard far above the low threshold by which the world measures itself,” the message noted. Young Bahá’ís especially need to take care, lest they imagine they can live according to the norms of contemporary society while adhering to Bahá’í ideals at some minimum level to assuage their conscience or to satisfy the community, for they will soon find themselves consumed in a struggle to obey even the most basic of the Faith’s moral teachings and powerless to take up the challenges of their generation. “Wings that are besmirched with mire can never soar,” Bahá’u’lláh warns. The inner joy that every individual seeks, unlike a passing emotion, is not contingent on outside influences; it is a condition, born of certitude and conscious knowledge, fostered by a pure heart, which is able to distinguish between that which has permanence and that which is superficial. “Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven,” are Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.”

part of a whole

Many of you have probably read, listened to, or heard of a recent talk by former member of the Universal House of Justice Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, in which he emphatically expressed how important it is for Bahá’í communities to maintain teaching activities alongside core activities such as study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups and devotional meetings. You may also have read a (previously unpublished?) letter on this same topic, written by the Universal House of Justice on October 31, 2002, that’s also been circulating. I read through these myself recently, and they brought me to reflect on the evolution in my own understanding of the institute process, and in my own actions. I shared some of these reflections on Reddit recently, and thought I’d repost them here.

Several years back there was definitely an increase in focus on the institute process in our local community as we studied the messages of the Universal House of Justice which described training institutes and their centrality to the process of community growth. At the time, I was just coming out of university, and it was really the first time I had ever been strongly involved in Bahá’í community activities, despite having grown up in a Bahá’í family. Being involved in study circles was pretty transformative for me—studying Ruhi Book 1 was the first time I ever really thought about the life of the soul—and I was inspired thereafter to do some homefront pioneering, which involved getting further trained up to Ruhi Book 7. At the time, training institutes were new and I think we were still thinking of it in terms of yet another deepening program, and we often skipped the practical service aspects of the Ruhi curriculum which help collaborators arise to serve. I feel like, as a result, I didn’t really “get” the interconnectedness of it all, and just thought something like, “OK, these study circles are the key to transformation, so I have to put all my efforts into study circles”. Occasionally, that meant that I declined invitations to participate in other initiatives, such as music nights, social get-togethers, and so on, that would have been great teaching opportunities, because I was too busy with my study circle stuff. I know I must have disappointed a lot of well-intentioned and inspired friends because of that, but thank God many of them went ahead anyway and carried forward those initiatives, which are a feature of our local community life now.

I certainly did have an “either this one or that one, but not both” mentality when it came to community activities. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome was my fear of failure and my lack of confidence in my ability to teach—indeed, to create and maintain relationships with people in general. Somehow I was too comfortable with acting as a tutor within the safe, limited environment of an inward-looking community, and not comfortable at all creating genuine, profound relationships with others. I struggled with this for a while, especially as we spoke more and more about how the Bahá’í community had to open outwards, moving from the mindset of a congregation to that of a sort of commonwealth of mankind, blurring the lines between “Bahá’í” and “otherwise”. I think it was this internal struggle—and my continued willingness to adopt a posture of learning and participate in programs of growth in whatever ways I could despite my fear—that helped me see how many of these pieces fit together. The idea of coherence was particularly useful to me, in that I began to see how, for example, a study circle, devotional meeting, children’s class, and junior youth group could develop in sync and feed off each other, and be fed by things that we don’t call “core activities” but are no less crucial: firesides, home visits, and even just hanging out with friends and elevating conversation. In time, the sense of dichotomy disappeared, and now I find myself involved as much in establishing friendships with people in non-“core” ways as I do in teaching children’s classes or walking with friends through Ruhi Book 1.

I should also mention that one of the things that helped me gain confidence was being part of a team, in this case with Quynh. After we were married a few years ago, we found that we could support one another in our service, and do things together that we never dreamed that we could do alone. We are still learning about what seems “right” for us, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we can spend our energy most effectively. As a team, we balance and complement each other. If I can’t do something, then she picks up the slack; if neither of us can do it, we just focus our efforts on what we can do. And, most importantly, we are united, and we support each other no matter what. As long as we have that unity, we know that we will be confirmed.