honour their sacrifice—by pulling out the roots of war

honour the sacrifice, not the war, November 12, 2012

RespectsJust a few days ago, I shared a few thoughts about how thoughts of love, expressed through action, can overcome even the longest history of hatred. We always have choices in life: These choices determine whether we create hatred or love, war or peace, despair or hope. If we choose to act in ways that create love, peace, and hope, then we will create a loving, peaceful, and hopeful environment, which will foster cooperation, harmony and well-being. Conversely, if we choose to act in ways that create hatred, war, and despair, then we will create an environment of hatred, war and despair, which will lead to tyranny, oppression, death, and wanton destruction.

War is no joke. For those of us who’ve never been involved in fighting a war, war is literally hell on earth. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called war “a satanic institution” and “the destroyer of human foundations”:

Peace is light, whereas war is darkness. Peace is life; war is death. Peace is guidance; war is error. Peace is the foundation of God; war is a satanic institution. Peace is the illumination of the world of humanity; war is the destroyer of human foundations.

This discourse of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s, which can be found in its entirety in the book Bahá’í World Faith, presents a logical argument on the nature of peace and war, using an analogy to the natural world: A state of “peace” allows the elements of existence to attract and combine with each other in an orderly fashion, to form an infinite variety of created things. A state of conflict, or “war”, on the other hand, in which elements repel and dissociate from each other, leads to the decay and destruction of these created things. So it is with the human world, in which war leads to the destruction of people, families, institutions, communities, and society—not to mention cities and nations:

When we consider outcomes in the world of existence, we find that peace and fellowship are factors of upbuilding and betterment, whereas war and strife are the causes of destruction and disintegration… Consider the restlessness and agitation of the human world today because of war. Peace is health and construction; war is disease and dissolution. When the banner of truth is raised, peace becomes the cause of the welfare and advancement of the human world. In all cycles and ages war has been a factor of derangement and discomfort, whereas peace and brotherhood have brought security and consideration of human interests.

This distinction is especially pronounced in the present world conditions, for warfare in former centuries had not attained the degree of savagery and destructiveness which now characterizes it. If two nations were at war in olden times, ten or twenty thousand would be sacrificed, but in this century the destruction of one hundred thousand lives in a day is quite possible. So perfected has the science of killing become and so efficient the means and instruments of its accomplishment that a whole nation can be obliterated in a short time. Therefore, comparison with the methods and results of ancient warfare is out of the question.

Recent human history is stained with the “savagery and destructiveness” that is part and parcel of war. The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge. The Armenian genocide. The Rwandan genocide. The Trail of TearsSrebrenica. NankingAuschwitz. DresdenVerdunThe SommeLeningrad. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Korea. VietnamSyria. YemenThe list goes on, and on, and on. On days such as today—Remembrance Day in Canada, Armistice Day elsewhere in the world—people everywhere observe moments of silence to remember the victims of the atrocities of war. And yet, the “satanic institution” of war, the “destroyer of human foundations” continues. Why? Why do we continue to choose war, to choose hatred, to choose despair?

Humanity still resists the spiritual transformation to which it is called in this day. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, we have perfected the science of killing and brought it to its zenith. Humanity has reached the consummation of its material powers. Material means can bring us no further in the evolution of our species. What is needed now is spiritual evolution. We must learn how to choose peace, how to choose love, and how to choose hope.

Red Khmer Killing FieldsIt is not enough to remember our fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day, or the victims of war or the many atrocities that war produces. Yes, we must stare down the rows of gravestones and piled-up skulls, and pray for the progress of the souls who have passed onwards in their journey through the spiritual worlds. But we, the living, must resolve to honour their sacrifice by changing the way we live, and by teaching our children the skills and the virtues they need to make peace a permanent reality.

To show kindness, compassion, and a burning love that embraces all of humanity. To resolve their conflicts through words rather than blows. To act with trustworthiness and justice, and always deal fairly with their fellows. To know that they, and all their peers, are noble creatures of God deserving of respect. To hold the human spirit, and everything which God has placed on this green earth, as a sacred trust, and to guard that trust for future generations. These virtues are spiritual skills that do not develop without effort: We must acquire them through education and conscious practice.

Only when each one of us becomes fully involved in teaching these skills to the rising generations will this world become another world. Ensuring that everyone has the chance to acquire these skills will pull out the roots that feed the curse and scourge of war—allowing it, finally, to be blotted out from the book of humanity.

The original post, honour the sacrifice, not the war, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza. Photos: Respects by Mitchell Shapiro Photography, and Red Khmer Killing Fields by Ann-Kathrin.

6 qualities of the empowered

studying the guidanceYou 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…”: Continue reading

rising through the waves

sea wall in akkáAt every moment, the ocean of humanity is astir with waves. This morning, Bahá’í youth around the world are probably feeling two different waves washing over them. One is the wave of excitement, anticipation, and hope generated by their imminent participation in the 114 youth conferences set to begin next week—gatherings meant to uplift their souls, steel their resolve, and impart the vision they will need to carry forward the work of the Divine Plan at a scale they have never witnessed before. The other wave is that of shock, broken-hearted sorrow and grief, brought about by the news of the destruction of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad—the House that was the site of His exile for so many years, and from which He travelled to the Ridván Garden on the day of His Declaration in 1863.

Crisis and victory. Integration and disintegration. One force tears down, another builds anew. As we are buffeted by the waves today, oft-recalled words and phrases wash through our minds too, reminding us that in every calamity, there are the seeds of a greater providence. Ours is the work of gardeners, to plant and water those seeds and to help them grow.

Many of us are still busy preparing for the 114 youth conferences across the globe, some of which are beginning as soon as next week. If you’re reading these words right now, you’ve probably read about the 5 things to do while you’re waiting for the youth conferences. You may have been going through a checklist in your mind, asking yourself: Have I read up on everything the Universal House of Justice expects of me? Am I lacking any training in the various skills of service? Do I even know how I want to serve humanity? And many other questions. Although these preparations are important—essential, even—we must also be open to the idea that the setbacks and crises we experience in life are a form of spiritual preparation. Yes, even terrible, hurtful and tragic things. When I look back on the last ten years of my life, I can identify several points—though they were painful and even traumatic to go through—that have helped me to increase my spiritual capacity and prepared me for the challenges I face today. Experiences such as these prompted me to pen the following reflections on a grey autumn afternoon, just a year after I returned to Ottawa from a difficult experience as a homefront pioneer:

Being a Baha’i is such a beautiful, beautiful thing. Harrowingly difficult at times, and challenging, to be sure. Challenging because we are called to be the quickeners of mankind, pillars of strength around which a shattered, crumbling humanity is destined to seek shelter and solace. Difficult because we must set aside our own ego, our own self, and seek the improvement of the life and condition of all. Tests and difficulties come at us from all sides sometimes, and they seem designed to make us as uncomfortable as possible. Sometimes I wonder: when will it all stop? Sometimes I get tired and discouraged, and I want to slip quietly into my bed, sleep it off and wake up in spring when things are better and there’s more light. Yeah, sometimes it’s harsh. But those are the breaks for everybody – all are tested, and only so much as their capacity allows. We are all meant to grow, that’s why we have tests. “The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks). When we hear this we don’t mind any more that the tests will never stop. We don’t mind that this life will be nothing but a continuing cycle of crisis and victory, of triumph and setback. When we hear this we know that there is a plan. The more we exert ourselves, the further ahead we get.

We stand at a pivotal moment in the fortunes of humanity. Terrible trials lie in wait, but also incredible triumphs—that’s just how the cycle of crisis and victory works. When we come to understand this more deeply, we stop being so anxious at what might be, and we come to see setbacks as sparks that further ignite our faith, turning the flame of our love into a raging blaze of fire and light, a spiritual fire that can never be extinguished. And as we strain every nerve to conquer ourselves, so do fear, sorrow and doubt begin to fall away. As we pray for strength, so is it given to us, “no matter how difficult the conditions”. We reflect, we commit, and we steel ourselves, calling on a strength that is beyond ourselves, and relying on an abundant flow of blessings. These blessings, too, are like waves of the water of life. Rather than struggling to keep our heads above water, let us plunge into the deep, drink our fill and arise.

Heroes are they, O my Lord, lead them to the field of battle. Guides are they, make them to speak out with arguments and proofs. Ministering servants are they, cause them to pass round the cup that brimmeth with the wine of certitude. O my God, make them to be songsters that carol in fair gardens, make them lions that couch in the thickets, whales that plunge in the vasty deep.

Verily Thou art He of abounding grace. There is none other God save Thee, the Mighty, the Powerful, the Ever-Bestowing.

Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.225

temps d’espérance

igloo inspectionVivement le temps des fêtes! Cette semaine il a fait très froid (vers les -15 à -20 degrés C) et on voit partout les signes d’un Noël blanc: des belles plaines enneigées, et des glaçons qui pendent du bord des toits. Bien que ma famille n’a plus l’habitude de fêter avec un arbre de Noël ni avec des cadeaux, on a fêté quand même en partageant l’esprit de la saison. La semaine dernière, on a aidé un groupe de pré-jeunes dans notre quartier avec un projet de service ayant un thème de Noël. Avec notre aide, le groupe s’est arrangé pour cuire et décorer des beaux biscuits de Noël, qu’on a par la suite distribué parmi leurs voisins avec des cartes de Noël qu’ils ont dessiné eux-mêmes. Le but, au-delà de partager l’esprit des fêtes, c’était de démontrer l’esprit d’amitié et de fraternité avec les gens du voisinage, et de partager de l’espoir—le thème du livret que le groupe est en train d’étudier ensemble.
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how much longer?

On the same day, December 14, 2012, two attacks on schools happened on opposite sides of the globe: a stabbing spree in Chenpeng village, Henan, China, in which 22 children and an elderly woman were injured; and a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, in which 27 were killed, including 20 children. I jotted down these thoughts soon after I heard the news.

I remember recently watching a mini-documentary about World War I that explained how the horrors of trench warfare led to cynicism becoming “normal”, first among the soldiers who had witnessed them, and then among the society they returned to. Man’s inhumanity to man had turned him sour, leaving him to despair. This sense of despair was reinforced by World War II and the conflicts that followed, and although economies recovered and material wealth grew, a crisis of spirit persisted. A new, idealistic generation rebelled against war in all its forms in the 1960s and 70s, showing a true and profound craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal in what they called the “Age of Aquarius“. For the most part, though, this craving was denied, and mankind sunk deeper into despair and cynicism.

How much longer will this craving go unsatisfied, and how many more bodies will have to pile up, not only in our schools but throughout our bruised, battered and shell-shocked world? What will it take for things to change? I don’t really know the first answer, but for the second, I’ll tell you.

are you learning how to make a difference?In the junior youth group that my wife is running in our neighbourhood, she and the girls—aged 11 to 13—are reading about the story of Kibomi, a young boy who believes he can make a difference. Kibomi lives in a country full of strife, and his parents are killed in front of his eyes one day. He runs for his life, and along the way, as he struggles to come to terms with the horrors he has just seen, he meets people who help him see that he has a choice: either to sink into despair, rage, violence and revenge; or to turn his suffering into fuel that will help him change the lives of those around him for the better. Doing the latter takes strength of character that he’s not sure he has, but as he meets more and more people who are working hard to build bonds of loving-kindness and unity between the warring tribes, he realizes that he can draw on their strength to build up his own. Eventually his feelings of fear and despair fade away, and he makes his choice—to work actively towards the betterment of the world.

Now ask yourself again: How much longer will man’s craving for justice, peace, brotherhood and spiritual renewal go unsatisfied? As long as we choose to let it.

Read some of my previous reflections after the shootings at Virginia Tech or Montreal’s Dawson College.

abdu’l-bahá’s visit to montreal

at the door of the shrine‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, arrived in the city of Montreal after an eleven-hour journey from Boston, on the night of August 30th, 1912. His business, far from any material pursuits, was to spread His Father’s message of universal peace, brotherhood and unity. Settling in to the home of Mr. William Sutherland Maxwell and Mrs. May Maxwell, nestled snugly onto the side of Mount Royal, he declared, “This is my home.” A hundred years later, this house is now regarded as a national Shrine, a grace conferred onto the Canadian Bahá’í community that stands unequalled among most of its sister communities worldwide. Montreal was the only Canadian city he visited during his 239-day-long journey, bestowing a priceless spiritual heritage to that city and to the country of Canada—and, at the same time, making an important and profound social statement.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had ample reason to come to Montreal: the Maxwell family, with whom he had already been acquainted many years earlier and who would develop a unique and special relationship to the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, had succeeded in raising up a small but active Bahá’í group there, and it was at their invitation that he made the long trek north from Boston rather than simply cutting across the west on his way to California. But beyond being a gracious visit to long-time friends, his visit to Montreal was also, in a way, an example to the early Canadian believers, many of whom came from Anglophone and Protestant backgrounds, and who carried with them, to varying degrees, the prejudices prevailing in society regarding the French Catholics of Quebec. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known by the Bahá’ís as the Perfect Exemplar, was no stranger to making examples when there were lessons to be learned, especially when it came to social conventions. He it was who insisted on having Louis Gregory, a black American lawyer, sit next to him at the head of the table at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.—an unthinkable act in a society for which racial segregation was just another fact of life.

It can safely be said that racism is the most challenging issue confronting America, as was stated clearly in a 1991 statement by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of America, The Vision of Race Unity. Canada’s challenges, though slightly more nuanced, are perhaps just as serious. Broadly, it can be said that intercultural prejudice—a combination of racism, nationalistic sentiment and economic and religious prejudice—is Canada’s most challenging issue. This issue was directly raised by the Universal House of Justice in a message to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, dated 5 September 1999. As in many parts of the world, the letter explained, Canada is “affected by various social divisions… In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds.” These issues, the Universal House of Justice affirmed, are rooted in “long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric.” Continue reading