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Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. – Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXX
The Faith, unlike other religions, clearly identifies the role of religion in society as a social force for positive change. In The Secret of Divine Civilization, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá dismisses the idea that religion is inherently “a divisive factor and a cause of malevolence and enmity among peoples” and instead compares it to a lamp, insisting that it is a tool dependent upon the people who use it. He claims that as with every “excellent thing, peerless though it may be,” it “can still be diverted to the wrong ends.” In a 1920 talk in California, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá claimed that “If religion becomes the cause of enmity and bloodshed, then irreligion is to be preferred, for religion is the remedy for every ailment, and if a remedy should become the cause of ailment and difficulty, it is better to abandon it.” Religion, to Bahá’ís, is a positive and necessary social factor for change, and its abuse necessitates its removal.
Any inquiry into Bahá’í Ethics must recognize the role of religion in society, because our ethical stances are rooted in the assumption that religion is both present and a source for good. We presume that the religious honestly uphold their values, or that others exist to encourage believers to honestly practice their faith. We believe that our religion presents such a system that encourages believers to actually live the Faith and not simply give words to its value, and we devote ourselves to making religion a more prevalent and better source for society. We acknowledge that people do not always live up to religion, and I believe that, in these cases, “irreligion” is preferable.
Recognizing the role of religion, Bahá’u’lláh clearly identifies the needs of the poor as essential to the practice of the Bahá’í Faith:
O SON OF SPIRIT! Vaunt not thyself over the poor, for I lead him on his way and behold thee in thy evil plight and confound thee for evermore (Arabic Hidden Words 25)
O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. (Persian Hidden Words 54)
He tells us that “The beginning of magnanimity is when man expendeth his wealth on himself, on his family and on the poor among his brethren in his Faith” (Words of Wisdom). He specifically addresses political leaders, warning:
Beware not to deal unjustly with anyone that appealeth to you and entereth beneath your shadow. Walk ye in the fear of God, and be ye of them that lead a godly life. Rest not on your power, your armies, and treasures. Put your whole trust and confidence in God, Who hath created you, and seek ye His help in all your affairs. Succour cometh from Him alone. He succoureth whom He willeth with the hosts of the heavens and of the earth.
Know ye that the poor are the trust of God in your midst. Watch that ye betray not His trust, that ye deal not unjustly with them and that ye walk not in the ways of the treacherous. Ye will most certainly be called upon to answer for His trust on the day when the Balance of Justice shall be set, the day when unto everyone shall be rendered his due, when the doings of all men, be they rich or poor, shall be weighed (Súriy-i-Mulúk, 10-11).
In a general address to believers of any status, Bahá’u’lláh says that:
It is incumbent upon thee, and upon the followers of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, to summon all men to whatsoever shall sanctify them from all attachment to the things of the earth and purge them from its defilements, that the sweet smell of the raiment of the All-Glorious may be smelled from all them that love Him.
They who are possessed of riches, however, must have the utmost regard for the poor, for great is the honor destined by God for those poor who are steadfast in patience. By My life! There is no honor, except what God may please to bestow, that can compare to this honor. Great is the blessedness awaiting the poor that endure patiently and conceal their sufferings, and well is it with the rich who bestow their riches on the needy and prefer them before themselves.
Please God, the poor may exert themselves and strive to earn the means of livelihood. This is a duty which, in this most great Revelation, hath been prescribed unto every one, and is accounted in the sight of God as a goodly deed. Whoso observeth this duty, the help of the invisible One shall most certainly aid him. He can enrich, through His grace, whomsoever He pleaseth. He, verily, hath power over all things (Gleanings, C)
While this presents no clear solution to poverty and economic disorder, it does show that Bahá’í believers are obligated to consider the interests of the poor, swear off attachment to wealth for the social good, and make sure no one in their community goes without necessities. This is not an ethic deduced from scriptures or read into it from a modern political context, but one that is relatively self-evident in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Since we believe religion should be a source of social good, and since we further believe that our religion must promote the good of the poor, we thus see our religion as being able to present a solution to the problem of poverty.
Shoghi Effendi makes this clear in his World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Writing in the aftermath of World War I, He recognizes that the “the disquieting influence of over thirty million souls living under minority conditions throughout the continent of Europe; the vast and ever-swelling army of the unemployed with its crushing burden and demoralizing influence on governments and peoples; the wicked, unbridled race of armaments swallowing an ever-increasing share of the substance of already impoverished nations; the utter demoralization from which the international financial markets are now increasingly suffering” are linked with the “onslaught of secularism invading what has hitherto been regarded as the impregnable strongholds of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy—these stand out as the gravest symptoms that bode ill for the future stability of the structure of modern civilization.” He further attributes the “unrest and suffering” to “direct consequences of the World War” and general failure of the social institutions of the time, including “peace treaties” and the League of Nations. In a more direct attack on secular institutions, the Guardian writes that:
The disastrous failure of both the Disarmament and Economic Conferences; the obstacles confronting the negotiations for the limitation of Naval armaments; the withdrawal of two of the most powerful and heavily armed nations of the world from the activities and membership of the League of Nations; the ineptitude of the parliamentary system of government as witnessed by recent developments in Europe and America; the inability of the leaders and exponents of the Communist movement to vindicate the much-vaunted principle of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; the perils and privations to which the rulers of the Totalitarian states have, in recent years, exposed their subjects—all these demonstrate, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the impotence of present-day institutions to avert the calamities with which human society is being increasingly threatened. What else remains, a bewildered generation may well ask, that can repair the cleavage that is constantly widening, and which may, at any time, engulf it?
Beset on every side by the cumulative evidences of disintegration, of turmoil and of bankruptcy, serious-minded men and women, in almost every walk of life, are beginning to doubt whether society, as it is now organized, can, through its unaided efforts, extricate itself from the slough into which it is steadily sinking. Every system, short of the unification of the human race, has been tried, repeatedly tried, and been found wanting.
The obvious conclusion is that a new social institution is needed, one that can holds its people accountable and genuinely pursues the interests of society: a religious system. The Bahá’í Faith, in recognizing the need for religious morality, promoting a morality that promotes the interests of the poor, and seeing only failed solutions to social problems in secular institutions, promotes itself as a solution to poverty.
However, what, specifically, do we present to address the problem?
First, a genuine change in social outlook to think for others in addition to ourselves. People are capable of changing social problems, but they are unwilling. Religion poses a “solution” because it encourages people to think on behalf of a “greater good” and not simply the good of themselves. This is not inherent to religions specifically, but religions are more able to effect such a change in attitude through its organizational structure and its holding believers accountable. If the Secular Humanist Society and other organized atheist groups also officially promoted an ethic against poverty, they too could be considered “religions” in the sense that I use “religions” here to refer to an institutionalized, hierarchical system of morality. The Bahá’í Faith claims that we need a genuine change in social outlook, and only an institutional morality could promote such a change given human behavior.
Secondly, we need to recognize the need for an institutional morality and abandon an “absolute liberty” perspective that leads to unnecessary complications for social problems. This is not to claim that religion should trump the government, or that people should be coerced into a religious or moral system. Rather, it’s to claim that we need to willingly adopt a system in our private lives and participate in it, allowing it to change us with our explicit consent. In America, for example, this does not mean making the United States into a Bahá’í country, but having more Americans convert to the Faith – or any other religion that makes poverty a central issue – and willingly work with it to promote a social change. This is more powerful than like-minded individuals coming together for the simple reasons that our institutional faiths are global, established, and have a central authority that can determine solutions to problems at all levels. Like-minded individuals coming together can have different opinions and different solutions, which can lead to various groups with the same intention but different routes, which further leads to stagnation (similar to a parliament with multiple political parties).
To Bahá’ís, once the Faith is adopted and a social change is effected, we look toward ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Universal House of Justice for specific solutions to poverty. Our Faith believes in a contextual approach to solutions, and we thus try to balance the many competing factors that lead to problems so as to not create more problems in attempting to solve an already problematic situation.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá states the following with regards to pursuing better economic conditions:
1) Identify the problem as the wealthy amassing more wealth as the expense of the poor who become poorer. “But the principal cause of these difficulties lies in the laws of the present civilization; for they lead to a small number of individuals accumulating incomparable fortunes, beyond their needs, while the greater number remain destitute, stripped and in the greatest misery…Consider an individual who has amassed treasures by colonizing a country for his profit: he has obtained an incomparable fortune and has secured profits and incomes which flow like a river, while a hundred thousand unfortunate people, weak and powerless, are in need of a mouthful of bread. There is neither equality nor benevolence. So you see that general peace and joy are destroyed, and the welfare of humanity is negated to such an extent as to make fruitless the lives of many. For fortune, honors, commerce, industry are in the hands of some industrialists, while other people are submitted to quite a series of difficulties and to limitless troubles: they have neither advantages, nor profits, nor comforts, nor peace.” And “It is, then, clear and evident that the repartition of excessive fortunes among a small number of individuals, while the masses are in need, is an iniquity and an injustice. In the same way, absolute equality would be an obstacle to life, to welfare, to order and to the peace of humanity. In such a question moderation is preferable. It lies in the capitalists’ being moderate in the acquisition of their profits, and in their having a consideration for the welfare of the poor and needy—that is to say, that the workmen and artisans receive a fixed and established daily wage—and have a share in the general profits of the factory.”
2) Recognize that Absolute Equality is not possible, and that there will always be some sense of inequality, even though we can mitigate it from becoming extreme. “However, absolute equality is just as impossible, for absolute equality in fortunes, honors, commerce, agriculture, industry would end in disorderliness, in chaos, in disorganization of the means of existence, and in universal disappointment: the order of the community would be quite destroyed. Thus difficulties will also arise when unjustified equality is imposed.”
3) In seeking to solve this problem, individuals must not become political in competitive and seditious ways. “The Bahá’ís must not engage in political movements which lead to sedition. They must interest themselves in movements which conduce to law and order…a Bahá’í may hold a political office and be interested in politics of the right type…For example, if there should be an uprising here in America having for its purpose the establishment of a despotic government, the Bahá’ís should not be connected with it.” (1912 Talk in Boston)
4) We must obey and work through the laws of the government in which we are located. “The essence of the Bahá’í spirit is that, in order to establish a better social order and economic condition, there must be allegiance to the laws and principles of government.”
5) We cannot resort to violence or extreme measures. “the socialists may justly demand human rights but without resort to force and violence…Today the method of demand is the strike and resort to force, which is manifestly wrong and destructive of human foundations”
6) We should work to make solutions permanent within the law. “The governments will enact these laws, establishing just legislation and economics in order that all humanity may enjoy a full measure of welfare and privilege; but this will always be according to legal protection and procedure…Rightful privilege and demand must be set forth in laws and regulations.”
7) Specifically, we should work to pass laws that: A) make extreme inequality illegal, B) regulate extreme wealth so as to make sure the poor do not go without, and C) make workers share in the profits of a company in addition to basic wages instead of using the extra profits to fund extravagant “bonuses.” “Rules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain private individuals and meet the needs of millions of the poor masses; thus a certain moderation would be obtained… It is, therefore, preferable for moderation to be established by means of laws and regulations to hinder the constitution of the excessive fortunes of certain individuals, and to protect the essential needs of the masses. For instance, the manufacturers and the industrialists heap up a treasure each day, and the poor artisans do not gain their daily sustenance: that is the height of iniquity, and no just man can accept it. Therefore, laws and regulations should be established which would permit the workmen to receive from the factory owner their wages and a share in the fourth or the fifth part of the profits, according to the capacity of the factory; or in some other way the body of workmen and the manufacturers should share equitably the profits and advantages. Indeed, the capital and management come from the owner of the factory, and the work and labor, from the body of the workmen. Either the 275 workmen should receive wages which assure them an adequate support and, when they cease work, becoming feeble or helpless, they should have sufficient benefits from the income of the industry; or the wages should be high enough to satisfy the workmen with the amount they receive so that they may themselves be able to put a little aside for days of want and helplessness.”
8) Rely on Courts to solve disputes between workers and bosses, since the courts have a Right to Interference given the special nature of economic disputes. “In the same way, the workmen should no longer make excessive claims and revolt, nor demand beyond their rights; they should no longer go out on strike; they should be obedient and submissive and not ask for exorbitant wages. But the mutual and reasonable rights of both associated parties will be legally fixed and established according to custom by just and impartial laws. In case one of the two parties should transgress, the court of justice should condemn the transgressor, and the executive branch should enforce the verdict; thus order will be reestablished, and the difficulties, settled. The interference of courts of justice and of the government in difficulties pending between manufacturers and workmen is legal, for the reason that current affairs between workmen and manufacturers cannot be compared with ordinary affairs between private persons, which do not concern the public, and with which the government should not occupy itself…The court of justice and the government have, therefore, the right of interference.”
To sum up the Bahá’í solution to poverty, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá concludes his discussion of “Strikes” in Some Answered Questions reiterating the necessity of religion in approaching social problems:
The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit. This is fully explained in the Bahá’í teaching, and without knowledge of its principles no improvement in the economic state can be realized. The Bahá’ís will bring about this improvement and betterment but not through sedition and appeal to physical force—not through warfare, but welfare. Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.
Bahá’ís generally, following the Faith’s emphasis on education and literacy, have tried to concern themselves with sociological approaches to poverty. Recognizing the outline ‘Abdu’l-Bahá provides, and adhering to the Bahá’í processes of consultation, we try to implement solutions to poverty most relevant to the local area. While this may seem too broad to have any specific meaning, it is important to realize that our emphasize on “good intentions” is central to the role of any social problem – which almost always comes down to one individual or group focusing on themselves at the expense of others. As a Bahá’í, I firmly believe that an uninhibited capitalism is bad, that taking advantage of the third world for the first world’s benefit is morally abominable, and that we should pass laws that prohibit an infinite possibility to grow one’s wealth at the expense of those we rely on to generate it.