Introduction for Baha’i-inspired public discourse and social action
Baha’is wish to contribute to the betterment of society with meaningful conversations, public discourse, and social action. These conversations in the spirit of solidarity can assist such efforts by serving as a tool to bring people from different backgrounds, political views and religious beliefs together, and to assist them in improving their communities. These conversations can happen anywhere in the world in a vast diversity of cultures and natural environments.
Such conversations aim to build social cohesion in societies often divided, to facilitate a consultation about the needs of local communities or neighborhoods and to assist in bringing about transformational social change.
The materials are based on the guidance from the Universal House of Justice, and the many questions intended to facilitate the assessment of a community’s reality in Part 1 are informed by numerous consultations of various groups. They are continually improved as we are learning from our experiences.
The introduction below is specifically for members of the Baha’i Faith. For an introduction to the general public, go here.
These materials can be used creatively and can be adapted to the specific situation and needs of any community. Sometimes, they may be used in the spirit of public discourse such as with a one-time meeting that brings people together to practice consultation based on the foundation of global solidarity. They can also be used in a process of social action that may be simple and confined to one project, or that may organically develop over many years with the intention to bring about fundamental social change. In all cases, they can contribute to community building.
Thus, these conversations can serve as a tool to advance all three areas of action the Universal House of Justice emphasized, namely community building, public discourse, and social action:
The friends are called to three simultaneous, overlapping, and coherent areas of action: community-building efforts ...; projects and activities for social action; and involvement in the discourses of society, ...”
Universal House of Justice, 27 April 2017 letter to an individual, 2nd to last #
The conversations can serve as one of the spaces of consultation the Universal House of Justice called for:
… spaces are created in which representatives of various groups and interests can be assisted to reach a common point of view through consultation.
Universal House of Justice, 30 December 2021 – To the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, #19
The Universal House of Justice succinctly defined humanity’s situation:
The global challenges now facing humanity are a severe test of its willingness to put aside short-term self-interest and come to terms with this stark spiritual and moral reality: there is but one, interconnected human family and it shares one precious homeland.
Universal House of Justice, 4 January 2022 - To the Bahá’ís of the World, #2
The huge problems of climate change and the destruction of the natural world, of abject poverty and impending economic collapse, of the global hunger crisis, of inequality and injustice, of human conflicts and breakdown of social cohesion, of violence and war, leave us no other realistic choice than to rise to a higher level of human consciousness and maturity. With their 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations have clearly laid out what we must achieve to enable all people to have their basic needs met and lead a dignified life while maintaining the integrity of the Earth’s natural systems. There is also an abundance of knowledge and scientific advances we can draw on to make the world a better place. However, despite many well-intentioned efforts, actions toward these goals have been slow, incremental, and by far not adequate to the human suffering and the existential threats to humanity’s future. What is missing is a strong collective will. ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained:
The attainment of any object is conditioned upon knowledge, volition and action. Unless these three conditions are forthcoming, there is no execution or accomplishment.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 217–218
The purpose of these conversations is to facilitate the emergence of volition, of a collective will and unified action. Centering our consultations on solidarity, on the common good, resonates with human souls and therefore can be a powerful motivation for action.
The inspiration for a deep commitment to solidarity comes from the words of Baha’u’llah:
Let your vision be world embracing rather than confined to your own self.
True peace and tranquillity will only be realized when every soul will have become the well-wisher of all mankind.
Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity
The Universal House of Justice explained the importance of these words for our time:
Humanity’s crying need ... calls ... for a fundamental change of consciousness ... that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.
The Universal House of Justice, 24 May 2001 Letter, #6
The commitment to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family is global solidarity. Global solidarity is an expression of a deep belief in the oneness of humankind and seeks to translate this belief into action. The importance and need for solidarity are now increasingly recognized by many people, even in some secular circles by farsighted leaders, which is helpful for public discourse. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said:
We must recognize that humanity’s very future depends on solidarity, trust, and our ability to work together as a global family to achieve common goals.
Antonio Guterres, in his speech at an event that launched Our Common Agenda
The Universal House of Justice put the concept of solidarity into its wider historical context:
Penetrating, indeed, is Shoghi Effendi’s depiction of the process of disintegration accelerating in the world. Equally striking is the accuracy with which he analyzed the forces associated with the process of integration. He spoke of a “gradual diffusion of the spirit of world solidarity which is spontaneously arising out of the welter of a disorganized society” as an indirect manifestation of Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind. This spirit of solidarity has continued to spread over the decades, and today its effect is apparent in a range of developments, from the rejection of deeply ingrained racial prejudices to the dawning consciousness of world citizenship, from heightened environmental awareness to collaborative efforts in the promotion of public health, from the concern for human rights to the systematic pursuit of universal education, from the establishment of interfaith activities to the efflorescence of hundreds of thousands of local, national and international organizations engaged in some form of social action.
Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2006 – To the Bahá’ís of the World, #7
Baha’u’llah specifically called on people in government to observe global solidarity:
O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind and bettereth the condition thereof.
Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 90/93
The Universal House of Justice points out how important solidarity is:
The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected.
Universal House of Justice, 1 March 2017 – To the Bahá’ís of the World, #2
With widespread global solidarity, it is realistic to envision a world in which all people’s basic needs are met, where all people are equally valued and live in peace, in which human economic activities are in harmony with the natural world, in which humankind does not use more of the Earth’s resources than can be replenished, and in which global warming has been limited to the lowest still possible temperature rise and the climate system brought back into balance, in which pollution is systematically cleaned up, some ecosystems restored, and in which all life can thrive.
In a world of solidarity, the principle of the oneness of humankind is anchored in the hearts of individuals and communities, and it is adopted to be the overarching guideline for governing institutions. There will be no room for the false perception of “us” and “them”. It is all about “we”. It will be a society characterized by transparency, honesty, accountability, equity, unity, and responsibility.
When people are deeply interested in and engaged in contributing to the common good through their work and service, they can develop their true potential and find profound meaning in life which will also address the growing mental health crisis. In other words, engaging in meaningful conversations in a spirit of global solidarity and in community social action can assist people to fulfill their true human potential and to contribute to positive social change, a process sometimes called the twofold moral purpose of human life.
At the same time, each individual is the trust of the whole society. Society should support all individuals in need. When fully realized, the spirit of global solidarity could eventually lead to a social safety net from the local to the global level.
In this way, there will be a reciprocity of giving and receiving between individuals and society/government.
Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.
The Universal House of Justice, 26 November 2012 – To all National Spiritual Assemblies, #23
In its 2021 Ridvan message, the Universal House of Justice explains the necessity to overcome old habits that are obstacles to human unity and to focus on the common good.
The company of the faithful enter this new Plan at a time when humanity, chastened by the exposure of its vulnerability, seems more conscious of the need for collaboration to address global challenges. Yet, lingering habits of contest, self-interest, prejudice and closed-mindedness continue to hinder the movement towards unity, despite growing numbers in society who are showing in words and deeds how they, too, yearn for greater acceptance of humanity’s inherent oneness. We pray that the family of nations may succeed in putting aside its differences in the interests of the common good.
The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message 2021, last #
In its letter describing the Nine-Year Plan, the Universal House of Justice emphasizes the need to apply Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings - “the sovereign remedy for every disease” - to the needs of society:
They are committed to the prosperity of all, recognizing that the welfare of individuals rests in the welfare of society at large. They are loyal citizens who eschew partisanship and the contest for worldly power. Instead, they are focused on transcending differences, harmonizing perspectives, and promoting the use of consultation for making decisions. They emphasize qualities and attitudes—such as trustworthiness, cooperation, and forbearance—that are building blocks of a stable social order. They champion rationality and science as essential for human progress. They advocate tolerance and understanding, and with the inherent oneness of humanity uppermost in their minds, they view everyone as a potential partner to collaborate with, and they strive to foster fellow feeling even among groups who may traditionally have been hostile to one another. They are conscious of how the forces of materialism are at work around them, and their eyes are wide open to the many injustices that persist in the world, yet they are equally clear sighted about the creative power of unity and humanity’s capacity for altruism. They see the power that true religion possesses to transform hearts and overcome distrust, and so, with confidence in what the future holds, they labour to cultivate the conditions in which progress can occur. They share their beliefs liberally with others, remaining respectful of the freedom of conscience of every soul, and they never impose their own standards on anyone. And while they would not pretend to have discovered all the answers, they are clear about what they have learned and what they still need to learn. Their efforts advance to the alternating rhythm of action and reflection; setbacks leave them unfazed.
Universal House of Justice, 30 December 2021 letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, #4
The methodology of the global solidarity conversations consists of ongoing conversations that can be held in communities, in neighborhoods and in local governmental institutions.
There are two parts to the process:
1. To assess the reality of the society’s condition and to identify needs and problems
2. To consult about how to address existing problems and to improve conditions, to decide on actions and to carry them out.
Part 1 contains numerous questions. While these questions address specific areas of human and environmental well-being, the framework proposes a holistic approach. A social or environmental problem cannot be solved in isolation as it is usually strongly connected to other issues. Often, several problems need to be addressed together.
At the end of this introduction, there are links to Parts 1 and 2.
Diversity of thought, background, and experiences is a vital asset for finding the most suitable pathways forward. These conversations benefit from participation from all segments of society: different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, women, Indigenous people, youth and elders, people who have lived in the community for generations as well as newcomers and immigrants, faith communities, representatives of business, political leaders, scientists etc.
The Spirit of Consultation
The Baha’i-inspired approach with its spirit of global solidarity proposes a fundamentally different way of operation compared to what most people are accustomed to. In many countries, there is increasing division in society. People with different ideological views no longer talk with each other; they only fight for their own view to win. Racial and religious divisions and hate speech are worsening. Social media with their “echo chambers” and potential of spreading disinformation and slander have contributed to this social crisis.
Participants in these conversations strive to free themselves from such negative traditions, from ideologies, partisanship, and preconceived ideas and opinions so that they have an open mind that will empower them to collectively search for the best paths of actions to address their community’s needs. Participants weigh their own words, whether they are promoting a preconceived idea, an ideology or self-interest, or whether they are offering their thoughts as a contribution to the common good in the spirit of solidarity. The goal is not to seek compromise of different opinions, but to search together to assess the community’s needs and to find a common way forward.
These consultations are characterized by humility, respect for all, and careful listening to other people’s knowledge, experiences, and points of view. They will require an attitude of learning as well as patience with oneself and others.
The standard of truth seeking this process demands is far beyond the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs. It cannot be achieved—indeed, its attainment is severely handicapped—by the culture of protest that is another widely prevailing feature of contemporary society. Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.
What Bahá’u’lláh is calling for is a consultative process in which the individual participants strive to transcend their respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals. In such an atmosphere, characterized by both candor and courtesy, ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued. Consultation succeeds to the extent that all participants support the decisions arrived at, regardless of the individual opinions with which they entered the discussion. Under such circumstances an earlier decision can be readily reconsidered if experience exposes any shortcomings.
Viewed in such a light, consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. So vital is it to the success of collective endeavor that it must constitute a basic feature of a viable strategy of social and economic development. Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project. “No man can attain his true station”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s counsel, “except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”
Capacity is built on a broad foundation. It may start with the raising of consciousness through meaningful conversations and then deepen by learning about the social and environmental issues of the community. Capacity is further strengthened by endeavoring to apply spiritual principles to the problems at hand, by carrying out actions with unity, and later by reflecting about and learning from all these experiences.
A clear sign that the society-building power of the Cause is being released in a cluster is that efforts are being made by a growing band of its inhabitants, inspired by the teachings of the Faith, to help improve the spiritual character and social conditions of the wider community to which they belong. The contribution made by Bahá’ís is distinguished by its focus on building capacity for service; it is an approach founded on faith in the ability of a population to become the protagonists of their own development.
Universal House of Justice, 30 December 2021, #16
During this period, the Bahá’í world will be focused on a single aim: the release of the society-building power of the Faith in ever-greater measures. The pursuit of this overall aim will require a further rise in the capacity of the individual believer, the local community, and the institutions of the Faith. These three constant protagonists of the Plan each have a part to play, and each one has capacities and qualities that must be developed. However, each is incapable of manifesting its full potential on its own. It is by strengthening their dynamic relationships with one another that their powers are combined and multiplied. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains that the more the qualities of cooperation and mutual assistance are manifested by a people, “the more will human society advance in progress and prosperity”; in the Faith, this principle distinguishes and shapes the interactions of individuals, institutions, and communities, and it endows the body of the Cause with moral vigour and spiritual health.
Universal House of Justice, 30 December 2021 – To the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, #3
Most appropriately conceived in terms of a spectrum, social action can range from fairly informal efforts of limited duration undertaken by individuals or small groups of friends to programmes of social and economic development with a high level of complexity and sophistication implemented by Bahá’í-inspired organizations. Irrespective of its scope and scale, all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly. Such endeavours are distinguished, then, by their stated purpose to promote the material well-being of the population, in addition to its spiritual welfare. That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Bahá’í teachings. Clearly this ideal has profound implications for the nature of any social action pursued by Bahá’ís, whatever its scope and range of influence. Though conditions will vary from country to country, and perhaps from cluster to cluster, eliciting from the friends a variety of endeavours, there are certain fundamental concepts that all should bear in mind. One is the centrality of knowledge to social existence. The perpetuation of ignorance is a most grievous form of oppression; it reinforces the many walls of prejudice that stand as barriers to the realization of the oneness of humankind, at once the goal and operating principle of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. Access to knowledge is the right of every human being, and participation in its generation, application and diffusion a responsibility that all must shoulder in the great enterprise of building a prosperous world civilization—each individual according to his or her talents and abilities. Justice demands universal participation. Thus, while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another. The scope and complexity of social action must be commensurate with the human resources available in a village or neighbourhood to carry it forward. Efforts best begin, then, on a modest scale and grow organically as capacity within the population develops. Capacity rises to new levels, of course, as the protagonists of social change learn to apply with increasing effectiveness elements of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation, together with the contents and methods of science, to their social reality. This reality they must strive to read in a manner consistent with His teachings—seeing in their fellow human beings gems of inestimable value and recognizing the effects of the dual process of integration and disintegration on both hearts and minds, as well as on social structures.
Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010 – To the Bahá’ís of the World, 5th to last #
Last updated 3 November 2022