Consultation in the Quest for World Peace
by Roger Coe1987
1. Audio version
2. Text version
The human mind - the capacity to think, to understand, and to know - distinguishes the human creature from all other forms of life. In The Promise of World Peace the Universal House of Justice has established a close link between the expressions of this essential quality of the human spirit and "the social necessity for actualizing its unique value through...consultation."(PWP #47)
The human spirit is also endowed with other capacities which the House of Justice mentions in this message as having particular relevance to the present condition of the world, these are: the spiritual or moral attitude which is the peace-inducing aspect taught by all the great religions(PWP #16); the intention, volition, or will to act upon moral and intellectual convictions(PWP #23); the essential harmony between faith and reason, science and religion(PWP #15); and the spiritual principles which must underlie the attitude, the dynamic, the will and aspiration of the people of the world, and most especially its leaders.(PWP #37)
In exercising these capacities individuals find the highest expression of their humanity - and exercise them we must if we are to assist in moving the world away from the probability of global disaster and toward the construction of a society wherein a peaceful ambience fosters creative growth to new heights of human expression.
The old systems are breaking down, things are out of control, and the world's leaders find themselves in increasingly powerless and impotent positions. The order of the world has been re-cast, and we grope to find the patterns that will insure our survival. A change in the structure of present day society is inevitable - world peace must be "the next stage in the evolution of this planet"(PWP #1).
But, in the words of the Universal House of Justice, "Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity's stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth."(PWP #2)
To come to a condition of peace "all who inhabit the earth" must consult - and this consultation must occur at all levels of social organization. Some of us will consult primarily on local levels, and some will consult on national, regional, or international levels. And many are going to have to consult on levels where we have had no previous experience. Furthermore, this consultation must be of a unique quality if it is to bring about the changes which will forestall the catastrophes which loom over the planet daily.
In asking the peoples of the world to re-examine the erroneous assumption that people are "incorrigibly selfish and aggressive"(PWP #7) the House of Justice has impelled each of us to acknowledge within ourselves that "trustworthiness, forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving kindness towards all peoples"(PWP #58) are the not only the highest expressions of the human spirit that we manifest in our own personal lives, these are the qualities which we desire that others show to us in our inter-personal relationships.
In focusing attention upon the true human reality people will become aware that consultation must be the means by which of all conflict and contention is brought to a harmonious end, and that the barriers which stand in the way of this harmony are the "doubts, misconceptions, prejudices, suspicions and narrow self-interest" which "beset nations and peoples in their relations one to another."(PWP #4) Unity, through true understanding of one another, can dispel these dark forces, and consultation seems to be the perfect means for effecting such understanding. In the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, "It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race. Nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement..."(SDC 73)
The Bahá'í community around the world is an example of the enlarging unity of the human family. It functions with an integrative social system which was born, Bahá'ís believe, of the same impulse which begat the spirit of this age. The Bahá'í administrative order, from which guidance and direction flows, has a unique form and structure which, from its beginnings, has purposed to manifest the dynamic, harmonious, progressive and cooperative qualities of which the House wrote(PWP #7) as being necessary for social systems in this day.
In offering the Bahá'í community as a model for study the House of Justice has written that the Bahá'í community conducts its affairs "through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles,..."(PWP #56) It is the purpose of this paper to explicate this system in brief so that this model may become more fully available for study both within and without the Bahá'í community. Both the form and the method of the Bahá'í administrative order stand unique among present-day social systems. The form is one which removes all power and authority from the hands of individuals and places it into the hands of groups. The method by which these groups conduct their affairs is consultation. I will elaborate briefly upon the form of the Bahá'í Administrative Order.
The responsibility and authority for the administration of the affairs of the Faith rests solely in the local, national, and international elected representatives who constitute the so-called "assemblies of consultation"(SDC 17) to which Bahá'u'lláh says, "all matters of State should be referred."(TAB 129) These institutions are woven together through a simple and harmonious blending of principles which establish clear lines of authority and areas of jurisdiction, actualize the benefits of both centralization and decentralization in an appropriate balance, have a preference for democratic methods, and free the hands of the rulers to act developmentally and progressively and in the best interests of their constituents. One particularly unique feature of this system is that no individual in the Bahá'í world has anymore administrative power or authority than any other individual. Administrative authority rests solely in the hands of the assemblies of consultation. These bodies are renewed periodically in elections performed by secret ballot with no campaigning and no nominations, the electorate being forbidden even to mention personalities in discussing the qualities necessary for the office.
These assemblies get the mandate for their operation from Bahá'u'lláh; the principles which inform their decisions are to be based directly upon the word of Bahá'u'lláh; and the principles, laws and teachings which regulate their process and method derive from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. These spiritual assemblies are at present responsible for all matters within the Bahá'í community which assure its social, economic, spiritual, and administrative development. The source of their guidance for the application of the principles and the enforcement of the laws is the explicit and revealed word of Bahá'u'lláh and the authorized interpretations of that word made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the Center of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant, and Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Cause of God. In addition to these texts Bahá'ís have the continuing guidance of the Universal House of Justice, the supreme governing body of the Bahá'ís of the world, as well as the laws which the House of Justice has been empowered to legislate in order to supplement the law of Bahá'u'lláh. Below them each National Spiritual Assembly has the power to establish policies and procedures within its jurisdiction for the guidance of the affairs of the Faith in their area. Local Spiritual Assemblies are bound by the guidance from their National Spiritual Assembly and are also empowered to establish policies and regulations within their particular area.
The method used for arriving at decisions concerning any matter within their sphere of responsibility for each of these institutions is consultation. One of the best, brief definitions of consultation available in the Bahá'í literature comes from the recent introductory text entitled, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion, I quote: "Bahá'í consultation involves a frank but loving exchange of opinions by members of a group with a view towards the determination of the truth of some matter and the establishment of a genuine consensus."(EGR 161-2) I will now take a more in- depth look at the system of commonly accepted consultative principles to which the House alluded.
"Consultation...is the bedrock of this unique order..."(CC #32) which Bahá'u'lláh has established, and is "one of the most fundamental elements of the divine edifice."(CC #15) In the words of the Guardian, "The principle of consultation,...constitutes one of the basic laws of the Administration, [and] should be applied to all Bahá'í activities which affect the collective interests of the Faith."(CC #31) Bahá'u'lláh insists upon this law even more strongly: "In all things it is necessary to consult. This matter should be forcibly stressed by thee, so that consultation may be observed by all."(CC #5)
'Abdu'l-Bahá says that consultation "must have for its object the investigation of truth,"(CC #22) and He defines true consultation as "spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love,..."(CC #22) "The first condition," He says, "is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the assembly....Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be non-existent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught."(CC #10) He says that "the second duty is to read the verses and communes, to be in a state of commemoration and mindfulness."(CC #23) Long experience within the Bahá'í community has shown this author that the Bahá'ís in their councils often seem to attempt to achieve their unity strictly through prayer. This last reference from 'Abdu'l-Bahá seems to indicate that unity must first be achieved on a different level - perhaps a social unity, where people really come to know one another as true friends, cohorts, and intimates.
'Abdu'l-Bahá says, "The purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man,..."(CC #17) In anticipating an offering of views and opinions from several people, variation in these opinions is to be expected. These differences may range from the minor and insignificant, to the major and philosophically fundamental. But we must view each situation as being an opportunity to perceive the problem at hand through another facet, another lens, which may shed a ray of truth which some had not perceived before. The point of consultation is to investigate all of these perspectives and come to an agreement about the truth of the matter. Bahá'u'lláh affirms that this condition of difference is a fundamental characteristic of the nature of reality in the contingent world. He says: "That the people differ concerning the inner meanings and mysteries...is to be attributed to the divergence of their views and minds."(TAB 145) In His metaphysical treatise, The Seven Valleys, He counsels that, because men "move on these three differing planes [that is, the plane of oneness, the realms of limitation, and the grades of self] the understanding and the words of the wayfarers have differed;...hence the sign of conflict doth continually appear on earth."(SV 21) Here Bahá'u'lláh gives us the root cause for the major or minor conflicts which consultation must resolve. The fact that human beings differ in their capacities to know and understand truth must bring us to new understandings of the dynamics which Bahá'í consultation must involve.
In operating with the concept of "truth", which is fundamentally a philosophical concern, Bahá'ís must resolve the apparent contradiction between the statement from 'Abdu'l-Bahá that "truth is one,...and not divisible"(PUP 106) and the statement from Shoghi Effendi that "religious truth is not absolute but relative."(WOB 58).
In its essence, truth is one and absolute - what differs is the capacity of individuals to comprehend truth. No one can know the "ultimate truth," for this would be knowledge of the essence which 'Abdu'l-Bahá says is impossible.(SAQ 256) Rather, we know a thing by coming to a knowledge of its qualities, and this knowledge comes in degrees. As the degree of knowledge varies from one individual to the next, assemblies of consultation are always faced with the necessity of searching out and discovering the highest expression of the truth of a matter which is understood and accepted by and agreeable to all the members of the assembly.
Consultation must be focused on harmonizing opinions which are in real or apparent conflict through the provision of a spiritually united, harmonious, and loving atmosphere within which the truth may be sought through knowing, reasoning, and understanding.
"The ideal of Bahá'í consultation is to arrive at a unanimous decision."(CC #46) Shoghi Effendi says that "it has ever been the cherished desire of...'Abdu'l-Bahá, that the friends in their councils,...should by their candor, their honesty of purpose, their singleness of mind, and the thoroughness of their discussions, achieve unanimity in all things."(CC #27) Bahá'u'lláh, in a passage which is not widely known among the Bahá'ís, enjoins the friends to make three serious and involved attempts at unanimity before they accept that a majority vote would settle the matter.(CC #7) If it is not possible to come to a unanimous decision a vote must be taken and the will of the majority must be followed and the decision upheld by all members of the group.(CC #39)
The sole guarantee from 'Abdu'l-Bahá that the consultation of the friends will bear proper fruit is if there is unity of action in carrying out the decision of the assembly. He says, "...It is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong."(CC #16)
The achievement of a proper atmosphere for consultation is dependent upon two things: 1) the efforts of the individual consultants both to embody the spiritual virtues in their personal lives and, 2) the acquisition of knowledge of the principles and laws which govern the operation of the assemblies.
For the first part 'Abdu'l-Bahá says that, "The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold."(CC #9) While acknowledging that Bahá'u'lláh has affirmed the principle of rank and station, each Bahá'í also knows that the highest station is that of servitude to others, and that those in real authority are known by their humility and self-sacrifice.(LOG 20)
For the second part, 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, "...they must be fully cognizant, in every particular, of the laws of God, informed as to the highest principles of law, versed in the rules which govern the management of internal affairs and...skilled in the useful arts of civilization,..."(SDC 17) These requisites for assemblies must be seen within a developmental context, for few Bahá'ís would claim to have attained to these ideals.
In a certain sense a spiritual assembly may be seen as a group of individuals each of whom is in the process of spiritualizing his own life and deepening his own understanding of the revelation. As one individual makes progress in the acquisition of spiritual virtues the entire assembly is uplifted. Yet because of the necessity to establish reasonable and rational proofs which promote and assist the understanding and comprehension of each and all of the members of the assembly, Bahá'í consultation must proceed at the pace of the slowest, most thoughtful, or most thorough member of that assembly.(CC #12 & #22)
Bahá'u'lláh says, "...Consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding."(CC #1) The capacity to understand or comprehend is a capacity which must be used by the individual - the individual must also foster its development within the group. Each person must strive to convey his opinion in such a way as to make it understandable to all the others. Conversely, each person must strive and struggle to understand and comprehend the points that others offer. The capacity of understanding is one of the most fundamental to the operation of consultation, and the dynamics of its application must be known and utilized to the fullest extent possible. Bahá'u'lláh affirms its importance with this statement: "First and foremost among [the] favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding....This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation.(GWB 194) In another passage He links this capacity specifically to consultation by indicating that the "maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation."(CC #3)
A comprehension of the instrumentalities of thought - of logic, reason, rationality, perception, and understanding, and a sharpening and refinement of their use, will broaden the basis and enhance the capacity of any person of goodwill who truly desires to serve humankind.
As Bahá'ís develop the virtues, qualities, and attributes of God in their own personal lives they gain the attitude, understanding, and desire to extend the benefit of these same spiritual principles to the rest of humanity through the administrative, social, and humanitarian work of their assemblies of consultation. Indeed, as the Universal House of Justice has stated in The Promise of World Peace, "The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them."(PWP #37)
Bahá'u'lláh has observed: "...every matter related to state affairs which ye raise for discussion falls under the shadow of one of the words sent down from the heaven of His glorious and exalted utterance."(TAB 151) The words which will bring a peace that is grounded in the inner being and expressed through individual action are words such as unity, justice, love, compassion, mercy, honesty, trustworthiness, service, and so on.
We must all be willing to leave behind, in our individual as well as in our collective lives, those characteristics that Shoghi Effendi says mark the adolescent stage in the development of man. Its "impetuosity and irrational instincts,... its follies, its prodigality, its pride, its self-assurance, its rebelliousness, and contempt of discipline"(PDC 121) must be dropped away and "gradually superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood."(WOB 202)
In summary, I can do no better that to quote one of the most potent statements of the Universal House of Justice from their statement The Promise of World Peace:
"The courage, the resolution, the pure motive, the selfless love of one people for another - all the spiritual and moral qualities required for effecting this momentous step towards peace are focused on the will to act. And it is towards arousing the necessary volition that earnest consideration must be given to the reality of man, namely, his thought. To understand the relevance of this potent reality is also to appreciate the social necessity of actualizing its unique value through candid, dispassionate and cordial consultation, and of acting upon the results of this process....The very attempt to achieve peace through the consultative action [Bahá'u'lláh] proposed can release such a salutary spirit among the peoples of the earth that no power could resist the final, triumphal outcome." (PWP #47)
KEY TO REFERENCES:
CC - Consultation: A Compilation
GWB - Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
LOG - Lights of Guidance
PT - Paris Talks
PWP - The Promise of World Peace
PDC - The Promised Day is Come
PUP - The Promulgation of Universal Peace
SDC - The Secret of Divine Civilization
SV - The Seven Valleys of Bahá'u'lláh
SAQ - Some Answered Questions
TAB - Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh
WOB - The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh