Understanding and Eliminating Oppression:
|Gender equity||Sexism and misogyny, violence against women and children, genital mutilation|
|Elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty||Grinding poverty of the masses|
|Classism, greed, corruption|
|Abolition of prejudice||Racism, tribalism, ethnocentrism|
|Religion and science in agreement||Religious fanaticism, materialism, Consumerism, commodification of people, cultures and resources|
|Universal free education||Ignorance, poverty, exploitation, vulnerability and devaluing of children and youth|
|Universal system of weights and measurements||Inflation|
|World peace||War mongering, child soldiers, investing in instruments of destruction instead of investing to solve hunger, disease and other global problems; national bankruptcy, militarism and authoritarian control|
|Universal auxiliary language||Cultural misunderstandings, fear of others, ridiculing, excluding and mocking those who are not fluent in your language|
The principles of Bahá'u'lláh were established for the education and liberation of humanity. Capacity to articulate them and focus on their realization is necessary to create a climate of love in which justice can flourish and peace eventually reign.
Three reasons for injustice
Humanity's difficulties with establishing justice, according to Bahá'u'lláh are foundationally rooted in three struggles. The first is the struggle for existence.
The law of the survival of the fittest is the origin of all difficulties. It is the cause of war and strife, hatred and animosity, between human beings. In the world of nature there is tyranny, egotism, aggression, overbearance, usurpation of the rights of others and other blameworthy traits… (Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era 156-157)
Given the pressures of struggle for existence, God sends Manifestations of God to help us rise out above these lower promptings and realize our true nature. But humanity does not readily accept Divine council and has over and over persecuted and tormented not only the Manifestations of God sent to guide humanity, but also those who accept the message of truth and attempt to pattern their lives according to the Divine guidance.
Why then is it that despite the expectation of men in their quest for the Manifestations of Holiness, and in spite of the signs recorded in the sacred books, such acts of violence, of oppression and cruelty, should have been perpetrated in every age and cycle against all the Prophets and chosen Ones of God? Even as He hath revealed: "As oft as an Apostle cometh unto you with that which your souls desire not, ye swell with pride, accusing some of being imposters and slaying others." (Kitab-i-Iqan 13)
Humanity's prideful refusal to obey the Divine precepts revealed through the Manifestations of God, is the second reason why we do not yet live in a just world. Associated with this second reason is the third: both rulers and ecclesiastics block humanity's access to Divine guidance, preferring self-aggrandizement and abuse of power for personal gain, to acquisition of divine virtue and the pursuit of the common weal. In this regard, Bahá'u'lláh lays the bulk of the responsibility for the elimination of oppression squarely on the shoulders of the ecclesiastics and rulers. He admonishes:
No sooner had a word gone forth from His lips, however, than the divines among Thy people turned back from Him, and the learned among Thy servants caviled at His signs. Thereby the fire of oppression was kindled in Thy land, until the kings themselves rose up to put out Thy light, O Thou Who art the King of kings! (Prayers and Meditations 152-155).
Have a care not to entrust thine affairs of state entirely into another's hands. None can discharge thy functions better than thine own self. Thus do We make clear unto thee Our words of wisdom, and send down upon thee that which can enable thee to pass over from the left hand of oppression to the right hand of justice, and approach the resplendent ocean of His favours. Such is the path which the kings that were before thee have trodden, they that acted equitably towards their subjects, and walked in the ways of undeviating justice (Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh 49-50).
Bahá'u'lláh warns that if the trend of ecclesiastics and rulers continues, the structures of religion that are in place to protect humanity will be undone and severe oppression will afflict all of humanity. He explains that this has already been foretold in Scriptures of the past:
When the oppression and afflictions that are to befall mankind will have come to pass, then shall the sun be withheld from shining, the moon from giving light, the stars of heaven shall fall upon the earth and the pillars of the earth shall quake (Kitab-i-Iqan 25).
And explains that this is now the condition in which we live:
…men shall become oppressed and afflicted, the time when the lingering traces of the Sun of Truth and the fruit of the Tree of knowledge and wisdom will have vanished from the midst of men, when the reins of mankind will have fallen into the grasp of the foolish and ignorant, when the portals of divine unity and understanding –the essential and highest purpose in creation—will have been closed, when certain knowledge will have given way to idle fancy, and corruption will have usurped the station of righteousness. Such a condition as this is witnessed in this day when the reins of every community have fallen into the grasp of foolish leaders, who lead after their own whims and desire (29).
Bahá'u'lláh thus exhorts the rulers of the earth:
Exert yourselves that ye may attain this transcendent and most sublime station, the station that can ensure the protection and security of all mankind. This goal excelleth every other goal, and this aspiration is the monarch of all aspirations (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh 288).
For is it not your clear duty to restrain the tyranny of the oppressor, and to deal equitably with your subjects, that your high sense of justice may be fully demonstrated to all mankind? (The Promised Day is Come 24).
Let thine ear be attentive, O King, to the words We have addressed to thee. Let the oppressor desist from his tyranny, and cut off the perpetrators of injustice from among them that profess thy faith (39).
'Abdu'l-Bahá explains that in some contexts, it may be necessary for the legitimate use of force to protect people from the harmful intentions of aggressors:
If for example, a high-minded sovereign marshals his troops to block the onset of the insurgent and the aggressor, or again, if he takes the field and distinguishes himself in a struggle to unify a divided state and people, if, in brief, he is waging war for a righteous purpose, then this seeming wrath is mercy itself, and this apparent tyranny the very substance of justice and this warfare the cornerstone of peace. Today, the task befitting great rulers is to establish universal peace, for in this lies the freedom of all peoples… (The Secret of Divine Civilization 71).
An interesting aside to this advice to those in a position of power, is that although in Bahá'u'lláh's Writings all oppression of others is harmful and violence is condemned, He nonetheless insists that a legitimate use of force would have to be applied to the control of drug abuse. Although the following reference is to opium, which was the most commonly used drug at the time, it is interesting to consider that police have recounted numerous stories of individuals under the influence of drugs more powerful than opium, as being completely uncontrollable with seemingly superhuman forces of destruction (personal communication from police officer). Children forced to work as child soldiers in countries such as Sierra Leone, Uganda and Columbia, are administered drugs to prevent the normal constraints of aversion to killing from interfering with their trainer's purposes (Wessells http://pangaea.org/street_children/africa/armies.htm).
In this, the cycle of Almighty God, violence and force, constraint and oppression, are one and all condemned. It is, however, mandatory that the use of opium be prevented by any means whatsoever, that perchance the human race may be delivered from this most powerful of plagues (Kitab-i-Aqdas 238-239).
From the above examples, we can see how Bahá'í teachings provide a constellation of considerations for modern contexts and cannot be reduced to simplistic admonitions to love everyone no matter what circumstances. Thus Bahá'u'lláh shows "not only how health [societal health] is to be maintained, but also how it may be recovered when lost" (Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era 105-107).
Divine retribution for oppressors and hope for the oppressed
Bahá'u'lláh further confirms that through the effects of the Creative Word oppressors can be enabled to "pass over from the left hand of oppression to the right hand of justice" (Gleanings 51) and assures that there will be consequences to those who have subjected others to oppression: "it is certain that the sighs of these children and the cries of these wronged ones will have their due consequence" (Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh 162). Addressing those who perpetrated oppression, He writes:
O Oppressors of the earth! Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man's injustice (Hidden Words 44).
Bahá'u'lláh writes that "to the Pen of Glory the tyranny of the world hath never been nor will it ever be a hindrance" (Kitab-i-Aqdas 125) and confirms that God has provided for the security of all peoples:
In the abundance of Our grace and loving-kindness We have revealed specially for the rulers and ministers of the world that which is conducive to safety and protection, tranquility and peace; haply the children of men may rest secure from the evils of oppression (Ibid).
Although Bahá'u'lláh exhorts individuals not to oppress any soul even to the extent of the grain of a mustard seed, and although many exhortations to ecclesiastics and rulers to replace oppression with justice and equity have been written by Him, Bahá'u'lláh still calls those who have been oppressed to show love to their oppressors in the hopes that this will soften their hardened hearts.
Lay not aside the fear of God, O kings of the earth, and beware that ye transgress not the bounds which the Almighty hath fixed. Observe the injunctions laid upon you in His Book, and take good heed not to overstep their limits. Be vigilant, that ye may not do injustice to anyone, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed. Tread ye the path of justice, for this, verily, is the straight path. (Gleanings 250)
Through the power invested in Him by God, Bahá'u'lláh assures us that eventually justice will be established and humanity will prosper. He consoles a beleaguered humanity by explaining that this new revelation has the capacity to regenerate the world:
Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples. Through the movement of Our Pen of glory We have, at the bidding of the omnipotent Ordainer, breathed a new life into every human frame, and instilled into every word a fresh potency. All created things proclaim the evidences of this world-wide regeneration. This is the most great, the most joyful tidings imparted by the Pen of this Wronged One to mankind. Wherefore fear ye, O My well-beloved ones? Who is it that can dismay you? A touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay out of which this perverse generation is molded (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 83-97).
According to Bahá'u'lláh, those who suffer oppression for the sake of God will be recompensed:
Because of you the earth itself glorieth over heaven. How excellent is this most sublime, this glorious and exalted bounty! Ye have been deprived of your nest, O birds of eternity, for the sake of your Lord, the Unconstrained, but your true abode is beneath the wings of the grace of the All-Merciful. Blessed are they that understand (Summons to the Lord of Hosts 141-159).
Many of the prayers and meditations of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdul'-Baha beseech God to relieve the victims of oppression and numerous exhortations to the followers of Bahá'u'lláh to stop oppression can be found throughout His writings:
Fear God, and lift not the hand of injustice and oppression to destroy what He hath Himself raised up… (Kitab-i-Aqdas 46).
Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression… (Gleanings 285).
In the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf Bahá'u'lláh tells a most tyrannical ruler to stop oppressing innocent people and trying to stop the Cause of God, yet He reminds His followers:
For the victims of oppression to intercede in favor of their enemies is, in the estimation of rulers, a princely deed. Some must have certainly heard that this oppressed people have, in that city (Ishqabad), pleaded with the Governor on behalf of their murderers, and asked for the mitigation of their sentence. Take good heed, ye who are men of insight! (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf 78).
In summary, suffice it to say that according to Bahá'u'lláh, oppression is failure to follow the Divine teachings and because of this pride before God, lack of empathy and altruism ensue. In a just world, self-interest gives way to service, and individualist tendencies move towards consideration of the common good. Parents and teachers have the role of encouraging youth towards virtue so that the foundation for a divine society can be laid at an early age. Individual expressions of love soften the hearts of oppressors, but oppressors that have become tyrants are not to be treated with kindness as this increases their capacity to harm. Ecclesiastics and rulers have the responsibility to provide that which is conducive to the peace and security of their peoples. On an international level, Bahá'u'lláh tells governments to work in cohort for the establishment of peace so that the oppression of war can once and for all be eliminated:
The time must come when the imperative necessity for the holding of a vast, an all-embracing assemblage of men will be universally realized. The rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend it, and, participating in its deliberations, must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world's Great Peace amongst men. Such a peace demandeth that the Great Powers should resolve, for the sake of the tranquility of the peoples of the earth, to be fully reconciled among themselves. Should any king take up arms against another, all should unitedly arise and prevent him. It this be done, the nations for the world will no longer require any armaments, except for the purpose of preserving the security of their realms and of maintaining internal order within their territories (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 161-179).
Having briefly outlines the main themes in understanding the Bahá'í Writings on the topic of oppression and justice, we will now turn to critical social theory as a useful correlate to uncovering societal patterns of oppression and the underlying reasons for their perpetration.
Understanding oppression through the lens of critical social theory
Sidanius & Pratto in their book Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression, have written a comprehensive overview of oppression by combining psychological, social-psychological, structural-sociological and evolutionary models to try to understand why humanity oppresses. They show that psychology explains oppression in terms of personality variables and cognitive processing, social-structural theories look at conflicts between groups of people to determine material and symbolic resource distribution, and evolutionary models try to explain oppression in terms of group adaptation for competition, cooperation and coordination (3-30).
Leonardo, in his article Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge writes that critical theory is a multidisciplinary approach with roots in philosophy and literature as well as a general theory concerned with institutional and conceptual transformation. It can be traced as far back as Plato and emerged initially from Kant's critiques of ethics, beauty and reason, and the Frankfurt School's combination of Kantian theory with Freudo-Marxist theories of modern society (11). Since then, other theorists have taken up critical stances with themes of class, race, ethnicity, culture, literature and gender. In education, pedagogy became critical theory through the influence of Paulo Friere who looked for intersections between structure and agency to give language to those who had been oppressed and empower them to overcome oppression based on reconceptualization (75-119). The importance of theory to understand oppression is not however limited only to what academics can articulate. All people can engage in critical thinking about the social structures that affect them. Lemert points out that many important thinkers and writers without access to academic circles have been silenced or muffled because the status quo did not, as Bahá'u'lláh has also written, wish to know the truth:
The oppressed people of any social world always have a voice and thus something to say. For very good and sensible reasons, those in the privileged position in any society seldom hear what the oppressed say—not because they are ignorant and inarticulate (though they may be) but often because the weak have the good sense not to tell us, in so many words, what they think. The weak know very well that their truth—their understanding of social arrangements—may be a weapon for their survival if kept hidden but a cause of deepening their misery if revealed to the wrong authorities (12).
Critical social theory helps reveal underlying oppressive structures and the patterns keeping them in place. For critical social theory according to Leonardo, the foundational tenet is clear:
…understanding the nature of oppression is central to its internal logic. That is, it proceeds from the assumption that oppression is real and formidable – that is to say, oppression is simultaneously social and lived (Critical Social Theory 13).
Looking at the writings of social theorists can be useful to unveil constructs of oppression that dominate societal thinking and to which Bahá'ís and non-Bahá'ís alike are equally prone. Let us consider as an example, the writing of one of the founders of communism, Frederich Engels, as highlighted by Charles Lemert. Writing in 1884 about the evolution of patriarchy and how this evolved into slavery, materialism and classism, he revealed through the study of tribal societies around the world, how most were matriarchal and governed through individuals fulfilling their duties towards meeting common community needs. Those who refused to do so, or did so poorly, were excluded; exclusion from the social collective being tantamount to death since faced with nature's harsh realities, groups generally survived better than individuals. As societies gained in wealth, males gradually overthrew this order of duty to the community with assumption of the right of inheritance and surplus of goods. Engels writes:
The form of the family corresponding to civilization and under it becoming the definitely prevailing form is monogamy, the supremacy of the man over the woman, and the individual family as the economic unit of society. The cohesive force of civilized society is the state, which in all typical periods is exclusively the state of the ruling class, and in all cases remains essentially a machine for keeping down the oppressed, exploited class (Social Theory 68).
He goes on to show how this process of patriarchy happened in numerous cultural groups and then criticizes society for having moved forward with economic concerns divorced from human concerns. In his logic the oppression of women links to slavery and bonded labor and the creation of a class system to oppress within any given group. His analysis is that the basis of civilization has been the exploitation of one class by another, beginning with the establishment of patriarchy, and his identification of the root of the problem is described in overtly moral terms.
Naked greed has been the moving spirit of civilization from the first day of its existence to the present time; wealth, more wealth and wealth again; wealth, not of society, but of this shabby individual was its sole and determining aim…And while among barbarians, as we have seen, hardly any distinction could be made between rights and duties, civilization makes the difference and antithesis between these two plain even to the dullest mind by assigning to one class pretty nearly all the rights and to the other class pretty nearly all the duties. (68).
Although Engles wrote between 1884 and 1902 about economic surplus leading to inequality between women and men in the family and oppression of other groups, Jane Collier in Marriage and Inequality in Classless Societies found many years later in her examination of four Native American societies, that this analysis held true. Both inequality between the sexes and exploitation of lower ranking men by higher ranking men appeared in all four First Nations societies with issues of surplus (2-14). Even more pertinent to this treatise, Sidanious and Pratto spent almost 300 pages of social dominance analysis to arrive at essentially the same conclusions as Engel and Collier: inequality between the sexes is directly linked to oppression generally. When directed towards women, it appears to be primarily for the purpose of subordination and control. On the other hand when directed towards subordinate males, it is "distinctly aggressive and debilitative" (298), which would explain extreme violence by higher status men against homeless men in North America generally, horrific accounts of mutilation and torture of males under slavery in the United States and South Africa, and cold-blooded sterilization, castration and decimation of lower caste men in India.
Engels' solution to the problem was again based on a moral premise: the current social order is "not as it ought to be. What is good for the ruling class should be good for the whole of the society with which the ruling class identifies itself" (Social Theory 69). The communist solution was intended to address these inequities in society. The desire for justice was strengthened because increased capacity to apply critical analysis to the social order clearly revealed what Bahá'u'lláh has characterized as the "lamentably defective" social order in which we live. Most interesting of all, and especially pertinent to this discussion, is Engel's final insights about the rise of patriarchy to oppression:
The more civilization advances, the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence; in short, to introduce the conventional hypocrisy…that culminates in the declaration: The exploiting class exploits the oppressed class solely and exclusively in the interest of the exploited class itself; and if the latter fails to appreciate this, and even becomes rebellious, it thereby shows the basest ingratitude to its benefactors, the exploiters (69).
In one brilliant conceptual analysis, Engels shows the triple victimization of oppression: first the oppression itself, second the cloaking of oppression in the guise of benevolence, third the extortion of gratitude as a final kick to the fallen. Extreme current examples can be found the stories of refugees from Sierra Leone who recounted to the author how rebels would force their traumatized victims to thank them for cutting off the arms and legs of their children or for chopping their spouses to pieces (personal communication with Sierra Leone refugee, Memunatu Kamara 2006).
This dynamic in its covert and subtle forms has been described in Peter Li's work Social Inclusion of Visible Minorities and Newcomers: The Articulation of "Race" and "Racial Difference" in Canadian Society. Li explains the "new racism" of Canadian surveys and government statements that cleverly cloak state-justified oppression of immigrants, Aboriginals and visible minorities in the language of benevolence, reminding all of the good fortune "those" people have to even be allowed to live in "the best country (6,10,14)." The underlying attitudes hidden in these documents reinforce Canadian self-concept as charitable and increase national pride of perceived generosity towards the other. Those who are not white, affluent or of British or French ancestry, further explain Schick and Denis, are reminded of their otherness, "visitor" status and position of inferiority within which forced gratitude is the only acceptable articulation of sentiment (Troubling National Discourses in Anti-Racist Curricular Planning 299).
In the field of education, this dynamic of oppression is seen in the attitudes of mainstream teachers towards their visible and religious minority, immigrant and Aboriginal students. For example, marginalized children are reprimanded for not coming to teachers for extra help when they need it, but when students do ask for help, they are reminded of their incapacity to succeed and treated in a patronizing, condescending manner by those very teachers who insisted the students come to them. The students and parents who are courageous enough to attempt to articulate this issue to their teachers are considered ungrateful (Madsen & Mabokela, 2005, Culturally Relevant Schools; Marx, 2004, Exploring and Challenging Whiteness; Lippin, 2004, Making Whiteness Visible; Nasir & Saxe, 2003, Ethnic and Academic Identities).
Activist Chris Dixon, acknowledges this dynamic in his relationship to activists of color and writes about how to begin addressing it:
As white activists, we need to shut up and listen to people of color, especially when they offer criticism. We have to override initial defensive impulses to keep our mouths tightly shut, except perhaps to ask clarifying questions. No matter how well-intentioned and conscientious we are, notice how much space we (specifically white men) occupy with our daily, self-important jabber. Notice how we assume that we're entitled to it. When people of color intervene in that space to offer something, particularly something about how we can be better activists and better people, that is a very special gift. Indeed, we need to recognize such moments for what they are; precious opportunities for us to become more effective anti-racists. Remember to graciously listen and apply lessons learned (2000: http://users.resist.ca/~chrisd/acting/students.htm).
Basing her analysis on the work of Charles Taylor, social theorist Nancy Fraser (1998, 2002) wrote that the underlying issues of oppression have to do with a human condition expressed within the framework of recognition and redistribution. Basically, all human beings want to be recognized for who they are in their individual, cultural, racial or any other dimension of their being, as unique. On the other hand, humans also feel a deep need to belong. These two needs appear to be conflicting since belonging requires putting limits on uniqueness and uniqueness implies outside-ness from the group (Fraser, 1998: 19-49). Fraser describes how both needs have to be treated simultaneously if we wish to overcome injustice – and both belonging and uniqueness should be considered within the context of the society in which we live. To be recognized fully in our difference leads ultimately to recognition of the commonalities between differences without subsuming difference under a cloak of sameness. On the other hand to have goods and services redistributed equitably indicates a level of recognition of equal worth. Both recognition and redistribution work together under the principle of parity of participation – each is necessary for the other to realize itself fully, yet neither is subsumed in the other (Fraser, 2002: 21-42).
Perry (The Last War 2005), has written extensively on the origins of slavery and racism in the United States from the perspective that the most detrimental act in the perpetration of slavery was the prohibition of love between blacks and whites. According to Perry, laws prohibiting marriage between the races made racism deeper and more destructive in the United States than anywhere else slavery has been practiced in the world.
Let us go to the heart of the matter. African Americans, like all other human beings, wish to be loved. They suffer because they are hated by many European Americans. Racism is the systematic expression by some European Americans of distain, disrespect or fundamental hatred towards African Americans. It may be subtle or blatant, latent or manifest. But in whatever form, it is felt everywhere by African Americans. The fact that many European Americans do not have prejudice and do not hate people of other ethnic groups unfortunately does not alter the spiritually deadly atmosphere in which African Americans must survive (252).
We use many words to describe the problem: racism, discrimination, intolerance, prejudice, segregation, bias and so on. But what we really mean by these terms is hatred. Why do we not call this attitude hatred when we confront it? It is in part because as soon as we refer to hatred, we also by implication refer to love…The essence of the Jim Crow and slave laws was the prohibition of love between European and African Americans. Once blacks and white were permitted to socialize together, become open friends and marry, the proof was finally shown to the masses that indeed black people are loveable (253).
Critical social theory can be helpful in revealing to us our own hidden internalized oppression – whether from the position of entitlement and superiority, or from those who live daily in a world that subtly or overtly beats with hatred towards them, or any number of degrees between the two. The ways in which the oppression of racism, sexism, poverty and classism limit all human potential are candidly examined in the writing of Asian-American male teacher, A.Y. Siu (Are we all oppressed? http://www.phsycocats.net/essays/arewealloppressed) as he reflects on his teaching experiences:
I've found both white and non-white students to be resistant to teachings about racial inequities. For some reason, Asian students in particular seem to raise the strongest objections to any implications that whites might have some kind of special status that other races do not. In a similar fashion, when I tried to bring up the idea of male privilege as a sociological (rather than individual) phenomenon, the girls in my class were the first to talk about how they themselves had certain "benefits" that boys did not…
Many people who actually are oppressed refuse to identify themselves as oppressed people because they do not want to be viewed as ungrateful, disruptive, rebellious, or radical. Unfortunately, while many feminists are able to embrace the term survivor instead of victim as an identifier for a woman who has been raped, there is no empowering way yet to label one who is institutionally oppressed….
Benefits come with a cost…a wife can safely quit her job and lack ambition. However, if you examine this "double standard" closely, you'll see it stems from the historically male oppression of females in America. What I could call a "freedom" of my wife to lack ambition is actually, in some ways, the oppression of my wife by society, as the male-dominated society is only too happy to see another woman exercise her "right to choose" by staying at home and not threatening males' lead in the workplace…In some ways, it's like the mythic prince or princess who has no privacy, is not able to leave the castle or palace, and has no choice in whom to marry, but who also lives a life of luxury, pampering, and fame. It is the princess' or prince's very "oppression" that is making this street beggar also oppressed. At the same time, though, the princess' or prince's "privilege" is not without cost (3-4).
In reading both foundational writings of critical social theorists like Engels and the writing of those following a critical social theory trajectory, such as the except from the above essay, it becomes possible to name deep structures of oppression and move them from the tacit to the explicit. It can become a vicious circle, however, if in revealing to the common man those very structures in which he is complicit to maintaining his own oppression, there is no hope for change or any sense that change can be accomplished through non-violent means. This brings our discussion full circle to the author with whom we started this discussion. Leonardo (15), explains that capacity to use critical social theory for social understanding is not enough to change social patterning. Towards a balancing of criticism with positive action, Leonardo recommends the practice of transformative knowledge which he explains as envisioning the kind of world one wishes to live in. In this process two concepts are foundational. Firstly, criticism of oppression is seen, not as destructive and pessimistic, but rather as a means to become informed of the reality of a situation in order to better propose solutions. He writes:
In this sense, criticism is more a search for emancipatory forms of knowledge and less a contrived condition to honor the critic. Criticism is positioned here as a central process in promoting a quality education even in the face of an uneven and unjust world (14).
Secondly, he recommends what he terms "radical dreaming" as a capacity building mechanism whereby envisioning a better future and learning to take tangible steps towards the achievement of such a future become integral to living.
For in the end, dreaming represents the cornerstone of utopia, without which a society lacks direction and a future (15).
An example of the power of this kind of visionary thinking, he cites the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. whose image of the kingdom of God on earth inspired practical action towards the elimination of racist laws and practices. Leonardo believes that through the process of radical dreaming, humanity will work progressively towards a better future, which can never be fully realized, and which will always be a question of better and worse ways of living, but towards which we can make measurable progress. At this point we return to what the Bahá'í Writings have to offer in the realm of envisioning a just future and the elimination of oppression.
In the Bahá'í Writings, there is a significant amount of text devoted to working to overcome specific kinds of oppression as a means towards the creation of the kingdom of God on earth. Many Bahá'í Writings are dedicated to the subjects of: poverty and wealth, the elimination of war and the establishment of peace, overcoming racism and other forms of discrimination, and overcoming misogyny. Due to time and space constraints in this manuscript however, these themes will not be treated in the depth which careful study obliges. To conclude this section we will instead return to the importance of individual and collective effort in establishing a just society as described by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá:
We should continually be establishing new bases for human happiness and creating and promoting new instrumentalities toward this end (Secret of Divine Civilization 654).
We must strive with the energies of the heart, soul and mind to develop and manifest the perfections and virtues latent within the realities of the phenomenal world (Bahá'í World Faith 267).
…when perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty (Paris Talks 155).
Most academic pieces dedicated to illustrating principles do not demonstrate the complexities of moving from principle to real life. Because the authors of this paper are themselves struggling with applying spiritual principle to their own lives and communities, we did not want to take the easy way out and end on quote rather than a query. The Bahá'í community is not immune to oppression simply because Bahá'ís believe in the significance of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings for solving current world issues. To illustrate how lack of awareness of actual application in the Bahá'í community itself causes further oppression rather than alleviating it, we have chosen to conclude this paper with two fictionalized case studies we have witnessed versions of in several Canadian Bahá'í communities. In concluding thus, it is with the hope that all readers will consider more intimately how to bring the ideal closer to the real.
Case study #1:
Canadian Bahá'í community "X" is comprised of two dominant ethnic groups: White middle class Canadians of Western-European descent and middle and upper class Persian immigrants. A Black family moves to the community, and suffers discrimination in the form of racial slurs and social exclusion from the Bahá'ís. Comments and behaviors demonstrating racist attitudes towards the Black family come from both dominant groups. The Black family suffers in silence hoping that over time the Bahá'í principle of abolition of prejudice will prevail. A second Black family moves to the community and makes it clear to the Local Spiritual Assembly that the Bahá'í community is demonstrating racism towards them and this is a violation of Bahá'í principle. Within the institution, individual Persian Bahá'ís say that it is impossible for them to be racist because they are Bahá'ís and Bahá'ís love everyone. The White Bahá'ís are shocked that racism could be applied to a Bahá'í community and find ways to disprove or dismiss the hurtful comments and actions of community members, saying that the new Black family had imagined the incidents and that the community had "no problems" with the first Black family. The second Black family refers to racist incidents that the first Black family had to endure within the Bahá'í community. When questioned by the LSA, the first Black family, fearful that they will be further targeted, does not support the assertions of the newcomer family, causing individuals from both dominant community groups to feel further justified in their denial of the problem. The second Black family leaves the Faith saying that Bahá'ís are racist hypocrites.
Social Theory analysis:
In this community, Bahá'ís see themselves as being outside the oppressive structures that exist in the greater society. Persians feel that mere membership in the Bahá'í faith makes them immune to prejudice. They can then plead innocence in the face of their own racist attitudes without any sense of cognitive dissonance. White Bahá'ís see that they belong to a greater society and are not themselves necessarily immune to harmful attitudes, however they see the Bahá'í community as a safe haven from prejudice. Failure to address the deficiencies in the Bahá'í community allow them to turn a blind eye to their own and others' harmful actions. Both cultural groups have confused the ideal of a prejudice free community with the reality of what kind of personal and social work it takes to reach that ideal.
Because there have been both Persian and white Canadian groups in large numbers within many Bahá'í communities, Bahá'ís have not had minority groups to either confront them about their attitudes or to thrive in large enough numbers to affect the dominant Bahá'í community culture. Dominant groups tend to see themselves as the norm, and view minority groups as needing to conform to the dominant norm. To refer back to the original author narratives at the beginning of the paper, Tim's experience with the company golf tournament illustrates the attitude of the dominant group (White males in the oil industry) as having no need or desire to associate with the minority group (Aboriginal males in the oil industry) other than on dominant group terms. In the above Bahá'í case study the same attitude can be seen: both dominant group(s) define(s) the context in which they will see or not see racism and can thus dismiss the concerns of the minority families as unfounded. In this way the dominant groups remove themselves from having to understand, name and deal with the prejudice in their ranks because they hold the power.
In minority-dominant relationships, it is frequently dangerous for minority individuals or groups to speak to the dominant group about their oppression. Minorities know from experience that speaking to the wrong person or institution can bring further suffering, since the oppressors will seek to deny their oppression by insisting that what they are doing is "in the best interests of" or "for the good of" the minority group. This is why the first Black family was afraid to support the efforts of the new Black family to name the injustice.
From the perspective of the Writings what is missing from the Case Study 1 context is the principle that oppressed groups need to be listened to as the "experts" on oppression. Rather than dismissing their pain, institutions of the Faith in that community should be encouraging the marginalized group to clearly describe it. Bahá'u'lláh states that "Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues" – without a sincere desire to seek the truth, dominant groups cannot rectify inequity. The second element that is missing from the virtues equation we identified is love. When power enters into the relationship, love cannot survive. As soon as love is the foundation of the relationship, power issues disappear. The dominant groups in Case Study 1 are so concerned with saving their own reputations as racist-free Bahá'ís that they are acting out of a power mode rather than a love mode. This maintains the power of the status quo and avoids the possibility of change.
Finally, the inequity of racism in community "X" cannot be rectified without justice. Once racism has been named and the pain felt, and once desire to love and include the marginalized has taken root in the hearts of individual Bahá'ís, the next step is justice. Perpetrators of racist comments need to be stopped and reprimanded, Writings about the abolition of prejudiced should be studied by the entire community and stories of success in overcoming prejudice from the history of the Faith considered and applied. Members of both Persian and White Canadian groups need to champion racial equity, work to increase their circles of friends to include members of diverse races, and designated members of the LSA should check with the Black Bahá'ís discreetly and regularly to see if things in the Bahá'í community have improved for them. Once these steps have been taken the community will move towards unity. A frequent Bahá'í default mechanism is to declare unity before truth, love and justice have been achieved. The proof that unity is real is the evidence of justice and the evidence of justice, love.
A final measure of success in the elimination of prejudice from Bahá'í communities will be the active and full participation of minority group members in the activities of the community. When people of all races feel free to be themselves, bring friends and relatives from their racial and ethnic backgrounds into the Faith, and are seen to contribute fully and joyfully in the affairs of the Faith, the community will become a model of racial unity. Racial unity doesn't just happen because people believe in Bahá'u'lláh. Both social analysis and application of Bahá'í principle to the actual community have to take place if we are to see real social change. And real social change lifts the yoke of oppression from oppressed and oppressor alike.
Case Study #2:
A woman from one of the ethnic groups present in Bahá'í community "Y" approaches individual LSA members saying her husband has been abusing her and she is staying in a safe place trying to decide what to do. The LSA sends a couple of representatives to do some "fact finding". Because the wife is staying in a safe house for abused women, the representatives meet with each spouse at separate places and times. Both LSA members are from the same ethnic group as the couple in question and are chosen because of language and cultural considerations. In both meetings, the LSA representatives, rather than find facts, counsel the husband and the wife to get together and discuss their differences. In their report to the LSA they state that the wife's allegations are unfounded and that according to the husband she has a history of exaggeration and may have mental problems. Meanwhile the wife and husband independently contact relatives and other community members from their ethnic group to talk about their problems. Self appointed delegations of community members approach the wife and tell her she is promoting disunity and should go back to the husband. The delegation going to the husband tells him to be kind to his wife. After this pressure has continued for a couple of weeks, the wife goes back to the husband and tells the LSA that she "invented" the whole story. They say they are now very much in love and everything has been resolved. LSA members who are from the same ethnic group breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice that family unity has been re-established. Two months later, the abuse resumes but the wife is too embarrassed to go back to the LSA and does not think she will be taken seriously since she withdrew the previous allegations earlier on. She is also afraid to leave her husband since her English language skills are low and she has not looked for work in Canada since the birth of her two children. This pattern of denial of domestic abuse repeats itself in several cases that are brought to the attention of the LSA.
Social Theory analysis:
From a psychological standpoint, the pattern in the above case study is typical of domestic abuse cases in general. The husband apologizes or tries to make amends for the abuse and the couple experience a "honeymoon" phase of new love when the wife forgives him. Weeks, months or years later the pattern repeats itself with ongoing abuse, apologies, forgiveness and re-starts of the relationship. Over time the abuse becomes more regular and more severe sometimes leading to death of the abused partner.
What is cultural in the above problem is that individuals in the ethnic community feel they have a duty to promote the status quo with regard to gender relations; gender being a foundational building block of culture. Other women in the community indirectly threaten the abused woman with social exclusion if she does not conform to the gender norm. The norm frequently insinuates that the man's actions must have been provoked by the wife and that the woman is ultimately to blame for the abuse. It is also typical of many ethnic groups to counsel the husband to be kind to his wife without ever addressing the problem of his violent behavior. Interestingly, every person to whom I have shown this case study, thinks it is about their particular ethnic group. The denial pattern is also typical of extended families in almost any culture, who tend to deny the abuse and side with the abuser than to acknowledge that one of their family members has been victimized. From a critical theory standpoint, the issue is perpetration of sexism both within family groups and in cultural communities. In the sexist paradigm, the man has the freedom and the woman the responsibility; the man can always find a woman to deflect his behavior onto, thus avoiding facing his own prejudice against women. The power issue again applies, since the dominant group (male) sets the standards and decides what minority group (female) concerns will be considered and under what circumstances.
In case study 2, the husband attempts to deflect attention away from his abusive behavior by saying his wife "tends to exaggerate" and "may have mental illness problems", which conveniently absolves him of any responsibility and undermines the possibility of abuse. Both the LSA fact finding representative and the self-appointed community delegations (all male) find it convenient to accept the husband's interpretation of the mental state of his wife because that explanation maintains the dominant male status. The allegations of mental illness and tendency towards exaggeration reinforce stereotypes of women as illogical and overly emotional.
From the Bahá'í perspective, we see again the evidence of oppression in the absence of justice in this scenario. It is not just for a man to dominate, control and abuse his wife and this has been clearly stated in the Writings about marriage and family life. There is no unity without justice, no justice without love. A man who abuses his wife is showing neither love nor justice and without those two foundational pillars, there can be no unity. However the problem is not just between the couple; the implication of the Local Spiritual Assembly and community members as well as the consideration of ethnic gender patterns render the situation more complex.
It may help to see that within this web of difficulties there are individual, community and institutional responsibilities that, if followed may help heal the situation or at the very least protect the wife from further abuse. Individuals have the responsibility to love and support the woman and to offer whatever they can as individual friends to make sure she knows she has a place to turn to and people who care about her. Individuals also need to discipline themselves not to get mixed up in the intimate affairs of the couple and to refrain from giving advice that, whether or not they are aware of it, is likely to be reinforcing cultural norms rather than Bahá'í standards.
The community has the responsibility to exemplify respectful communication and the Bahá'í marriage standards of love, equality and unity. They need to point out to couples that if they are having marriage difficulties they should seek assistance from the Local Spiritual Assembly and remind them that the Bahá'í Writings are full of help to create strong marriages and Bahá'ís need to avail themselves of those Writings. Community members must refrain from gossiping and backbiting about the couple and should not listen to backbiting from one spouse about the other either. The importance of steering away from backbiting is a clear directive in the Writings and would solve many community problems if sincere efforts were made to obey it.
The Local Spiritual Assembly has the responsibility to firstly collect the facts in ways that are not biased against women and will not allow the husband to justify abusing his wife by deflecting attention away from his own behavior. According to guidance from the Universal House of Justice, the LSA has a clear responsibility to protect the wife, council the husband and direct them to go for professional marriage counseling. If the couple is receptive, the LSA needs to appoint individuals to help the couple study the Writings on equality, marriage and family life and have them discuss the implications of the Writings to their marriage. If the couple decides to remain together, designated LSA members could check in separately on the wife and husband periodically to see if they need support in changing past dysfunctional patterns. But if the wife does not want to return to the marriage, every effort to provide her with the necessary individual and community support needs to be put in place so that she does not feel obligated to return to an abusive situation because she has no other options.
On a larger scale, the LSA is also responsible for the education of the community in the Bahá'í principle of equality of the sexes and the institution of marriage as a fortress for well-being. Periodic events, discussions and workshops that allow Bahá'ís to study the Writings about equality of the sexes and the sanctity of marriage are critical to raising the standards in the community. One aspect of this community education can explore ways communication between couples can be characterized by respect and love rather than criticism and domination. It can also help community members to examine their own cultural patterns in the light of the Writings and consider how they can make changes to bring themselves closer to the Bahá'í standards, with the assumption that as both individuals and within cultures we all need to learn to be better Bahá'ís.
Finally, the question of mastering English and gaining job skills needs to be addressed by the LSA either directly or in ways that access existing external resources that can provide necessary services. Segments of the Bahá'í immigrant population cannot become marginalized and hopeless because they do not have social interaction, access to English language proficiency resources and job skill capacity building.
In this paper we have tried to show the trajectory of examining the Bahá'í Writings with regard to creating a just society and overcoming oppression. The first oppression was described by Bahá'u'lláh as seeking for the truth and being unable to find it. From there we examined a variety of important concepts in the Bahá'í teachings about what oppression is and why it is prevalent in society, how individuals, communities, institutions and governments must work to eliminate oppression and how the application of the Bahá'í teachings results in justice even as their absence results in oppression. The virtues sequence from Bahá'u'lláh's Writings was described as: love to justice to unity to peace to abundance, with each as both a precursor and a benchmark of the virtue prior to and following it in the sequence. We turned to social theory to help show how negative societal and cultural patterns can undermine the best intentions to live as principled Bahá'ís and how social theory can help name the "real" in order to work more realistically towards the "ideal". Finally we explored two community case studies that illustrate how Bahá'í communities could benefit from understanding problems of oppression through the double lens of social theory and by applying the Bahá'í teachings more systematically both to the case in question and to the education of the community.
We chose these painful case studies to end our discussion for a reason. Difficult as it may be for Bahá'ís to face our own community failings in the light of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings, we are not likely to progress if we cannot adequately state the social reality of a situation from the perspective of what needs to happen for the uplifting and inclusion of those who are oppressed. If we truly desire to create a society that is free from oppression, we must be willing to take real steps towards the elimination of oppressive patterns and a re-patterning for just ones. Bahá'u'lláh has provided us with the metaphor of the old world order crumbling and the new one rolling out in its stead. Descriptions of the dual forces of destruction and construction in the unfolding of this world order are outlined in successive Guidance from the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre, and although it is always presented in an encouraging manner, we are nonetheless continuously reminded that there are things in our own behavior that must change.
A most poignant example of this is the 2010 Ridvan Message wherein considerable attention is paid to the problem of paternalism and the vigilance required for us to remove paternalism from all our interpersonal relationships while focusing on the development of capacity. It is not a question of "airing dirty laundry" that should be kept out of sight and mind. Nor is it a question of "negativity" or "criticizing". Rather we are being called to the much more mature task of looking honestly at a difficult situation and then strategically striving to rectify it by aiming systematically towards Bahá'í principles until we see observable progress. We must hold the reality and the ideal in our hearts and minds at the same time, in constant tension, if we wish to make real progress towards the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
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