Steel barriers divide protestors from delegates at the meetings of
international financial institutions, a physical expression of the congealed
misunderstandings that impede humanity's progress towards well-being. For the
decision-makers meeting inside the barriers, ending global inequality requires
greater efforts to incorporate everyone into a world economic system which
clearly generates wealth and well-being. They believe the world's poor people
rely on them to set in place policies which will create prosperity. The
protestors gathered on the other side of the riot police are convinced that
selfish business owners shape the world economy for their own profit, and that
is why so many people suffer. They believe that the global economic system
itself creates poverty, and the world's poor people need protestors like
themselves to make this injustice obvious. Unbearable tragedies of lost
opportunity are the consequence of this polarized thinking. Insight and
innovation might evolve if people with very different perspectives tried to
learn from each other. The resources of international institutions might be
harnessed to the collective aspirations for justice of ordinary citizens, if
people recognized a common purpose. The actions of people in resource-poor
communities might be useful models, if others stopped acting on their behalf
and paid attention.
This essay argues that our actions to create global prosperity cannot be
effective because our understanding of global issues is fundamentally flawed.
It examines three dimensions of global order using images in the Writings of
the Bahá'í Faith that compare the world to a human body. The
first section uses the image of the world as a sick, disordered body to
understand the nature of global inequality: what we do about it depends on what
kind of a problem it is. The second section uses the image of the material
civilization of the North as a beautiful but lifeless body to explore the
qualities of economic organization that create well-being. We cannot create
prosperity in structures that deaden rather than enliven. The third section
uses the image of the political world as a growing body to explore the means
through which people and institutions change. We cannot influence organic
structures if we ignore the dynamics of their growth.
Examining these shortcomings in our understanding of ourselves and of the
world can dissolve the massive walls of mistrust and miscommunication between
international decision-makers and those who believe those decisions are
misguided. The world we live in is "entangled in the mesh of it accumulated
falsities", "spiritually destitute, morally bankrupt, politically disrupted,
socially convulsed, economically paralyzed, writhing, bleeding and breaking
All of us participate in holding the
world in these patterns, by the ideas we accept without thinking and the habits
of our lives. People who move themselves out of prejudiced habits of thought
and unfair habits of action propel the world towards global justice. The
Universal House of Justice called upon humanity to make this effort when it
wrote on May 24, 2001,
Humanity's crying need will not be met
by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of
the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a
fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of
Bahá'u'lláh's teaching that the time has come when each human
being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the
entire human family."
Recognizing this makes us powerful: we can change our thoughts and we can
change our actions.
The Sick, Disordered Body: The Dilemma of Structural Inequality
Our capacity to overcome global inequality is impeded by the perception that
areas of extreme and increasing poverty are the problem. Actually, both areas
of extreme wealth and areas of extreme poverty are the problem. The divisions
and inequalities which characterize our world are part of its structure. It is
divided and unequal because it evolved in a way that empowered some parts of
the planet at the expense of other parts of the planet. The weakness and lack
of resources in some regions is not an unfortunate oversight which can be fixed
by a transfer of tools, or funds, or knowledge that will cause them to catch up
with the regions that have the most resources. The resource-rich regions are
what they are because the resource-poor regions are what they are. They have
made each other. The connections are profound and structural. The parts of the
world are a system, together.
Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá have drawn our attention to
this quality of the world by comparing it to the human body.
Regard the world as the human
body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted,
through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did
it gain ease, nay, its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the
treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires,
and have erred grievously.
And he says this again:
Regard ye the world as a man's body,
which is afflicted with divers ailments, and the recovery of which dependeth
upon the harmonizing of all of its component elements.
'Abdu'l-Bahá elaborates in the Huquq'u'llah compilation:
As preordained by the Fountainhead of Creation, the temple of
the world hath been fashioned after the image and likeness of the human
body...By this is meant that even as the human body in this world which is
outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely
integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is
like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked
If we regard the world as a human body, we can see how problems of our world
are about the whole structure, the whole system, not just part of it. If one
part of a body shows a symptom of illness, the whole body is ill. A person does
not have measles only where the spots are. A person does not have the flu only
in the joints that hurt. The whole body has the illness. So when the world is
sick, the whole world has the sickness. If part of the world is not
prospering, then all the parts of the world have a problem.
A human body that begins to concentrate all its growth in one area will become
deformed. If most of the nutrients and oxygen are flowing to a small part of
the body, and the rest of the body gets less nutrients and oxygen as a result,
which part of the body will be healthy? The part with too many resources will
be sick: swollen, misshapen, cancerous. The parts of the body that are
deprived of resources are also sick: they will be stunted and weak. If this
condition continues for a long time, none of the parts will work properly. The
structure of the body will change. Some muscles and bones will atrophy, others
will become exaggerated and the structure will become distorted.
This is the condition of the body of the world we inhabit. In his recent
statement to the Peoples of the World for the Millennium, Kofi Annan, the
Secretary General of the United Nations, presented the statistics: 15% of the
world's population are well-off on a world scale, 7% are in between, and 78%
are poor. Calculated another way, 20 percent of the people have 86% of the
wealth, which means 80 percent of the people have 14% of the wealth.
These divisions are so much a part of the
reality of the world we live in that they shape our habits of thought. When we
say North and South, developed and developing, modern and traditional, city and
village, we are describing that distinction between the 20 % with 86 % of the
wealth and the 80% with 14% of the wealth. It seems natural. These dichotomies
seem to describe reality. But we know that to divide the world in this way is
false: the world is not the north world and the south world, or the developed
world and the developing world, it is just one world. It is a closely
integrated, coherent entity.
In a closely integrated, coherent entity, the parts fit together. We cannot
imagine that the small part of humanity having most of the resources is somehow
different from the vast majority of the world that does not have access to
resources. Coherence means vital, active, continuous connections. The extreme
wealth that characterizes some of the world and the extreme poverty that
characterizes the rest of it have evolved together. 'Abdu'l-Bahá
frequently pointed out in his talks that excessive poverty cannot exist without
The overabundance of wealth
and hyperactive economy in some regions and the lack of material resources and
economic stagnation in other regions are aspects of one process of
technological innovation, production and exchange which has involved all the
parts of the planet over the past five hundred years.
There are two utterly essential things for us to realize about this. First, it
has not always been this way. The centers of trade, finance, and power in the
world now were second-rate backwater towns a few hundred years ago. Our current
dilemmas are modern, they have not characterized all of human history. Second,
we human beings have created this disorder by not following the best models
that were available to us. A moment came, a little more than five hundred years
ago, when part of humanity confronted new knowledge and new technological
capacity without the benefit of the most recent divine revelation. At the time
when innovations in sailboat technology got the Spanish and the Portuguese to
Latin America, there was a relatively just, prosperous, dynamic system of
international exchange, the "peace of Islam" which extended from South Asia,
through East and West Africa, to southern Spain. It used spiritual principle
and spiritual practice to unite people, to promote education, and facilitate
trade. If the Europeans who encountered the people of Brazil and Peru had been
practicing Moslems, the world we live in now would be quite different. It might
not have the disorder of devastating inequalities and imbalances it now
confronts. But that did not happen. From the time of Columbus, we have been
making decisions that created global patterns of production and exchange
without the benefit of the most recent Messengers of God -- either Mohammed or
For the past five hundred years, since the Revelation of Mohammed was
beginning to lose its force, every part of the world has been involved in
world-encompassing patterns of economic growth, but all the parts have not
benefitted equally. The body of humanity grew from the wealth of Latin
American gold and silver, which was shipped to Europe and to Asia from the 16th
century to the 19th, but patterns of government and social organization in the
Andean region were so distorted by the process that they ceased to function.
The body of humanity grew from the wealth produced by the plantation labor
complex which depended on enslaved African workers from the 17th to the 19th
centuries, but Africa lost its people and its social and political institutions
were utterly destroyed. The body of humanity grew from the wealth produced by
industrialization in Europe which began in the 19th century and still
continues, but the colonies and ex-colonies that provided raw materials and
consumed finished goods paid the costs without experiencing the benefits. Each
of these processes connected parts of the world in unjust patterns of
production and exchange. The consequences have been an extreme concentration of
wealth and the loss of institutions and practices which maintained social order
in many regions.
Bahá'u'lláh describes these conditions when He states that we
should regard the world as a human body which at its creation had been whole
and perfect, which has been afflicted with grave disorders and maladies.
Patterns of economic growth which benefitted some at the expense of others are
a fundamental dimension of those afflictions. The system and the structures are
malformed. The healing of a systemic illness requires an intervention in the
whole system, and this is what Bahá'u'lláh said, that the world
is a sick body "the recovery of which dependeth upon the harmonizing of all of
its component elements."
In his vision of Bahá'u'lláh's World Order, Shoghi Effendi
describes the harmonization of those elements. He says, "The economic resources
of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and
fully utilized, its markets will be coordinated and developed, and the
distribution of its products will be equitably regulated," and also
"Destitution on the one hand, and gross accumulation of ownership on the other,
The Universal House of
Justice refers to the necessity for this kind of intervention when it
criticizes existing ideologies for their tendency to "callously abandon
starving millions to the operations of a market system that all too clearly is
aggravating the plight of the majority of mankind, while enabling small
sections to live in a condition of affluence scarcely dreamed of by our
If we look at the whole body, the whole system, and see that it is gravely
disordered, then it is clear that we have to change all of the parts of the
system to make it better. Efforts to send resources from the hyperactive,
resource-rich part to the atrophied, resource-poor part will inevitably fail --
the disordered system will send those resources right back to the resource-rich
part, because that is how the body has developed. Development assistance which
is sincerely intended to benefit the least strong parts of the world can
actually end up benefiting the parts with the most resources. Material
resources spent on a development project are often spent largely in the donor
country on salaries of experts and consultants and on equipment supplied as
part of the project, which the recipient is obliged to acquire. International
development professionals may not intend to be self-serving, but structures
which have evolved to the benefit of the wealthiest parts of the world shape
We can see the inadequacy of solutions which do not acknowledge that the
world's problems are systemic, and not the problems of the South, by
considering higher education. A university professor who has a PhD makes about
$250 a month with housing in a prestigious university in one African country.
Since she will make at least ten times as much if she emigrates to the United
States or Europe she, like many African academics, may choose to work in those
places. To respond to the brain drain of well-qualified nationals out of
universities such as this, assistance programs place North American professors
in positions at these universities for one or two year periods. Those visitors
get paid the equivalent of their North American salaries, travel allowances,
and education allowances for their children, and they get nicer housing: their
total remuneration is probably thirty times that of their African co-workers.
Individuals cannot fix this problem, projects cannot fix it, the structures
have to change.
The flow of money from poor countries to wealthy countries is another
illustration of the grave disorder of the body of the world. More money flows
from poor countries to rich countries in debt service than flows from rich
countries to poor countries in assistance. In the 1980s, poor countries sent
rich countries $418 billion more than they received in aid, the equivalent of
six Marshall plans, paid for by the poor, financing the rich.
Sub-saharan Africa's debt increased by 113 percent
during this period, the least developed countries debt increased by 110
percent. This did not happen because evil people wanted to hurt the poorest
people. The immediate reasons are complicated and include a combination of
rising interest rates, the 1970s oil shock, and falling commodity prices, but
the underlying cause is that the parts of the world are a closely integrated,
coherent entity. The form of the connections have been developed gradually over
a long time. They grew in a way that was designed for the benefit of some parts
at the expense of other parts, and that is how they still work.
Failure to understand the interdependence of the parts of the world allows us
to imagine that the manifestation of disorder in poor regions needs a remedy,
while the manifestation of disorder in wealthy regions is a model for everyone
else. A focus on the presence or absence of material wealth distracts attention
from a more fundamental injustice: the presence or absence of the ability of
all nations to participate as equals in the creation of the structures of
international exchange. The resolutions of this dilemma have to happen on many
levels. Markets will have to be coordinated and developed, and the distribution
of resources and products will have to be equitably regulated.
The cultural forces that legitimize habits of thought
which divide the world into the naturally rich and naturally poor will have to
be transformed. Since fair and balanced patterns of global interaction do not
yet exist, people who make efforts to create just forms of exchange in their
communities and regions will serve as models for others
In the places where the disorder of humanity is manifested as poverty, people
move out of unjust global patterns through developing confidence in their
capacity. In seeking ways to enhance prosperity in the absence of adequate
material resources, people can focus on the resources of understanding, unity
and trust among neighbors and community members. People who live in the
wealthier parts of the world have to recognize how their patterns of life
contribute to the problem of global inequality and expand their sense of
responsibility . It is relatively easy to ask oneself to make a financial
contribution to suffering people far away; it is much more difficult be aware
of suffering in another part of the world and think, how am I implicated? Since
my life and this other life full of suffering are connected, how can I change
my life to make that one better? People who live in the wealthy parts of the
world can change destructive habits of over-consumption. They can participate
in consumer organizations that promote the purchase of commodities such as
coffee, tea, and chocolate for which the producers have gotten fair prices.
They can contribute to bringing balance to world exchange by supporting local
and regional production. Not allowing used clothing to be bundled and sold in
other nations, where it completely undermines indigenous textile industries, is
another example of paying attention to the consequences of our interactions.
The most profound solution to structures of inequality has personal,
community, and world-embracing aspects. When we obey
Bahá'u'lláh's law by paying Huquq'u'llah, the Right of God, we
are engaging the diseased body of the world in a way that is healing to every
part. It is healing to the part which has been deprived of resources when the
Universal House of Justice uses the funds of the Right of God in various parts
of the world. It is healing to the overconsuming parts because the act of
obeying the law gives us insight and develops spiritual qualities in us.
Huquq'u'llah is thus part of the divine remedy for the diseased body of
The Beautiful but Dead Body: the Dilemma of Lifeless Economy
We undermine our capacity to create well-being in the world when we imagine
that European and North American economic practices are a model the rest of the
world should follow. This is erroneous. The pattern of economic activity in the
North, in the developed parts of the world, is not what God wants for us. It is
not what God wants for anybody.
The fundamental inadequacy of market economics is apparent in Abdu'l Bahá's
analogy of European and North American material society as a beautiful but dead
body. During his travels 'Abdu'l-Bahá spoke frequently and eloquently
about material civilization and spiritual civilization. He admired the material
developments he saw, but he said "material civilization alone will not satisfy;
it cannot meet the conditions and requirements of the present age."
"Material civilization is likened to the
body, whereas divine civilization is the spirit in that body. A body not
manifesting the spirit is dead."
material civilization is like unto a beautiful body, and spiritual civilization
is like unto the spirit of life. If that wondrous spirit of life enters this
beautiful body, the body will become a channel for the distribution and
development of the perfections of humanity."
People who live in the cities and wealthy parts of the
world need to pay attention to this image. The possessions and activities that
concern these people are beautiful, but dead. Their civilization could be
alive, but it is not. If one group of people have a pattern of economic
behavior that is impressive but dead, and some other people have a pattern of
economic behavior that is not so impressive but alive, who should be sharing
'Abdu'l-Bahá also pointed to the inadequacy of European society as a
model for the world when he wrote in Secret of Divine Civilization
All the peoples of Europe, notwithstanding their vaunted
civilization, sink and drown in this terrifying sea of passion and desire, and
this is why all the phenomena of their culture come to nothing. Let no one
wonder at this statement or deplore it. The primary purpose, the basic
objective, in laying down powerful laws and setting up great principles and
institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness; and
human happiness consists only in drawing closer to the Threshold of Almighty
God, and in securing the peace and well-being of every individual member, high
and low alike, of the human race; and the supreme agencies for accomplishing
these two objectives are the excellent qualities with which humanity has been
Abdu'l Bahá's statement contains a fundamental critique of the principles of
European economics. According to Abdu'l Bahá, the goal of social institutions
is human happiness which can be obtained through drawing closer to God and
providing for the peace and well-being of every member of society. Virtues are
the means to obtain these goals. Yet the premise of European and North American
economic activity has been the promotion of self-interest. Over the past few
hundred years, we have created patterns of production and exchange which
promote the self-centered actions of solitary, individual economic actors. The
rationalization of neo-liberal economic practice is that when everyone acts in
their own self-interest, things will work out for the best for everyone. (In
actual fact, state power usually prioritizes the interests of some
participants over others in market economies, but everyone still believes that
good results come from all participants pursuing selfish goals. Not only are
the rules designed to validate selfish motivations, the engine of economic
prosperity is ever increasing levels of consumption. 'Abdu'l-Bahá
observed that European societies "sink and drown" in "a terrifying sea of
passion and desire." The long-term consequences of this system have been
destructive. Extreme concentrations of wealth and poverty have emerged. Bonds
that held together social units have broken down. The importance and power of
communities has been diminished and individuals have become disconnected from
Economic dynamism that has negative social consequences is not, according to
Abdu'l Bahá, a good thing. In the paragraph of Secret of Divine
following the one above, he says,
superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as "a confused
medley of dreams," and external lustre without inner perfection is "like a
vapor in the desert which the thirsty dreameth to be water." For results which
would win the good pleasure of God and secure the peace and well-being of man,
could never be fully achieved in a merely external civilization.
In order to think about economics clearly, it is useful to keep in mind that
production always has social as well as material dimensions. All economic
activity creates social relationships. Every time a person makes something, or
adds value to something, or buys or sells something, that action has material
and social consequences. People are connected with each other as well as with
the thing that is made. The social consequences of economic activity can be
positive or negative. When farmers grow food with the intention to create
well-being for the people who will consume it, that creates positive social
relationships. When a factory owner shares profits with the workers who
produce the goods, that creates positive social relationships. When a
middle-person trader buys goods with a concern of the needs of the producer for
a just price, that creates positive social relationships. The middle-person
trader who squeezes producers and deceives consumers creates negative social
relationships. The factory owner who takes all the profit and leaves the
workers with bare subsistence creates negative social relationships. It may
seem normal for us that economic activity would have negative social
consequences, but it is not.
We are entangled in the mesh of the accumulated falsity that markets are
neutral and self-interested actions create efficiency, that efficiency is a
social good, and that economic vitality is not possible any other way. This is
just not true. What people have, in "developed" nations, is an illusion.
'Abdu'l-Bahá says "Material civilization alone is not sufficient and
will not prove productive."
It may be
efficient, but it will not prove productive. What would be productive and have
substance is economic activity that intentionally enhances social connections
between people. 'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes this when he says "Love of God
is the true foundation of all economics."
This may be hard for us to comprehend, if we have been raised to think that
economic activity means efficient selfishness. Yet it is not so. Nor is the
alternative that complicated. We love God, therefore we love God's people.
Every economic activity we engage in, when we are producing things, adding
value to things, or exchanging things, creates opportunities to express love,
concern, and respect for other people. The more this happens, the more vital
the connections will be, and also, the more prosperous.
The opposite is also true. Economic activity which does not recognize the
interdependence of all participants, that expresses self-interest rather than
concern for others, is not only not productive, it is utterly, essentially
destructive. Over the long term, self-interested economic activity creates
differences that engender hatred and social disorder. If the essence of
economics is love, but we behave as though the essence of economics is
selfishness, people are hurt, the social order breaks down, and divisions
emerge. This is the story of the world we live in. Patterns of economic
activity without love are the basis of many, many arenas of conflict in the
present, which seem to have origins in differences of ethnicity, religion, or
Social class conflict -- even the existence of distinct social classes -- is
the result of a pattern of production in which the people who organize work do
not have to share the results with the people who do the work. Racism developed
with the pattern of production that involved the enslavement of Africans.
Before the slave trade began, European visitors to West Africa wrote home that
no city at home was as large or as clean as the city of Benin, but a few
centuries later, once the slave trade had taken off, there were no more
positive comments like that. The ethnic tensions that characterize Africa in
the present are not ancient tribal hatreds, they are something new. The
multiple, fluid forms of community people had in the past got hardened into
rigid tribal identities, as part of deliberate processes of social engineering
that facilitated extraction of wealth. Tribalism in Africa is the harvest of
economic activity without love. To a large degree, communal violence in India
has similar origins. Prejudices and hatred that have arisen out of divisive,
socially destructive economic practices cannot be resolved through appeals that
people recognize the oneness of humanity. Wholesome patterns of economic
interaction, which re-insert love and concern into production, will also be
If humanity had confronted the challenge of world-encompassing trade and
industrialization with the knowledge of the Revelation of
Bahá'u'lláh, or even knowledge of the Revelation of Mohammed,
which has much clearer, more precise teachings about economic justice than were
available to 19th century Europeans, we might have organized industrial
production differently. Our modern world, including industrialization,
imperialism, and globalization as we are now experiencing it, were not
inevitable. Other possibilities existed, but we created a dynamic economic
system that is dead, unproductive, and destructive.
Our continuing commitment to the false belief that economic activity is good
if it is efficient leads to international trade policy and development practice
which deliberately transform patterns of life which express social obligation
into less personal, more self-oriented market relationships. A stark form of
this is the imposition of land title: where individual ownership of property
is made to replace complex, relationship-oriented patterns of access to land in
which many different members of a community have rights to various aspects of
the land's productive capacity. This is going backward, not forward. The same
reduction of social responsibility and social connections can happen in a more
subtle way when people move from family owned and controlled agricultural
activity into wage labor in an agricultural enterprise. If people on the edge
of a Latin American city lose their land because it gets bought for an
export-generating carnation farm, and those people who had been farmers become
wage laborers, that can look like a success. The nation's economic statistics
look better if the people are wage laborers, because what they produce
generates hard currency. They may even have more money as laborers. Of course,
they have to buy necessities they produced before. And if we consider that the
criteria for economic activity is whether it builds bonds of love, they were
probably better off as small farmers than as wage laborers. For these people,
tighter integration into a global economy has been a backward step, not a
Freeing ourselves from lifeless, destructive economic practices will be a
gradual process. We will have to change conceptions of the nature of economics,
policies of international institutions and governments, and many elements of
the fabric of societies. For example, our current systems of economic
indicators measure production. Anything that is produced - guns, cigarettes,
pollution control devices - counts equally as productive activity. Some
economists are trying to create alternative economic indicators that would
measure not only production, but also environmental health, and social
well-being. This kind of assessment would have the value of showing the
relative weaknesses of materially wealthy societies and it also could document
the negative social consequences of purely material development. The effort of
development thinkers to change the framework is a significant dimension of
creating new patterns of economic activity.
The grassroots level of society also has to address the challenge of habits of
economic life which create only an illusion of prosperity. Local level activity
is fundamentally powerful because a just and healthy global body of the world
requires different kinds of local economic linkages than those that
characterize our current world economy. Productive activity which embodies love
and concern for the well-being of all the participants will have fewer links
which involve raw materials flowing from regions that are now relatively poor
to regions which are now relatively wealthy. It will have many more links
inside regions, especially, between countries in the regions that are now
poorer. Locally initiated development activities, and the regional links they
build, can be the beginnings of those kinds of patterns.
It is also essential that we make the effort to infuse spiritual life into
productive activity on the local level because the challenges and possibilities
are vastly different in different places. In big cities, local groups may
become involved in reclaiming "dead space": turning an empty lot into a
community garden. In this effort, people who are neighbors but strangers create
beauty and grow food and flowers, but also they are creating important social
connections, they are building community. In many parts of the world ,
committed people in local communities may have to deliberately recreate habits
of caring for each other, such as feeding the sick and visiting the elderly,
that have been devalued and almost forgotten. In other places, with other
circumstances, local communities will perceive and address other kinds of
People can influence the patterns of productive life in their communities and
regions by making a deliberate effort to follow Abdu'l Bahá'ís
instructions to "Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is,
what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity...." Where many people
still control their work -- by producing crops on land they own, or producing
crafts, or providing services -- communities can consult together about how to
ensure that their efforts are mutually beneficial. They can consider ways to
enhance patterns of equitable exchange in the region. Where people are further
removed from control of production and most of their economic activity is as
consumers, they can still make their activity an expression of love by
thinking about the human, social consequences of our economic actions. They can
seek out real people, with whom they can build relationships, as sources for
their purchases. They can buy food from local farmers and buy things from
locally-owned businesses. Flourishing locally-owned enterprises create vital
communities. When we create economic connections that have love and concern in
them we are infusing life into the dead body of an economy.
We may think that trying to create economic ties that involve positive social
relationships with people is too much work, too expensive, and not efficient.
But 'Abdu'l-Bahá told us to manifest true economics, to show "what love
is" in our economic activity. Love is not necessarily efficient. Anyone who
has fallen in love, who is a member of a family, who has a friend or a marriage
partner, knows this. Love is wonderful, love is enriching, love nourishes
us, but love is not necessarily efficient. We know it is not efficient, but we
make the effort anyway. We know what we get from love is more important than
the time and energy and money we would save by not loving people. The idea that
efficiency is the primary consideration in economic activity is a bad idea. The
founders of modern economics made a mistake. If we want economic activity that
creates vitality, that has results, we have to make the effort to make our
economic actions express love and build relationships. The body is beautiful
but dead. It will only be beautiful and alive when we take actions that ensure
that all productive activity is social, loving, caring activity.
The Growing Body: The Dilemma of Distorted Power
Ignorance of the true nature of power makes most of our efforts to establish
justice pitifully ineffective. We act as though a strong assertion of the self
makes a person a leader, when humility and a longing to serve others actually
make people powerful. We invest our hopes in the transfer of technologies for
social and political well-being, when institutions develop as wholes,
gradually, with internal autonomy and coherence. We avoid responsibility for
society by expecting others to do everything. Citizens blame governments, and
governments scapegoat some of their citizens, but social progress unfolds in
the interaction of just structures, competent administrators, and motivated
people. We imagine that indignant protest fulfills our moral obligation to
participate in the creation of justice, when institutions (like individuals)
are much more influenced by positive engagement than by criticism.
Purifying our political habits of corruption and disentangling our ideas of
power from a mesh of accumulated falsities will be a daunting task. Materialism
has eroded the ethic of social responsibility which motivated citizens and
leaders to understand their actions as contributions to the well-being of the
whole. A pattern of political representation in which people have the right to
vote for cynical and self-seeking politicians has been spread around the world
as if this were actually a means to social order. The outright destruction of
systems of social and political organization during the era of European
imperialism has deprived many societies of deeply meaningful and effective
institutions. All these processes diminish the capacity of people to
participate productively in shaping their societies. It is not surprising that
people have lost a sense of capacity or responsibility for social
'Abdu'l-Bahá provides a vision of the process through which we can
overcome distorted practices of power when he compares the growth of a society
to the growth of a human being:
The world of politics is like
the world of man; he is seed at first, and then passes by degrees to the
condition of embryo and fetus, acquiring a bone structure, being clothed with
flesh, taking on his own special form, ... the political world in the same way
cannot instantaneously evolve from the nadir of defectiveness to the zenith of
rightness and perfection. Rather, qualified individuals must strive by day and
by night, using all those means which will conduce to progress, until the
government and the people develop along every line from day to day and even
from moment to moment.
In the nurturing environment of the womb, each stage in the development of a
human being necessarily follows the previous one. Out of the seed comes the
embryo and out of the embryo comes the fetus. We can anticipate the same
progression in our efforts to create a just global order. The growth may be
imperceptible, but we know it is happening.
All the forces in a society create the context in which a just social order
can develop. In the passage immediately following the one quoted above,
'Abdu'l-Bahá compares the wind, rain and sun that bring fertility in
springtime to the forces that develop society:
the Divine bestowals, three things appear on earth, this world of dust will
come alive, and stand forth wondrously adorned and full of grace. These are
first, the fruitful winds of spring; second, the welling plenty of spring
clouds; and third, the heat of the bright sun. When, out of the endless bounty
of God, these three have been vouchsafed, then slowly, by His leave, dry trees
and branches turn fresh and green again, and array themselves with many kinds
of blossoms and fruits. It is the same when the pure intentions and the justice
of the ruler, the wisdom and consummate skill and statecraft of the governing
authorities, and the determination and unstinted efforts of the people, are all
combined: then day by day the effects of the far-reaching reforms, of the pride
and prosperity of government and people alike, will become clearly manifest."
Just as a productive growing season requires both rain and sun, dynamic social
progress requires motivated people, skilled administrators, and rulers who
promulgate fair laws and policies.
What can people do if laws are unjust or administrators are corrupt?
Continuing his explanation of political development, 'Abdu'l-Bahá
asserts that "the primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of
education." Education, he explains, enables people to seek redress if they have
a problem, and to appeal to a higher level of government if local authorities
are not functioning adequately. He says "the primary cause of oppression and
injustice, of unrighteousness, irregularity and disorder, is the people's lack
of religious faith and the fact that they are uneducated."
With education, people know what they want from
themselves and from their government and they have the vocabulary to explain
it. Abdu'l Bahá's analysis implies that articulate, knowledgeable citizens,
whatever the conditions of their material lives, have the capacity and
obligation to interact with rulers and administrators to promote the creation
of justice. Not only will people speak on their own behalf, they will also act
with the assumption that those in power will respond to their needs. In Abdu'l
Bahá's vision of the dynamics of social justice, first people who have been
oppressed become educated, and then they seek to inform and consult with those
in power. Pure intentions, honesty, and the love of others that comes from love
of God create a dynamic far more powerful than confrontation or protest.
Abdu'l Bahá's image of the growth of social and political institutions
explains why so many efforts to improve social conditions in the resource-poor
parts of the world are not successful. The development of a human being has
coherence: all the parts grow in harmony with each other. They are connected,
they are integral to each other. In contrast, schemes for social improvement
that originate in one part of the world and are implemented in another part of
the world lack the quality of coherence. Intended to replace or "improve" the
patterns of interaction which already exist in a community, they often ignore
its power dynamics and how the project itself affects habits and structures
regarding who has a voice and who does not have a voice in the region. They
can serve to reinforce structures which silence some voices, or strengthen the
power that some people unfairly wield over others. Because development projects
almost always bring very scarce resources, they generate intense conflict over
access to those resources, and those conflicts can be very damaging to the
growth of patterns of broad, equitable empowerment of community members.
A perception of power that is drawn out of an understanding of the spiritual
nature of human beings encourages people to take action. In its letter of 24
May 2001, the Universal House of Justice stated that "Commitment to this
revolutionizing principle [Bahá'u'lláh's teaching that the time
has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for
the welfare of the entire human family] will increasingly empower individual
believers and Bahá'í institutions alike in awakening others to
the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change
this world into another world."
steady, imperceptible growth of faith connects people's hearts to God, unites
them, motivates them to arise in service to others, and awakens a perception of
their capacity to establish new, just patterns of interaction among members of
a community and a region. When small numbers of people gather together in
their towns, cities, and villages, and make an effort to apply
Bahá'u'lláh's revelation to the problems they see around them,
they are an embryo gathering substance, developing structure.
We can address unjust patterns of globalization by changing the way we think
and the way we act. Because the body of the world is sick and it has to be
healed everywhere, we are responsible for transforming the manifestations of
that disorder in the regions where we live. By developing our understanding
and changing our habits, we can enliven the dead body of merely material
civilization. We can establish productive relationships infused with love and
concern for others' well-being. By participating in processes of growth in our
local communities and regions we are building the cells, sinews, and structures
of a just society.
If we strive to disentangle ourselves from the accumulated falsities of our
understanding of the world, we see that there is no "they". There are no people
in the world who are centuries behind, who have been left out of some process
of progress which the rest of us have enjoyed. What we have in the world today,
all of us have created together. There is no "they" that need to catch up to
us who are superior and there is also no "they" who are the embodiments of
selfishness, whose life purpose is to keep us down. There is just us, all of
us, with the task of creating order out of the disorder of our world. This
means that Bahá'u'lláh's new world order will not be new because
it is global. Global patterns of production and exchange made the world we have
now. Bahá'u'lláh's new world order will be new because it will be
both global and just. The best-beloved of all things in God's sight is
Justice. God has chosen us to be the instruments to bring about His Justice.
God has given us the means to create it: everything we have -- our insight, our
wealth, our vehicles, our fields, our songs, the laws of our Faith -- all of
these are the tools we have to create justice in the world. We have been trying
to do this, we have been learning to do it more effectively, and we will
continue to improve. It is God's intention that we will succeed brilliantly.
* This paper was originally written as a talk for an audience at the Bahá'í Development Conference for the Americas in Orlando, Florida in December, 2000. I am grateful to the Rabbani Charitable Trust for the stimulus of their invitation, to Mark Gilman, Ash Hartwell, Vasu Mohan, Kim Naqvi, and Chetan Parikh for valuable suggestions which improved the paper, and to participants at several Louhelen Bahá'í School sessions for their insights.
 Shoghi Effendi, Promised
Day is Come, p. 16.
 The Universal House of
Justice, 24 May 2001, To the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the
Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 254-5.
Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pages 55-56.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Huquq'u'llah, no. 61.
 Kofi Annan, "We, the Peoples:
Statement for the Millennium Forum", paragraph 53, www.un.org.
 Abdu'l Bahá, Paris
Talks, pp. 153-4.
Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp.55-56.
 Shoghi Effendi, World
Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 204.
 The Universal House of
Justice, The Promise of World Peace, Section 1, paragraph 8.
 Susan George, "How the Poor
Develop the Rich", The Post Development Reader, 209-210.
 Shoghi Effendi, World
Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 204.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 101.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Promulgation, p. 104.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Promulgation, p. 11.
 Secret of Divine
Civilization, p. 60.
 p. 61.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 166.
 Abdu'l Bahá,
Promulgation, p. 238.
 Abdu'l Bahá, Secret of
Divine Civilization, pp. 107-108.
 Secret of Divine
Civilization, p. 108.
 Abdu'l Bahá, Secret of
Divine Civilization, p. 18.
 The Universal House of
Justice, 24 May 2001, To the Believers Gathered for the Events Marking the
Completion of the Projects on Mount Carmel.