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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLEUnderstanding and Eliminating Oppression: Baha'i Writings and Social Theory Combined
AUTHOR 1Marie Gervais
AUTHOR 2Tim Heins
ABSTRACTThe theme of oppression is addressed frequently in the Bahá'í Writings. This article examines good/evil and social theory to analyze race, gender, poverty, and ethnicity.
Abstract: The theme of oppression is a continuous thread in the Bahá'í Writings. After providing an overview of the nature of existence and Bahá'í teachings about good and evil, an explanation of the 'virtue sequence' as it is presented in Baha’u’llah’s Writings is considered as a series of interdependent pre-conditions for justice and peace. Social theory's role in analyzing contexts of race, gender, poverty and ethnicity is offered as a way to contextualize oppression. Finally the authors combine theory and divine principle in an analysis of two troubling Bahá'í community case studies.
I was trying to explain something about this oppression thing to my neighbor the other day. It was about a company golf tournament, which I participated in. At the end there was the usual Aboriginal drumming and dancing. It occurred to me that I wasn't able to fully participate in and enjoy the drumming and dancing like I had when we lived in Delanay. In Delanay, it was natural, an integrated aspect of life. For this golf tournament with a mixed crowd - it was a company initiative - I was conscious of the apathetic attitude of the non-Aboriginal people there. It was so strong it seemed to be eroding my experience. To me it felt like they were just tolerating the drumming and dancing and would have been happier if the whole Aboriginal presence and participation wasn't there. My experience from Delanay felt eroded. And those very people who we are supposed to be valuing and developing partnerships with - there was no real desire to know who they really were. But when I tried to explain it to my neighbor, he couldn't understand what I was talking about. Or why it mattered.


When I was in India at a peace conference, all the East Indian men and the students there were so anxious to talk to me. They were deferential to the point where I was acutely uncomfortable. One day when I was walking with a female colleague of East Indian descent who lived in Ireland, it became obvious that the people who worked at the conference were deferential to me because I was white. They had no interest whatsoever in my colleague and showed her no particular courtesy or respect. She told me that no matter what she said or did, she would never be taken seriously. This differential treatment deeply saddened me. Later on, a conversation with a group where participants spoke effusively about how much England had done for India, resulted in an out and out argument with an Iranian woman. She vehemently insisted that India's progress was a result of Gandhi's sacrifice, and the English had done very little that was good for India. The local East Indians continued to disagree with her until I spoke up on the topic. Suddenly, they were all on my side – I was Canadian, and no expert on the topic, but, I was white and that seemed to carry more weight than the informed experience of an Iranian woman who had studied 15 years in India. My Indian-Irish colleague walked away in disgust and I wished I had never opened my mouth.

But all the deference and assumed "rightness" of my white privilege changed to leering and disgust as soon as I left the conference complex and walked in the streets. It was a daily occurrence for local men to jeer at and to expose themselves to me. The few women on the street were overtly hostile and rude. I felt it was impossible to have a real relationship with anyone: I was either a white goddess or a white whore and either way, hostage to a legacy of colonialism and oppression by whites over Indians in a way I felt utterly powerless to respond to let alone undo.



The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines oppression as:

An unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power, something that oppresses (to crush or burden by abuse) especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power.

Social theorists have been writing critically about injustice in human social systems for some time. The detrimental effects of oppression on individuals and communities have been well documented and since Marx and Freud, social science and psychology has primarily viewed religion as one of the components of oppression rather than having any role to play in its obliteration. Yet the prophets of God proclaimed liberation of oppressed peoples, admonished oppressive tyrants and revealed laws and ordinances to safeguard people from oppression. Mystical texts throughout the ages have guided the individual through inner journeys to overcome personal oppression. Sacred writings in all religious teachings speak of a glorious day when various versions of the "kingdom of God on earth" will become reality, in addition to creating hope in an afterlife where all oppression will lose its power over human kind. Surely, given the amount of text in religious writings about oppression, there is something to learn from examining the sacred as well as the secular on this topic. This is the premise upon which this paper is based: sacred writings do have an important role to play in our understanding of oppression, and the Bahá'í faith as the most recent world religion, has relevant and timely insights which are worth exploring if we seek to consider the roots of the issue and possible inroads into solutions.

As authors, while we explored the Bahá'í Writings and began our research processes, our own lived and work experiences came prominently to the fore. We wanted to reflect on some of these experiences in view of what light the Bahá'í teachings could shed upon them, and we wanted to show how social theory can compliment the analysis. Additionally we wanted readers from any religious tradition, and particularly Bahá'í readers to look critically at those social constructs within religious community life that unconsciously reproduce oppressive systems that have nothing to do with the divine principles enunciated in the world order of Bahá'u'lláh. With this goal in mind, this paper uses: 1) Bahá'í primary sources from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi as well as references from the Universal House of Justice, 2) secondary source Bahá'í authors, 3) social theory writings from academic sources and 4) two fictionalized experiential Bahá'í community case studies where social theory combined with systematic application of the Bahá'í teachings on elimination of oppression can be applied. It is our hope that through the juxtaposition of these multiple perspectives readers will glean insights to engage more effectively in eliminating oppression in their own contexts.

A bit about the authors and why we are interested in this topic

One of the authors Marie Gervais, daughter of immigrant parents, is a consultant for industry in leadership and intercultural competency at work. She has worked for many years supporting immigrant groups in a variety of contexts and deals with the issues of racial and ethic prejudice as part of her work. Concurrently she has her own experiences of oppression as a woman, a target of bullying as a child, and a religious minority in a small community. The second author, Tim Heins, has been working in Aboriginal land claims for many years and currently advises industry and construction companies working with Aboriginal communities and businesses. For a large portion of his life he worked as manager of a local Coop in an isolated northern community where his non-Aboriginal family was a distinct minority. He too has experienced oppression from both sides and in a variety of complex situations. Both authors are concerned about oppression because we see it as a major obstacle to community growth – as the metaphorical elephant in the middle of the room.

When we first started talking together about oppression and its role in the perpetration of prejudice, it became evident that we had a wealth of experience, but no in-depth understanding of what the Bahai Writings had to offer on the subject. Our research over several years is both an attempt to answer our own questions and to provide a forum for discussion in the interests of capacity building for individuals and communities. As members of the white race, we are keenly aware of our own struggles to overcome the pernicious influence of white privilege and attitudes of white superiority and we have not tried to downplay or sugar coat this aspect of our reflection. In our deep longing to contribute to the abolition of prejudice, we offer this paper as one of our ongoing endeavors in the service of this goal.

One day I had taken the opportunity to go to the back of the building of my workplace, I opened the door and stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air. As I stood there I could see an altercation taking place between a number of children a few hundred yards away. As I looked more intently, I realized it was one boy at the center of the altercation and the other six boys were, in fact, flailing away upon him. I began to move towards the boys to put an end to the unnecessary cruelty and obvious stupidity of the situation when, in another split second, I realized the boy at the center of that beating was my own son. I ran as quickly as I could to get to him. When I arrived I was so enraged that I literally flung the boys from on top of my son. As I cleared them away, caught my breath and began to regain some semblance of composure, I actually apologized to the boys for my vigour but also spoke sternly and directly as to their actions. Here was a small boy outnumbered six to one; how could they do such a thing? I said I would speak to each of their parents about this affair. All six of the boys looked away and down as I scolded them for their inappropriate behaviour. When I told an uninvolved elder about the incident, he reminded me that there is much anger and enmity in the community from so many sorts of abuse and oppression over the years that I should not expect my son, or even myself, to be uninvolved or removed from its effect. I listened respectfully. I understood what he said but I had great difficulty accepting that we would have to live the effects of "whatever oppression and atmosphere of abuse" when we had not been the cause. I said so. He looked at me politely and quietly said, "No man is completely without blame and as a white man, no matter how good you may be – you have more to overcome than most. You will have to be patient with the people and your family will have to endure, just as my people have had to endure. But in time – the good will come."


My friend and I were both settling in to our seats in preparation for a long flight together. She was an African American who had lived in several other countries and we had been good friends for years. We began talking about our favorite childhood stories and I told my friend how much I had enjoyed the story "Little Black Sambo" as a child and had used it with my students for dramatic readings later on in my life. My friend looked at me in horror. "That is such a racist story. I can't believe you would use that story, especially as a Bahá'í." Taken aback I challenged, "So what is racist about it?" She spent the next 20 minutes deconstructing every aspect of the story and pointing out the racism infused statements throughout. Suddenly I became aware of my mistake and I remembered the versions of this story I had in my children's book collection complete with degrading drawings and condescending language. I was overcome with embarrassment that I had been so unaware, so naive. I suddenly remembered the negative reaction this story had produced in my teacher assistant from Zimbabwe and realized that I had not paid any attention to her discomfort or her comments. "You see," said my friend, "that is what Shoghi Effendi meant when he said that whites have an 'unconscious sense of superiority'. You didn't even see it in the story. You are blind to your own white attitudes. " I realized for the first time that it was not enough to say one believed in the unity of humanity. This was going to be a personal journey and I would have to accept my role in the perpetration of prejudice as well as the role I wanted to play in eliminating it.


We began by asking ourselves a myriad of questions. Does the commonly understood meaning of "oppression" differ from the Bahá'í Writings and if so how? What do Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have to say about oppression, to oppressors, and about liberation from oppression? What do secondary source Bahá'í writers have to say? How do Bahá'í understandings compare with social theorists' critical perspectives about racism, sexism, poverty or other manifestations of oppression? Assuming that oppression is a negative condition, and its polar opposite is justice, how do individuals and groups become either oppressive or just? What conditions lead to justice or to oppression?

To consider these questions, we will begin the discussion with an overview of the Bahá'í view on the nature of existence and Bahá'í teachings about good and evil. This is followed by an explanation of what we have called the 'virtue sequence', which we found from Bahá'u'lláh's Writings in various places but particularly in Words of Paradise, as a series of interdependent pre-conditions for the emergence and sustainability of justice and peace. Oppression is placed in the context of absence of justice, and the conditions for both are explored briefly. From there, we detail social theory's understandings of oppression within the contexts of race, gender and ethnicity, comparing and contrasting them with Bahá'í concepts. Finally we analyze two troubling Bahá'í community case studies from the dual perspectives of Bahá'í principles and social theory constructs in an attempt to create and apply a framework for understanding and action.

Bahá'í understandings about the nature of existence and the roles of good and evil

Honesty, virtue, wisdom and a saintly character redound to the exaltation of man, while dishonesty, imposture, ignorance and hypocrisy lead to his abasement. By My life! Man's distinction lieth not in ornaments or wealth, but rather in virtuous behavior and true understanding…Happy are they that observe God's precepts; happy are they that have recognized the Truth; happy are they that judge with fairness in all matters and hold fast to the Cord of My inviolable Justice (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 57,62).

In order to discuss oppression in the Bahá'í Writings, an underlying framework of Bahá'í belief needs first to be clarified. The first theme revolves around the nature of existence and the nature of man. A second consideration is that of Bahá'í explanations of good and evil. Underlying Bahá'í concepts which will be necessary to understand oppression are summarized as follows:

  1. Existence is spiritual in nature and orderly in character.
  2. Order stems from an original Reality, Creator, God, that is all-encompassing, but evolutionary or progressive in its expression to humankind.
  3. The focal points of this progressive revelation of the nature and character of existence are the Manifestations of God, sent to guide and educate different peoples at different times in their progress towards the realization of their potential.
  4. One aspect of this progressive revelation is realized through the operative force motivating all relationships in existence. The expressions of this operative force are seen in the form of virtues.
  5. Virtues are the fundamental building blocks of existence because they express qualities of the Creator. There is no alternate reality to the expression of these virtues just as there is no alternate reality to God. Anything appearing to operate in alternate form is the absence of that form.
  6. There are degrees of existence continuously moving between nearness and distance from the Creator. Individuals move up or down on that continuum as they pursue or neglect the admonition to develop virtue and knowledge of God.
  7. Humanity is seen to potentially reflect all the Divine qualities. As such, the human kingdom is not captive within a range of limited potentialities as are other sentient beings. Minerals can only move within limited degrees of the power of attraction, plants somewhat more with the power of growth, animals again more through the power of movement and sensation. Human beings however, created in the image and likeness of God, span the entire range of potential existence and can choose to encourage or discourage both their own virtue development and that of others.

In the Bahá'í teachings, evil has no real presence or tangible reality. Evil is the absence of good in the same way as darkness is the absence of light and ignorance the absence of knowledge. A negative reality is that which forms in the absence of the positive, much the same way that a plant attempting to grow, but not getting sufficient soil nutrients, light or water, will grow in a thwarted, distorted manner. A social example would be that a child who does not experience love, eventually develops anger and hatred out of frustration. Similarly, a culture of violence emerges out of lack of individual and communal opportunity to develop spiritually, educationally, economically and physically. If growth is characteristic of the nature of existence, its absence leads to disease and eventually death. Within this framework, oppression, which we are assuming is a negative in the physical, social, intellectual or spiritual worlds, can only be understood as the result of the absence of something positive. Bahá'u'lláh writes that this positive, this virtue to which we must raise our sights in order to rid the world of oppression, is justice. If the world's social interactions are based on justice, oppression will eventually cease to exist. Within this conceptual framework, another Bahá'í consideration is the simultaneous emphasis on the complimentary roles of the individual, the institutions and the community. A just world, free from oppression, has to take root in all three of these societal categories for sustainability to be possible.

The Individual, the Institutions and The Community

In 1996, the Universal House of Justice provided the world-wide Bahá'í community with a new perspective from which to consider the on-going activities of the Faith as it grows into the future. Discussion of growth and development was framed in the context of three elements that constitute the foundations of society. They are the individual, the institutions and the community (specific and at large).

About the individual they stated:

The individual alone exercises those capacities which include the ability to take initiative, to seize opportunities, to form friendships, to interact personally with others, to build relationships, to win the cooperation of others in common service to the Faith and to society, and to convert into action the decisions made by consultative bodies … at the very crux of any progress to be made is the individual believer, who possesses the power of execution which only he can release through his own initiative and sustained action (Ridvan Message #153 B.E.).

About the institutions they highlighted:

The institutions must rise to a new stage in the exercise of their responsibilities as channels of divine guidance, planners of the teaching work, developers of human resources, builders of communities , and loving shepherds of the multitudes … realizing these prospects through increasing the ability of their members to take counsel together (in accordance with the principles of the Faith), fostering the spirit of service, collaborating with other institutions and cultivating their external relations … In sum the maturity of the institutions must be measured not only by the regularity of their meetings and the efficiency of their functioning but also by the growth of their community membership, the quality of the spiritual and social life of the community and the overall sense of vitality of a community in the process of dynamic, ever-advancing development. (Ibid).

About the community they provided the following insights:

A community is, of course, more than the sum of its membership; it is a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress … the flourishing of the community calls for a significant enhancement in patterns of behaviour; those patterns of behaviour in which the collective expression of the virtues of the individual members and the institutions are manifest in the unity and fellowship of the community and the dynamism of its activity and growth. This calls for the integration of the component elements – adults, youth and children – in spiritual, social, educational and administrative activities and their engagement in local plans and development (Ibid.).

From these three excerpts it becomes clear that Bahá'í efforts to build a justice-based world are grounded in a comprehensive spiritual, social and practical understanding of the workings of society, incorporating an interactive framework between individuals, institutions and communities that maintains the integrity of each but insists on the interdependence of all.

Abuse of power and/or authority, has a wide variety of expression in the relationships between people whether from the perspective of the individual, the situations and institutions that govern the lives of individuals or between communities of people. If oppression operates as a negative created in the absence of justice, it seems pertinent to ask, what causes a state of justice to exist? Furthermore what is missing in those circumstances where a state of justice collapses into a state of oppression?

Bahá'u'lláh's framework for justice

Bahá'u'lláh provides both the framework for a just society and warnings about how society will crumble into oppression if the framework is not followed. In His Words of Paradise, the concepts for establishing a just world are explained sequentially in a series of short statements called "leaves". He identifies the first leaf as the fear of God.

Verily I say: The fear of God hath ever been a sure defense and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the worlds. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 63).

Bahá'u'lláh goes on to say that only some people have a sense of shame and because so few people possess it, humanity needs the fear of God to guard against "unworthy" and "unseemly" conduct. He positively associates the fear of God with a number of protective devices: sure defense, safe stronghold, protection and preservation, specifically. Through this statement we see that the fear of God has a primarily protective action, out of which safety to grow and develop are assured for humanity as a whole.

In the second leaf, Bahá'u'lláh exhorts those who are "manifestations of authority and…power", namely governments, ecclesiastics and men of knowledge to "uphold the cause of religion, and to cleave unto it". He writes:

Religion is the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquility amongst its peoples. The weakening of the pillars of religion hath strengthened the foolish and …made them arrogant. Verily I say: The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly (64).

Bahá'u'lláh warns that as religion declines there will be chaos and confusion. He places the chief responsibility for upholding of the pillars of religion in the hands of people of power in society and warns them that pride could keep them from acting in a just manner and lead to degradation.

Having established the two cornerstones of the fear of God and the strengthening of the pillars of religion – and reminded those in positions of authority and power that they have a grave responsibility in that regard, Bahá'u'lláh moves to advise humanity as a whole to follow the golden rule:

If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself (64).

Individuals must cultivate altruism and justice because they are conducive to humility, which Bahá'u'lláh explains serve the function of exalting the human station while pride in the end debases people. He follows with a prayer that God shield those "manifestations of power" (government, clergy and the learned) from "self and desire" and supplicates that they be guided by the radiance of justice. He concludes with the statement:

Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny (65).

In the fifth leaf, Bahá'u'lláh draws the reader's attention to the importance of wisdom, which provides humanity with hope, as a counterbalance to the fear of God, each balancing the other in the establishment of societal order. It is the sixth and seventh leaves that show the entire "virtue sequence" for justice upon which the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh are founded. He writes: "The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity". All people of wisdom are enjoined to "shut your eyes to estrangement, then fix your gaze upon unity" since unity is what leads to the well-being of mankind, and out of unity leads to abundance for all. The sequence then is love (expressed as preferring others to the self), to justice and from justice, unity and abundance. We will return to this theme at several points throughout the paper.

Love, power and justice

Let us assume that a pre-condition to justice is sensitivity towards the suffering of others and a desire to avoid causing them pain, otherwise known as empathy. An attitude of wishing to bring joy to others and to avoid causing them pain, is characteristic of love. 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that love is the expression of the force of attraction. It is the cause of our own existence and the force that motivates our continued existence. In a presentation at Green Acre in August, 1912, 'Abdu'l-Bahá stated:

We declare that love is the cause of the existence of all phenomena and that the absence of love is the cause of disintegration or nonexistence. Love is the conscious bestowal of God, the bond of affiliation in all phenomena… (Promulgation of Universal Peace 254)

In the physical universe, the power of attraction is necessary for existence. The attraction of various elements to each other ensures weather patterns, combinations of minerals and all manner of living and growing flora and fauna. Likewise in the social and spiritual worlds, love and attraction bring people together while lack of love fosters alienation and apathy.

Bahá'í writer William Hatcher (1998) in his book Love, Power and Justice, explains that love and abuse of power cancel each other out (95). Where power is the operational mode of a relationship, love cannot exist and where love is the operational mode, power is not a feature. In comparing this to a marriage, he illustrates that where there is abuse of power, there is no love. Love is negated in every choice of abuse of power over another person. On the other hand, where there is real love between two people, the power of love is the modus operandi: love begets love, power begets power, violence leads to more violence.

In Hatcher's analysis, part of the problem with issues of power and love is that popular belief only sees power as power over others, fueled by destructive energy and generally detrimental to the fabric of society. Hatcher redefines power as energy with the potential to be either constructive or destructive. He proposes that humanity, in its immaturity, has not yet learned to channel and focus energy towards the building of a just world. Justice then in this context, can be conceived of as the outcome of an enduring and deep love for humanity, a love where inequity is seen as an imbalance that harms everyone rather than an opportunity to benefit at the expense of others (24). In fact, in this love-infused worldview, there is no place for any concept of benefit that does not include collective security, collective prosperity, collective good (94). Humanity is counseled to practice love over and over until all cruelties and enmities are overcome. In the Bahá'í dispensation, a greater measure of love is required since we are in the process of attaining collective "adulthood", requiring that we learn to live together as a human family. 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes:

In every dispensation, there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous, age, however, praised be God, the commandments of God are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people, rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, considerations and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth…The meaning of this is that ye must show forth tenderness and love to every human being, even to your enemies, and welcome them all with unalloyed friendship, good cheer, and loving-kindness. When ye meet with cruelty and persecution at another's hands, keep faith with him; when malevolence is directed your way, respond with a friendly heart. To the spears and arrows rained upon you, expose your breasts for a target mirror-bright; and in return for curses, taunts and wounding words, show forth abounding love. (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 23-24.)

Bahá'u'lláh's Writings introduce us to powers - or energies - that are positive forces in the world, opening up an entire realm of new possibilities for understanding power in human interactions. Some of these latent forces can be described as the power of growth, the power of love, the power of unity, the power of integrity, the power of pure intent, and the power of consultation, to name but a few. In the same way as magnetism and gravity are different kinds of energies or powers that humanity has learned to recognize and use, becoming aware of and learning to use our positive spiritual powers (virtue) as well as negative powers (vice) are both within our capacity as human beings.

In the Bahá'í teachings, the human being is seen as a demarcation line between the light and the dark; both are human potentialities and either can be developed. Since energy follows intent, the intent to do good or the intent to harm can all be infused with energy to accomplish the intent. Rather than viewing humanity as inherently evil, humanity can be seen as potentially possessing the entire spectrum of possible behaviors from the basest to the most noble and altruistic. It is up to us to choose which powers we want to develop.

Hatcher explains that without power, nothing can be accomplished; power itself is neither positive or negative. Rather power becomes abusive when it is pursued as an end to itself. Power to act can also hurt unintentionally as we make mistakes struggling to grow and to learn. 'Abdu'-Baha provides us with criterion to distinguish between the two abuses of power in the following quotes:

Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind – except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion. (166).

For instance, if you show kindness to a wolf this becomes a tyranny to the sheep, for it may destroy an entire flock of sheep. If you give the opportunity to a mad dog it may be the cause of the destruction of a thousand animals and men (168).

From the above, we can see that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's injunction to love and to increase our capacity to love needs to be understood within an understanding of humanity's capacity to choose behavior from the entire spectrum of virtue and vice. Those who persistently foster vice are likely to cause significant harm to the collective good. In our relationships with such individuals, the greater love is to look to what would be necessary for the greater collective benefit, rather than the short term and narrow application of love to the immediate context or individual. Although 'Abdu'l-Bahá was speaking about tyrants and diseased animals in the above two quotes, a more day-to-day example would be to consider the effects of a parent who gives in to every whim of a child in the name of love. Over the long term, the parent is in reality showing lack of love, since the child's character is perverted through this kind of short-sighted parenting that has little consideration for the kind of adult that will emerge or the harm inflicted upon society from fostering self-centered and privilege-oriented attitudes.

Love and justice in the Bahá'í teachings are intimately connected. In the virtues sequence previously alluded to, love leads to justice and justice is an outcome of love. Love is the motivation for a just society and towards that end, love must characterize all our interactions. However love does not mean accepting and encouraging vice or sacrificing an entire group for the rights of one, which is why it becomes necessary to examine the problem of oppression more closely. Bahá'ís are exhorted to bend their minds and wills towards the creation of a just world. An understanding of the energies required and a realization of the necessary stages in the unfolding of this new ordering of society, can be helpful to accomplish that ideal. But let us yet remain with the issues of justice for a while.

We have already alluded to oppression as the negative counterpart to justice in Bahá'u'lláh's Writings. However, prior to dealing with Bahá'í concepts of oppression in its various forms, it is necessary to understand why humanity appears to have such difficulty moving from injustice and oppression to justice.

Striving for justice

Bahá'u'lláh writes,

The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men…Were mankind to be adorned with this raiment, he would behold the day-star of the utterance, 'On that day God will satisfy everyone out of His abundance.'(Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 67)

The promise in the above quote is that as mankind assumes responsibility for it's divine directive towards justice, unity will be established and abundance flow out of that achievement. Hence, in the logic of Bahá'u'lláh's Writings, justice leads to unity, which leads in turn to global prosperity, "God will satisfy everyone out of His abundance" [author's emphasis]. Justice, motivated by love of humanity, appears to be the starting point for the unfolding of such a peaceful society.

No radiance… can compare with that of justice. The organization of the world and the tranquility of mankind depend upon it… That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world. (Advent of Divine Justice 27)

The significance of reward and punishment in Bahá'u'lláh's explanation points again to His understanding of human nature as potentially moving in either direction from the demarcation line between light and darkness as it progresses through its learning processes. In numerous Writings, Bahá'u'lláh reminds that justice has two forces that work together in order for justice to be realized.

Justice hath a mighty force at its command. It is none other than reward and punishment for the deeds of men. By the power of this force the tabernacle of order is established throughout the world, causing the wicked to restrain their natures for fear of punishment. (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 164).

The previous quote is not be confused with ideas of punishment current in the manner criminals are treated today. Rather 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains that reward and punishment is both a spiritual and a practical concept as we read in the following passage:

Now punishments and rewards are said to be of two kinds: first, the rewards and punishments of this life; second, those of the other world. But the paradise and hell of existence are found in all the worlds of God, whether in this world or in the spiritual heavenly worlds…The rewards of this life are the virtues and perfections which adorn the reality of man…that is to say, they were delivered from the animal characteristics and qualities which are the characteristics of human nature, and they became qualified with the divine characteristics, which are the bounty of God. This is the meaning of the second birth.

For such people there is no greater torture than being veiled from God, and no more severe punishment than sensual vices, dark qualities, lowness of nature, engrossment in carnal desires. When they are delivered through the light of faith from the darkness of these vices, and become illuminated with the radiance of the sun of reality, and ennobled with all the virtues, they esteem this the greatest reward, and they know it to be the true paradise. In the same way they consider that the spiritual punishment—that is to say, the torture and punishment of existence—is to be subjected to the world of nature; to be veiled from God; to be brutal and ignorant; to fall into carnal lusts; to be absorbed in animal frailties; to be characterized with … falsehood, tyranny, cruelty, attachment to the affairs of the world, and being immersed in satanic ideas. For them, these are the greatest punishments and tortures.

Likewise, the rewards of the other world are the eternal life which is clearly mentioned in all the Holy Books, the divine perfections, the eternal bounties and everlasting felicity. The rewards of the other world are peace, the spiritual graces, the various spiritual gifts in the Kingdom of God, the gaining of the desires of the heart and the soul, and the meeting of God in the world of eternity. In the same way the punishments of the other world—consist in being deprived of the special divine blessings and the absolute bounties, and falling into the lowest degrees of existence. (Some Answered Questions 223-225)

From the above selection, reward and punishment are explained as spiritual outcomes of our actions in both our current life and the afterlife, rather than impositions from outside forces. In another context, 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes that in our current system there is nothing to reward those who are doing good, yet great expense is put into punishing offenders and putting up great prisons to constrain them. He writes that in a divine civilization, so much will be done to encourage and validate the practice of virtue, that the mere thought of harmful action would in itself be punishment enough (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá 133). Towards this end, He explains at length how the education and training of children are the surest means to create the conditions for such a divine civilization, such a just society. As part of their spiritual education, children are to be guided towards their noble natures and disciplined according to "means based on reason". It is considered reprehensible to strike or vilify children, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá says will result in the perversion of their characters (A Compilation on Women 16).

Since, according to what has just been explained, justice is upheld by the pillars of reward and punishment, and the world cannot be organized for peace and tranquility without justice, we are again reminded of the emergence of oppression within a justice void. But if justice leads so foundationally to peace and tranquility and provides a foundation for unity and a pattern for peace, why does humanity have so much difficulty living in a just manner? Why, after all the teachings of Noah, Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh, does humanity persist in living in strife, turmoil, fear, insecurity and hatred?

Understanding Bahá'u'lláh's Writings about oppression

Interestingly, Bahá'u'lláh explains oppression as first and foremost a deeply personal dilemma based in a lack of access to the Divine, of not knowing where to turn for guidance. He writes that there is no greater oppression than that a soul seeking the truth should not know where to find it and that this oppression pushes people to seek solace in the teachings of the Messenger of God.

What "oppression" is greater than that which hath been recounted? What "oppression" is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?...This "oppression" is the essential feature of every Revelation (Kitab-i-Iqan 32).

He explains that from this lack of access to Divine guidance, all other forms of oppression afflict humanity. He warns humanity to continuously strive to acquire spiritual knowledge for the protection and security of all peoples.

…by "oppression" is meant the want of capacity to acquire spiritual knowledge and apprehend the Word of God…when the Day-star of Truth hath set…mankind will become afflicted with "oppression" and hardship, knowing not whither to turn for guidance (Kitab-i-Iqan 33).

He writes that oppression stems from selfishness and is an attempt to extinguish the light of the Divine Manifestation.

Since the dawn of this revelation the embodiments of selfishness have, by resorting to cruelty and oppression, striven to extinguish the Light of divine manifestation (Kitab-i-Iqan 33).

In a second sense, Bahá'u'lláh associates outward evidence of oppression with tyranny and cruelty. Signs of oppression can be observed insofar as they constitute the polar opposites of the principles of the Bahá'í faith. An example of this is 'Abdu'l-Bahá's explanation of the oppression of extreme poverty. The principle of the Faith in this regard is that we must work to temper the extremes of wealth and poverty. Lurking behind apathy towards solving the problems of poverty is thus an abiding tyranny and oppression, which we are enjoined to bring to an end.

Where we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation, it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of people (Paris Talks 153-154).

On the other side of the coin, in a spiritually infused world, the conscience of the rich would be too troubled to live in wealth without consideration for the poor:

Among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is voluntary sharing of one's property with others among mankind. This voluntary sharing is greater than (legally imposed) equality, and consists in this, that one should not prefer oneself to others, but rather should sacrifice one's life and property for others. But this should not be introduced by coercion so that it becomes a law which man is compelled to follow. Nay, rather, man should voluntarily and of his own choice sacrifice his property and life for others, and spend willingly for the poor, just as in done in Persia among the Bahá'ís (Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era 145-146).

This principle of voluntary sacrifice for others to rectify injustice is also something Mohandas Gandhi has written extensively about (Gandhimohan 2000).

True economics is the economics of justice. People will be happy in so far as they learn to do justice and righteousness. All else is not only vain but leads straight to destruction. To teach the people to get rich by hook or by crook is to do them an immense disservice…that economics is untrue which ignores or disregards moral values. The extension of the law of non-violence in the domain of economics means nothing less than the introduction of moral values as a factor to be considered in regulating international commerce… (146).

It is important to note that all the manifestations of oppression have a solution in the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. Since this particular dispensation is intended to be characterized by justice, one does not need to look too far to find examples of where the lacking principle results in injustice and concurrently how application of specific Bahá'í principles would result in the elimination of particular forms of oppression. As an illustration of how this looks, we have compiled a chart of several key Bahá'í principles with their polar opposites in oppressive results, behaviors or attitudes beside them:



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

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:

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? 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.

Bahá'í Perspective:

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.

Bahá'í Perspective:

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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