November 16, 2007

It Works!

True to previous religious form, from the get-go there were major contests for the hearts and minds of the Bábi and Baha’i faithful. Today there is one solid branch of the Baha’i Faith with six to eight million adherents and a fine World Centre on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel. In contrast, there are just a few twigs dotted around the world under alternative Baha’i and Bábi banners. These are the desiccated remnants of lost contests. This is just as imagined in Baha’i scripture! The focus on unity in the lesser covenant must work! As with all sacrifices, it has not been without cost.



Into The Half-light

Bahá’u’lláh’s half-brother, Subh-i-Azal, became the appointed leader of the Bábi’s once their prophet founder, the Báb, was executed in Iran, 1850 at the Iranian Tabriz army barracks. Bahá’u’lláh, in 1863, declared himself to be the prophet foretold by the Báb entitled “Him Whom God shall make manifest”. Unlike many other people who had made a similar claim, his stuck and many of the Bábi’s became Bahai’s. This declaration, in effect, trumped Subh-i-Azal. Subh-i-Azal, and a number of his followers didn’t accept Bahá’u’lláh. Baha’is believe Subh-i-Azal and some of his followers planned and undertook many malevolent actions to harm Bahá’u’lláh and his new Faith, including poisoning him. Baha’is now consider them the first CBs, though they are also the key exception as none of them were members of the Baha’i Faith. Bahai’s would say they broke the Báb’s covenant by failing to recognize the next prophet when they should have known better. That’s really a redefinition of the term. It’s more likely that Subh-i-Azal and his Azali Bábís are categorized as CBs because that is the worst possible label a Baha’is can apply (although many chuckle that ‘inactive’ is on par).

The bona fide concept of CBing was initiated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (appointed by Bahá’u’lláh his father). He was a wonderful man who wrote and spoke with great spiritual beauty…. for the most part. He lost his love look when talking about CBs. His concept of CBs seems similar to the concept of kufr in Islam. Kufr is baaad. The CBs were ‘ingrates’, ungrateful towards God. They knew they were selfishly opposing the will of God. They were people who could see the light but chose to walk proudly into the darkness. How bad would you be if you knew what God wanted and then did the opposite, attempting to conceal the Truth. Well, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had a half-brother too! His name was Muhammad `Alí. He had been given a high profile in the Faith by his father Bahá’u’lláh but not the key position. He very quickly began to challenge ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He didn’t challenge his legitimacy as leader (one tick for Bahá’u’lláh’s written appointment) but claimed he was abusing his authority by making out he was a prophet (all very much denied). Muhammad `Alí set up his own group of followers called Unitarians which quickly gathered the support of very many highly respected Baha’is, including most of the family of Bahá’u’lláh and some of the family of the Báb. Serious stuff for any new leader. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá declared his half-brother and all those who followed him CBs.



Blood is Thicker

Next up was Shoghi Effendi (tick two for written appointments). He declared the remaining family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, outside of himself to be CBs. He had this half-brother… no he didn’t, apologies – just got stuck in a rut there! Mind you the excommunications did include his two brothers and two sisters.


This time the family alienation didn’t originate due to a leadership dispute but mainly because of some people not following his orders and some other people getting married without his authorization. Shoghi Effendi was supposed to name and agree his successor during his life-time. However, he did have a logistical issue. His successor was supposed to be one of his own progeny or at least be from Bahá’u’lláh’s family line. He had no children himself and, of course, the remainder of Bahá’u’lláh’s family line had now been declared CBs. So, what to do? Well, nothing it seems, as no successor was appointed at the time of his death in a London hotel from complications of Asiatic flu. The grand idea of written succession appeared to have run aground on its third outing.



When God Changes The Plan

Baha’is were slightly surprised at this turn of events as they were expecting a continuing line of Guardians after Shoghi Effendi until the next prophet would arrive. According to Baha’i scripture, this next prophet wasn’t due for a thousand, maybe many thousands of, years. Shoghi Effendi was also the last person who could interpret scripture so the Baha’is could not figure out if the arrival of the next divine educator could be brought forward.


Necessity and invention, the Baha’is picked themselves up and, under the temporary leadership of a body of nine prominent Baha’i figures, acting as custodians, the UHJ was elected. This ensured that God’s guidance could continue to flow in the world. Just think how bad things would have been since 1963 if it were not for the election of the UHJ!


It hadn’t been all plain sailing. During the custodial period one of the most revered members of the temporary body, Mason Remey, made a claim to be the next Guardian. He didn’t get across the line though. Unable to convince the custodians, he was declared a CB and eventually set up his own alternative Baha’i structure.



Definition Creep and the Slippery Slope

An overly discerning observer may have noticed a pattern of increasing mutability concerning the sins that may result in the heinous title of CB. In addition to coup plotting and the establishment of competing Baha’i groups, you can be done for disobedience. Besides guilt by disobedient association, what other levels of disobedience would have you in conflict with the covenant? Well, that’s completely at the discretion of the leadership of the Faith. Today, the UHJ is the leader and will continue to be until the next prophet comes.


Mostly, the UHJ doesn’t tend to take out the big hammer and drive the CB stake through your heart. It prefers to leave it in its back pocket as a potential later discussion point and use one of a number of more nimble charges instead. The development of a toolbox of covenant protecting terminology was most pronounced during the Internet Baha’i Wars of the nineteen nineties and the naughties. It ranged from allegations of ‘opposition’ to the implementation of ‘disenrollment’. Although only the UHJ could disenroll a member, any rank and file member could practice lower levels of what was termed ‘covenant baiting’. This baiting created a ‘panoptican environment’ (use of the P word alone was enough to mark you as suspect). Indeed, it became so widespread that the CB acronym for Covenant Breaker was re-used as the acronym for Covenant Bait.


Some felt that much of this new toolbox was worse than the CB stake itself. Instead of a quick spiritual death you tend to malinger. If you managed to tickle an administrative nerve too many then you may be disenrolled. Disenrollment is actually quite a mercy unto you if you did but know it. Instead of putting you through the incredibly stressful, embarrassing and (literally) soul-destroying process leading to the declaration of your CBness, the House determines that you don’t sufficiently understand/accept the basic principles of the Faith and so cannot ever have been counted as a valid member. A Baha’i annulment. If you leave or are kicked out of the Baha’i Faith you are definitely NOT a CB. Joe Schmoe left the faith to spend more time with his family and is NOT a CB. Joe Schmoe, who is NOT a CB, went to a shop to buy a newspaper. Oh no, Joe Schmoe.


There can be an element of humour in this. In 2010, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Brazil, when informing Juan Colaço of the UHJ’s decision to disenroll him, attached pamphlets associated with Catholicism, Scientology, Rastafarianism and an extra-terrestrial conspiracy group. They commented that, in their view, Juan was more likely to find fulfillment within one or more of those groups. An offended and furious Colaço spread this email far and wide resulting in an implicit apology from the Brazilian NSA that due to ‘a copy and pasting problem’ the Catholic brochure had been attached in error! This particular comical situation, enhanced by a seething Colaço, had a brief unifying effect on all parties as everyone knew that it was his ex-wife Sarita, the Secretary of the Brazilian NSA that had written the email. The next couple of recipients of the disenrollment tag all hammed profusely about the blandness of their expulsion. Even stranger, a proposal was put to the UHJ (through the proper channels) that a light-hearted and jocular approach in the manner of Colaço be taken to all disenrollment communications. The proposal was voted on by the UHJ but was not accepted. A House member later commented that although it was logistically possible as the jokes could be delegated to the relevant NSA, the timing couldn’t always be guaranteed to be appropriate and, as we all know, with comedy timing is everything.



Hold on a Moment Said the Plain Bellied Sneetches

Despite continuing pressure from a number of online Baha’i communities for the Baha’i Administration to review its policies on such miscellaneous topics as ‘women on the UHJ’, ‘gay Bahais’, ‘the election process’ and ‘We Rue Ruhi’ the UHJ was, at first, able to not only contain the situation but increase its reputation amongst the faithful as a fearless defender of the spirit and letter of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. With initial collateral damage of just a handful of CB declarations and disenrollments, the UHJ firmly reinforced the Baha’i principles of consultation through the correct channels. As time wore on, there were an increasing number of resignations, particularly in the western countries. This was good and bad. Bad for numbers but good for the average ‘firmness in the covenant’ quotient. The UHJ response to this spate of resignations was to issue messages that encouraged the Friends to develop an increasingly firm Baha’i character and to rejoice in the importance of the immediacy of certain Baha’i teaching activities at a time where there was no time to delay. Many of the resigned and some of the remaining looked to a group called ‘Unenrolled Bahais” started by a teacher named Karen Bacquet. It was an online group that provided a counseling service where ex, disillusioned and disenrolled Baha’is could tell their story in a non-judgmental setting – anonymously if wished. This group grew so big (some say 250,000) that concerns arose amongst the Baha’i hoi polloi and even some of the senior figures that Bacquet was garnering support for herself in opposition to the UHJ. Most surprisingly, the UHJ decided that there was no basis for this conclusion and that the spiritual status of many of those dear souls who find refuge in ‘Unenrolled Bahais’ is equivalent to a seeker in an early valley who, with prayer and increased understanding of the covenant, would find their way to firmness. This satisfied the firm Bahai’s who after conferences dedicated to the covenant would re-engage with the UBs, newly armed with the latest covenantal knowledge. In fact, the UBs were extremely well-organised and had already subtly shown their strength in a number of large Local Spiritual Assemblies in America as well as having significant, though well-concealed, representation on up to fourteen National Spiritual Assemblies in countries with a very sparse Baha’i population. The writing was on the wall for the UHJ and its Administrative Order. These people needed to be accommodated. They obviously weren’t playing fair in the elections and were voting en bloc to gain a political outcome, something absolutely not permitted in Baha’i elections. How could they be stopped without completely redesigning the election process? Whilst the UHJ would be happy to do this, it probably couldn’t be done before the next UHJ election and it might make them angry and, let’s face it, they had the numbers to get two or three members onto the House. There was a highly proxied dialog where no direct discussion occurred between the major parties. Enough messages were sent and received, as well as agreements reached, between the UHJ and the UB elites to keep both happy.



After All These Years

Although the UHJ has been harsh towards a small number of CB’d and disenrolled individuals whilst exercising some political expediency and leniency towards the ‘Unenrolled Bahais’, the collective good has been maintained. Following just a few decades of UHJ sanctioned, global, resource education programs, the rate of growth of the Faith is again matching that of the world population in general. The world has reached a stage that could very reasonably be considered equivalent to the prophesied Baha’i notion of the lesser peace, a stage where there is an authoritative, global, political unity – a world government – overseeing a federation of nation states. And, just as prophesied, it wasn’t the Baha’is who got the world there but the leaders of the former nation states with a lot of encouragement, it has to be said, from Layla, the One World Warrior. That played extremely well to a Baha’i audience. Although not a Baha’i herself, this whole history from the Báb to the UHJ was a substantial part of Layla’s ethnic and personal identity. It is very probably the causal reason why she dedicated herself to the grand notion of world unity. Heck, she was born in Haifa and was suckled at the World Centre on Mount Carmel. As a baby did she commune with Bahá’u’lláh at his shrine? Or is that too superstitious? Either way, it was morale boosting gold for a House member to take the stage at an international conference and equivocate a response to the gasping teenage question ‘I know like Layla isn’t registered as a Baha’i but is she like an agent of the House or something?’ with a smiling countenance and ‘yes, very funny question. I think I see where you are going with this and I’m not sure I can go with you. Yes, I think my only response to that is I’m not in any position to make a comment on that – at this time’. Yes, even a House member would be forced to speculate, it might all be true! Might be all true! God is in his heaven and directing things like he said. The pain has all been worth it. The pattern of future society will reflect our maturing Baha’i community. Onwards to a greater peace! Surely Layla can’t be a Covenant Breaker? That would be a downer.


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