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Archive for November 20th, 2006

Growing up Baha’i

A while back I wrote about religion and politics.   Someone made a comment on that post encouraging me to write a little more about the Baha’i World Faith.  At the time, I thought this was a pretty good suggestion, and so here I am.

I do not pretend to be an expert on the Baha’i World Faith.  I guess this is the standard disclaimer.  If I make some mistakes, sorry.  But this is what I remember.

When I was about three, my parents decided that they had found the best religion for them, and became Baha’is.  At the time, the Baha’i World Faith had been in existence for about 115 years.  There were not a lot of Baha’is in American, in spite of the fact that we had a Temple in Willmette, Illinois. 

Since I was three at the time my folks joined this religion, it did not have a profound effect on me at the time, except for the fact that I no longer had to go to Sunday school and put my penny down the steeple of the plastic church model.  This was our childish contribution to the money collected for Missions.  I had no idea what those were, but I knew I needed a penny for that steeple every Sunday.

As I got older, the community of Baha’is that we were members of grew larger.  They began organizing children’s classes.  We learned songs about tolerance and world peace, and studied elementary facts about all the world’s major religions.  We made crafts, and learned some very beautiful prayers.  At least once a year there would be an International potluck, where people made food of their nationality, or any nationality they chose if they were tired of being boring old Americans.  Participants dressed in costumes representing the culture of the food they brought.  We also did a little research about the lives lived in those countries. 

There were many precepts of the Baha’i World Faith that I learned at an early age.  These were principles that the founder of the religion, a man from Persia named Baha’u’llah, had written about during the 1850s and 60s.  He was a man far ahead of his time.   Many of these principles seem perfectly obvious now, but they were pretty ground breaking back when he was writing them.  He was persecuted as a heretic and spent quite a long time in prison and then in exile.

For example, one of the little songs I was taught before I went to kindergarten went like this:  “God is One, Man is one, and all the religions are one, Land and sea, hill and valley, under the beautiful sun!  God is One, Man is one, and all the religions agree.  When everyone learns the three One-nesses, we’ll have world unity.”  Pretty deep for a 5 year old.  Later on, it was made more clear than just a catchy tune. 

Baha’is believe that there is only one God.  He created one human race of many different cultures and colors.   But He loved them all equally.   In order to teach them how to live properly, He revealed his wisdom in a progressive revelation.  Just as you do not try to teach quantum physics to a bunch of kindergartners, you do not reveal all the truths and precepts of a modern religion to a humanity that is young and ignorant.  The bylaws changed once in a while, too, according to the need of the people God was talking to.

We were taught that the first prophet of God was Adam.  He taught us that we were different from the animals in that we had souls.   When Moses led the Israelites out of bondage into the desert, in addition to the Ten Commandments, God revealed some elementary dietary laws that would keep a people with no refrigeration and no antibiotics from getting sick because they ate a lot of spoiled food. 

All the major world religions were viewed by Baha’is as parts of one beautiful whole.   We were taught to respect and love all the great Teachers who brought us the many words of God:  Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, and Baha’u’llah.  In addition, we were taught to keep our minds open to other sources of the Word that we might not have come across yet.

One of the three One-nesses was the unity of Mankind.  We were taught that all people were equal in God’s eyes, regardless of how they might look.  We were also taught to respect other people’s cultures, to view them as a source of great diversity of experience.  Racism was anathema to Baha’is, I grew up with people of all races and backgrounds considered to be important family friends.  When I finally met true-blue racists when I was in high school, I could hardly believe my ears.  It just seemed to be such a silly attitude to me.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned just how naive and idealistic I was, and just how ugly and dangerous those attitudes are.   

Other principles that were taught by Baha’u’llah were part of my life the whole time I was growing up.  He taught that men and women were equal, that every person should be educated.  It was very important to educate women, since they were the main educators of the family. 

We were not taught to hate the military.  We were taught to hate war.  Nations should have the means to protect their borders, and if a nation rose unjustly in war against another, all the other nations should immediately band together to put that rogue nation back in its place.   Doesn’t this sound a lot like what the United Nations is supposed to be doing and isn’t?

The Faith was organized to be a true democracy.  If Baha’u’llah’s  (and according to him, God’s) vision had been realized and the people of the world had embraced the Faith, we would be a world of people governed by democratically elected councils, organized from local to national to international levels.  Local Spiritual Assemblies, National Spiritual Assemblies, the Universal House of Justice.  I’m not sure how we would have ended up with an Interstate Highway System under this sort of government, but the world never had a chance to find out either.

There’s a lot more.  I’m sure I have forgotten a lot of it.  I do know that growing up a Baha’i was just one more thing that made our family stand out in weirdness in the small community where my parents chose to live.  For example, we didn’t celebrate Easter, we celebrated Naw Ruz, which was Persian for “New Year”, on the first day of spring.   And my mother even kept us out of school for it, too.

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