June 1, 2020
Recently I came upon a prophetic passage regarding the worrisome future of America, which was conveyed ninety-nine years ago (June 10, 1921) in a letter to the head of a Baha’i organization in this country. In it the writer quotes ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who was at the time the head of the world wide Baha’i Faith. When he had traveled across the USA in 1912 giving people news and spiritual teachings of the new religion ‘Abdu’l-Baha became informed of the situation between white and black citizens. In the passage below he predicts the “destruction of America” because of divisions between the races as well as the manipulations by “America’s enemies” of blacks and whites—and I was struck by the prescience.Portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Baha by Khalil Gibran
This is, to me, especially potent because the message of the Baha’i Faith is that as differences can be resolved by peaceful means between contending groups of people humanity will gradually move into a Golden Age. Though not until there has come “That which will cause the limbs of mankind to quake.” Also, in many speeches and letters ‘Abdu’l-Baha said that America would hold a special place in the process of unifying human beings.
If you read the whole thing you will see why I am concerned about the passage below.
Some few days ago in the far northern middle of the USA a black man, George Floyd, was mercilessly killed by a police officer who wore a weirdly unsettling facial expression along with his cruel body language as he knelt on Mr. Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes. Nine minutes! Have you ever noticed how long nine seconds can feel? The officer, later charged with murder, never responded to his victim’s pleas to be allowed to breathe. Neither did the other three police officers on the scene.
Immediately the country, from shore to shore and up and down, erupted in violence unmatched in passion by anything — including 9/11 — since the 1960s.
I’ve lived through nation wide riots and demonstrations before, as have many. Although none were accompanied by a pandemic.
It started for me in high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas. Like everyone else who was around at the time I recall precisely what I was doing as I received the news, the feeling that a lump of lead had struck me in the stomach. I was an innocent, unprepared for such violence. Then Malcolm X, whom I later came to admire as someone who came from the hardest origins yet educated himself to a high level, who stood up fearlessly for black rights and did much, for a while, to raise awareness of Islam in America. Then when Dr. Martin Luther King died I cried a lot for someone with such a powerful and important message, which deeply touched my spirit. Then Robert Kennedy. Although there were gaps, months, years, between the events the raw wounds of each hit us hard, stripping away innocence alongside ignorance, adding layers and extra speed to the existential snowball of pain, anger and frustration that was rolling.
Kennedy died ten years after the Korean War ended. Two years after that the Vietnam war began. I begin to wonder if we Americans were somehow bored when nothing violent was going on.
These days I am wondering about that, again considering whether we are in a period of reckoning long overdue, venting like volcanoes in the streets.
Then, in 1970 there came another round of riots following the killing of unarmed students by National Guard soldiers at Kent State in Ohio. Things were so tense around the country that my graduation from Boston University was cancelled. Among other disappointing cancellations of events that meant something to someone yet had to go for the greater good. My brother and his friend died in a car wreck a few days before the graduation would have happened, so all in all I was too numb to take much notice. It took me about a year to be ready to move forward with any enthusiasm.
As a white person I acknowledge that the killings of the four well known figures cumulatively hit black Americans especially hard. Not everyone, of course, because regardless of surface coloring people have their unique views of events. We got shockwaves, they saw new struggles, deaths, never ending injustices, little peace, a lot of redlining — a cop almost existential, ready to shoot. So little “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” In the Kennedys the loss was of powerful white men who were supportive of black rights; with MLK it involved his very active practice of passive resistance and compelling eloquence; with Malcolm X it was a clear sighted, charismatic social activist, distinctly not passive, an eloquent urban leader who elevated awareness of the Nation of Islam and then a different type of Islam; who fought hard for black rights. I clearly remember catching a taxi ride back to Boston University from the bus station in 1969 with a black driver who had a large and interesting ring on. He was obviously tense and nervous, driving a young white woman around yet I was almost oblivious when I commented on it. His halting explanation began my education into Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam. I was sorry when the ride ended, and that was when I decided to study Malcom X, then gone four years, and the reasons for his split from the Nation of Islam and later conversion to Sunni Islam, ultimately to an all inclusive vision of humanity, a bit more.
That was the moment when the comfortable suburban white cocoon I’d grown up in began to crumble, when I began to sense the rising force of Black Power.
I grew up in a very white, very middle class region, and had it not been for my Baha’i mother and grandmother I would not have realized so early that the country was rife with injustice towards people who didn’t look like us. But until I went to the highly diverse BU I lacked a lot of interaction with people of different skin tones. One reason for that lack was the veiled racism permeating everyday life in such places as where I grew up. It has taken me these nearly six decades to even slightly scratch the surface of sources for the fountainhead of this rage and sorrow.
As a last word on my time in my birth area, there came a need, when I was married and had a small daughter, to place an announcement about a Baha’i event — I think it was Race Unity Day — in a local paper. One day not long afterwards we returned to our yard after doing errands to find somebody had dumped hundreds of swastikas, hand cut sharply from newsprint, all over the backyard. Somehow it seemed more personal that way, since our land was large, the back yard screened from public access. The things had been blowing out front, too, and that’s where my little girl and I first spotted them.
Now I say to myself, sheesh, and I thought swastikas were such a personal violation? What about people who got a burning cross? A rock or a bomb through a window? Or had a loved one lynched.
For the USA and for African Americans racial injustice goes back to before the Constitution. Shortly after the get go in the early 1600s east coast colonizers began practicing slavery and slaughtering the native peoples. When Spaniards arrived in Florida in 1565, and in the Southwestern US in 1540-42 they, for reasons of religious subjugation as well as political ambition, began torturing and killing the native peoples. The Constitution was signed in 1787 and the government under it began on March 4, 1789.
For voting purposes the Constitution’s framers determined how black slaves in toto would be counted — three out of every five slaves — and added to the state’s white population. Southern states thus showed a larger population than if the slaves were not counted at all, but less than if all had been counted. Whatever the difference in taxes and political clout, this signified to the world that in the new nation, ownership by one human being of other human beings would be legal. That the boatloads of dark skinned people of Africa were welcome to dock on the shores of the new country and the cargo to be put on the auction block.
In the Declaration of Independence, commemorated annually on the Fourth of July, the words after Thomas Jefferson’s famous statement that “all men are created equal”, declaimed the country’s indigenous people, the American Indians as “merciless savages.”
So right there you have the fountainhead for centuries of injustice, bloodshed, lynchings — and now the roaring expression of accumulated suffering and rage, volcanic in the streets. I’ve included the information about Native Americans because their struggles, though entirely different in origin, have from the very beginning of the country run alongside those of America’s black population. Genocides and countless injustices have rained upon both peoples because of white Europeans’ sense of superiority and right to march into one continent well south of them, buy a bunch of people from others who may have had some authority (or not) to take money for them, haul them across an ocean under sickening conditions, and sell the survivors on a different continent for a tidy profit. As well as to step onto a new continent, plant a flag where nobody but themselves could spot it, and declare all the land around and beyond to be their very own. Or their king’s, though he wasn’t about to sail over himself to check things out and was therefore later discarded after a fight that was fair by European standards. They also set about subduing the many nations and confederations of people who’d already lived there for millennia.
Chaco Canyon, for instance, was the epitome of southwestern indigenous sophistication at the same time –1066 — William the Conqueror was bludgeoning his way into England from a Scandinavian occupied corner of France, with great bloody fanfare. I can’t claim to have an opinion as to which civilization was more civilized at the time, but both sets of people inhabited clunky stone structures, fought ferociously against their enemies and experienced major downswings a couuple of centuries later. Chaco Canyon disappeared mysteriously as the Dark Ages settled over Europe. A few centuries later had not the malcontents from that Britain found their way to North America, along with bold Spaniards, who knows to what heights the indigenous cultures might have risen. Or not.
I mention these matters because if America is actually undergoing some kind of destruction it is nothing that the soil of the continent has not borne witness to in the past. Such major population and cultural shifts happen, often with immense human cost.
It seems a great pity that regardless of considerable alterations in human conditions since the colonies set up their first government, changes in religious practices, hygiene, housing, jobs, life spans, tooth decay and much else that some people with white skins — oftentimes whose families have not lived in the US for a terribly long time — manage to believe that they can still carry out the belief systems of those original European settlers. That white rules for some inchoate reason, in other words, is what a certain percentage of Americans have made a fuss about in such places as Charlottesville several years ago. Possibly some people with that belief decided to add to the decimation of Minneapolis during recent violent protests of Mr. Floyd’s death, in the hope of making things that much worse.
In these musings, while continuing to be somewhat cut off from the outside world thanks to covid 19 sheltering, I still eagerly watch for light and hope for a bright future not only for the United States, but for every country, for the entire planet and the skies that support its life. The waters and forests that give it vital things of which we as yet may be unaware. And I do find these glowing qualities in the doings of the countless good people who make a point of sharing with others, of being the change that we want to see, of performing random acts of kindness, of shining light into darkness.
Platitudes become what they are because they can speak truth — once in a while.
Never, ever underestimate the power of a small and simple gesture of kindness, of joy, of pleasure in encountering someone who is different from oneself, or very similar to oneself. Even if we now have to do elbow bumps instead of handshakes.
We know that there are always two forces pushing back and forth with our life on earth, construction and destruction. Right now we are certainly going through a highly destructive phase — which has the potential to blow up into a conflagration the like of which we have probably never seen in our times. For we have, besides sweeping outrage after centuries of injustice, the invisible enemy, SARS-CoV-2. We daily witness lapses in effective governing at the highest levels. We know that certain other countries are interfering in our upcoming elections and they’re not even being shy about it. Our social media are there evidently amplifying our differences with their artificial echo chambers and filter bubbles. To be fair, much good also occurs through judicious use of the same social media. We just need a King Solomon to help us sort that all out. We have acquired an existential threat from the disease which will likely continue until we get close to a unified understanding about combating and draining the disease of its great potency.
Meanwhile, frustrations both personal and economic stemming from the pandemic underlie the current chaotic violence around the country in a way which has not happened before in the USA. The violence would most certainly have happened following the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others had there been no novel coronavirus and economic collapse, but together …. What a driving force!
Dangerous. Volcanic, like what happened on the Big Island of Hawaii last year, There comes a time when such a force cannot be restrained. Social Pompei.
Baha’u’llah, back in 1863, proclaimed that he had come to the world in order to establish a new religion of God, and that the process of its revelation would “upset the world’s equilibrium”. As part of fulfilling this mission he wrote letters to kings and rulers of the world (including the Pope) from the exile into which he had been sent by authorities and clerics fearful of the immense outpourings of love and support he received as thousands of new followers flocked to him, thus frightening those authorities. Each missive was intended as a message to resonate down the ages.
To the President of the United States Baha’u’llah wrote:
The significant summons issued to the Presidents of the Republics of the American continent to seize their opportunity in the Day of God and to champion the cause of justice…
Thus far those successive presidents have much to answer for, and future leaders have plenty of room for improvement.
To everyone, he wrote:
O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. ~Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah
Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves. This is My best counsel unto you, did ye but observe it. ~Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. ~Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Arabic, No. 68
The emphasis in two lines in the passage is mine, as is a comment in brackets, added for clarity.
‘Abdul-Baha said: “Yes, this is the truth. If the races do not come to an agreement, there can be no question or doubt of bloodshed. When I was in America (in 1912), I told the white and colored people that it was incumbent upon them to be united or else there would be the shedding of blood. I did not say more than this so that they might not be saddened. But, indeed, there is a greater danger than only the shedding of blood. It is the destruction of America. Because aside from the racial prejudice there is another agitating factor. It is that of America’s enemies. These enemies are agitating both sides, that is, they are stirring up the white race against the colored race and the colored race against the white race. But of this the Americans are submerged in the sea of ignorance. They will regret it. But of what use will their regret be after the destruction of America? Will it be of any use then?” I [“I” probably refers to the person who received this message and then conveyed it to the Baha’i Temple Unity, in response to a question] told him of a letter which I had received from Chicago during the week, stating that two houses belonging to colored Bahais had been bombed with dynamite.
Abdul-Baha said: “ I foretell things before they happen and I write about them before they occur. The destruction of two or three houses is of [little] importance, but the importance lies in what is coming, which is the destruction of America. The Arabs have many proverbs. For instance, ‘Heavy rains begin with drops before it pours,’ and ‘The dancer starts with shaking the shoulder, then the whole body.’ Now is the time for the Americans to take up this matter and unite both the white and the colored races. Otherwise, hasten ye towards destruction! Hasten ye toward devastation!”
The context is a letter from Zia Bagdadi to Alfred Lunt, Secretary of the Bahai Temple Unity, dated 10 June 1921.
From Star of the West Vol. 12, pg. 120-121
On a bright note, here are a few images, mostly of children but with a few adults in many different countries, learning about spiritual empowerment, the importance of regular study of holy writings and of service to one’s community. The photos are from Columbia, Kiribati, the USA, Great Britain, Kenya, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Turkey