social action & social discourse – European Bahá’í conference on justice

Entry 38


This entry seeks to give a brief account on our participation at the European Bahá’í conference on justice, entitled: social action & social discourse, at the Depoort Centre in the Netherlands, 17-19 December, organised by the Tahirih Institute.

In particular, this entry tries to describe the learning that has taken place, in relation to the current situation: at the end of the 3rd semester of the ma multilearn and some courses that seem relevant to the topic of social justice; the preparation of the thesis.

Description of the program as advertised : SOCIAL ACTION – SOCIAL DISCOURSEHow can social action by individuals, small groups, or complex development programmes, contribute to the prosperity and well-being of communities on both a material and spiritual level? How can our participation in public discourses contribute to the material and spiritual advancement of civilization? And how can the reciprocal concepts of unity and justice inform and guide our efforts on these fronts. This conference will actively involve participants in an exploration of these themes, as part of an ongoing effort to learn how to translate spiritual principles into social reality. The programme will include focused plenary presentations as well as participatory sessions and workshops.

Facilitators: Michael Karlberg, Holly Hanson, Kit Bigelow
Programme: Friday: 16.30 Opening of the Conference, 17.00 Presentation: Social Action & Discourse, 18.00 Dinner, 19.30 Workshop: Guidance on Social Action & Discourse

What we actually did: Due to heavy snow, many participants were delayed. So we started with Michael Karlberg who outlined the program. We started to deepen our understanding on the subject by reading paragraphs 1&7 from the 2008 Ridvan message to the Bahá’ís of the World, paragraphs 3-6 from a letter dated 4.1.2009 to a National Spiritual Assembly, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice and paragraphs 25-32 from the 2010 Ridvan message to the Bahá’ís of the World. We read a few paragraphs at a time, followed by clarifications on vocabulary. Michael then asked a few questions about the content.

Three broad areas of action can be examined and although distinct from one another, must achieve a high degree of coherence between them, … and lend substantial impetus to the movement towards the spiritually and materially prosperous civilization. The process of systematic learning will ensure this coherence.

a. Expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community

b. Social action

c. Efforts to participate in the discourses of society. Be present in many social spaces

On learning & understanding:

¶26 the capacity created in the Bahá’í community …renders it increasingly able to lend assistance in the manifold diverse dimensions of civilization building, opening to it new frontiers of learning.

¶27 extend the process of systematic learning in which they are engaged to encompass a widening range of human endeavours. …provide spiritual education to all members of the population—adults, youth and children.

¶29 protagonists of social change learn to apply with increasing effectiveness elements of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation, together with the contents and methods of science, to their social reality.

¶32 friends in every cluster preserver in applying the provisions of the Plan through a process of action, reflection, consultation and study, and learn as a result. The community … employs these elements creatively in new areas of learning.

Consultation bestoweth greater awareness and transmuteth conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leadeth the way and guideth. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation. (Compilations, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

On justice:

¶29 justice demands universal participation

Tread ye the path of justice, for this, verily, is the straight path. (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.22)

Justice denied anywhere, diminishes justice everywhere (Martin Luther King, Jr. (American Baptist Minister and Civil-Rights Leader. 1929-1968))

Justice and power must be brought together, so tht whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just. (Blaise Pascal (French Mathematician, Philosopher and Physicist. 1623-1662))

Saturday: 09.15 Devotional,
09.30 Presentation: Transcending Structures of Self-Interested Thought and Action
10.45 Workshop: Justice in the Context of Oneness
13.30 Workshop: Justice as a Compass for Decision Making and Action
15.30 Workshop: Justice, Knowledge, and Oppression
19.00 Presentation: Human Rights Discourse and Advocacy
Sunday: 09.15 Devotional
09.30 Workshop: The Struggle for Justice & the Question of “Politics”
13.00 Presentation: Approaching Social Action & Discourse with a Posture of Learning
14.00 Workshop: Coherence and Collaboration

We spent most of our time in groups of 15-20 participants, discussing two further documents: an evolving discussion paper on Justice, drafted at the request of the Institute for Global Prosperity, 13.11.2010. This 10 page document is entitled: Conceptualizing Justice and has 6 subheadings: justice in the context of oneness, justice as a faculty of the human soul, justice as a compass for collective decision making and collective action, the structural dimensions of justice, justice knowledge and oppression, conclusion.

The second document has 8 pages and is called: workshop: the struggle for justice and the question of ‘politics’, and includes a passage from Bahá’í Writings and several letters written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 24.10.1990, to a group of Bahá’ís, a letter from the Universal House of Justice, 27.11.2001, to an individual believer, a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 23.12.2008, to an individual believer and a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 22.7.2009, to selected National Assemblies.

On learning, conscience and knowledge

The workshop: the struggle for justice and the question of ‘politics’ includes many instances of the word conscious and it may be worthwhile to reflect how conscience relates to learning and knowledge. Shoghi Effendi states:

The interdependence of the peoples and nations of the earth … is already an accomplished fact. … Adversity, … allied to chaos and universal destruction, must needs , … stir the conscience of the world, …

Abdu’l-Bahá’ emphasized the universal change of consciousness needed to bring about so fundamental a reorientation.

Shoghi Effendi described the emerging consciousness of the oneness of humankind … Humanity is passing through the darkest period of its collective history. .. people of conscience .. , the dictates of conscience …, the conscience motivating the activity, …

The House of Justice, writing to a believer, states: “the functioning of one’s conscience … depends upon one’s understanding of right and wrong, … Conscience, therefore, can serve either as a bulwark of an upright character or can represent an accumulation of prejudices learned from one’s forebears or absorbed from a limited social code.

…one aspect of his spiritual and intellectual growth is to foster the development of his conscience in the light of divine Revelation, … discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.

Conscience needs to be developed, requires knowledge and learning. Our efforts, our work may well be judged by the way we contribute to promote unity, justice.

As a Bahá’í who is a political scientist, you have a great deal of latitude to comment on social issues. One way to criticize the social and political order of the day without siding with or opposing an existing regime is to offer a deeper analysis on the level of political theory rather than practical politics. … you will have to learn over time how to find a balance between the principles and concepts you hold as true that come from the Teachings of the Faith and from your discipline.

Related to the second document are 5 scenarios, related to several burning issues, (climate change, waste disposal, the wake of terrorist attacks, preserving universal health care, global poverty) where participants should consult upon, come up with a strategy for action and highlight what principles are relevant to the decision making.

Ideas I’ve been able to take away from this conference:

Key concepts reflected upon: justice, social action & social discourse, unity, expansion & consolidation, framework for action, coherence & systematic learning.

What a powerful reminder of the role of justice: The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice, and the essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye, Bahá’u’lláh proclaims.

This guidance, to look with the eye of oneness and to look into all things with a searching eye, certainly needs further reflection. What does this mean today? How can we relate this text to another statement by Bahá’u’lláh: see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and … know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour. How is this possible if what we see with our eyes is intimately linked to our experiences and social background? As regards knowledge, what will guide our search in seeking out relevant knowledge that has been generated? Could these questions lead us to stating: we need criteria in order to know what to look for, what to see and how to see? Could we need a framework, and grounding for our actions? If so, then several promising undertakings can guide our search: the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, an agency of the Universal House of Justice ; FUNDAEC and their course offered through Lazoslearning : insights included in Paul Lample’s book: Revelation & Social Reality, 2009.

Relating the need to social justice with the scientific endeavour in the field of education, Denzin, Lincoln and Giardina advocate in their article: Disciplining qualitative research, 2006: “for a qualitative research paradigm that is committed to social justice and the promise of radical, progressive democracy”.

Notes and relevant passages from the discussion paper on Justice:

Conceptualizing Justice

Justice must be a core element of the conceptual framework that guides our participation in the discourses of society.

Justice in the context of oneness

The organic conception of a unified and interdependent social body “must frame any effort to understand” Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on justice. … the human family constitutes a single species, and the condition of any part of it cannot be intelligently considered in isolation from this systemic oneness.

How can distributive justice, or retributive justice, or any other expression of justice, serve as an instrument of unity? How can struggles for justice, on every front, be approached in unifying ways?

We need to walk with all others who are devoted to the cause of justice a long-term path of learning.

Justice as a faculty of the human soul

Justice is a latent capacity of the human soul, …such as love, compassion and mercy.

Justice is characterized by the capacity to distinguish right from wrong, …inseparable from the independent investigation of reality. It is not .. prejudice, blind imitation of others and self-interested interpretations of reality. Justice is fair-mindedness wedded to an authentic search for truth, … “the revealer of the secrets of the world of being”.

Through the eye of justice … all people deserve the same opportunities to realize their potential.

Justice as a compass for collective decision making and collective action

We must learn how to apply the principle of justice within processes of collective decision making and collective action at all levels, within families, within the workplace, within organizations of civil society, within corporations, and within institutions of governance.

A concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved (Prosperity of Humankind).

Applying the principle of justice requires a consultative approach to truth seeking.

How can justice be pursued through unifying and constructive means.

The structural dimensions of justice

Bahá’ís recognize the need for an “organic change in the structure of present-day society”. “…the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions”.

Harness the latent spiritual capacities, … altruism, cooperation, reciprocity, love and compassion, … unifying and transformative powers that are the keys to a more just social order.

We need to work shoulder to shoulder with others in the generation of practical knowledge.

Justice, knowledge and oppression

The absence of knowledge is one of the major causes of injustice and oppression. The empowerment of the masses of humanity in the generation of knowledge. We have all been raised within social structures that perpetuate injustice and oppression … at this time in history and we have all, to varying degrees, internalized their assumptions and logic.

Discourse analysis is an excellent tool to deconstruct some of our ways of thinking and talking and writing that may uncover unjust and oppressive ways of being and acting in the world. James Paul Gee, Norman Fairclough and Lakoff provide interesting reading.


How does the principle of justice inform our understanding of unity? Justice must be the ruling principle in human society. We need to learn how to articulate, in a coherent and compelling manner, the integral relationship between unity and justice. Neither is possible without the other. Unity is the governing dynamic that underlies all of reality. We can explore with others the question of how to construct a more unified and just social order.

Peace can only be established, if unity is obtained, and unity requires justice.

Here is a description of the facilitators:

Dr. Michael Karlberg is a professor of communication and culture at Western Washington University. He is the author of Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence, as well as numerous related journal articles, including a recently published article on Constructive Resilience: The Bahá’í Response to Oppression in Iran. His interdisciplinary research and writing focuses on the relationship between communication and cultural change.

Dr. Karlberg will be exploring the following questions at the conference: What is the relationship between justice, knowledge, and oppression? How can we respond to injustice and oppression in unifying and constructive ways? What might this look like in the arenas of social action and social discourse? How does this relate to community building? What role does the advancement of knowledge play in all of these processes? How can the principle of the oneness of humanity frame our conception of justice, and guide the struggle to overcome injustice?

Holly Hanson feels grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from dynamic Baha’i communities on several continents, and to have been raised by parents who taught her that ordinary people had the capacity to create justice in the world. She teaches history at Mount Holyoke College, which is the oldest university for women in the United States, and one specifically commended by Abdu’l Baha. In courses such as “The History of Global Inequality” and “African Cities: Development Dreams and Nightmares” she asks students to consider how human actions have created the world as it is, and what kinds of actions will be necessary to transform modern societies. She is currently working on a book on Uganda, “The Shape of the Present: Kampala and the Aspirations of Ugandans” which seeks to explain the failure of modernity in Africa, explicitly using Karl Polanyi’s assertion that modern forms of economy destroyed essential social institutions, and implicitly using Abdu’l Baha’s explanations that love, severance and generosity are the core of effective economies and societies.

Holly is the author of Landed Obligation: the Practice of Power in Buganda, Social and Economic Development: A Baha’i Approach, and numerous essays on Ugandan history, social justice and the processes of social transformation. Her most recent book, “A Path of Justice: Building Communities with the Power to Change the World is in press with Grace Publications.

Holly has participated in the activities of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity and in Uganda is involved with Kimanya-Ng’eyo, an organization implementing the Preparation for Social Action program of rural education developed by FUNDAEC.

Holly received her PhD from the University of Florida in 1997 and has been the recipient of a number of scholarly awards, including two Fulbrights and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.

Kit Bigelow

As director of external affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the U.S. for twenty-five years, Kit Bigelow had overall responsibility for the functioning of the Washington-based Office of External Affairs and of the Office of the U.S. Bahá’í Representative to the United Nations in New York. She retired from the position in June 2010.

Additionally, she had overall responsibility for the Bahá’í Refugee Office and the Office of Public Information until their integration into other agencies of the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly. Issues included human rights, religious freedom, the advancement of women, refugee affairs, sustainable development, media relations, and UN matters.

She represented the National Spiritual Assembly in the promotion and protection of human rights, including religious freedom, the advancement of the rights of women, U.S. ratification of UN human rights treaties, and the elimination of racism. She advocated on these issues, often with other non- governmental organizations, at the White House, the State Department, the Congress, and the United Nations.

She was responsible for informing the U.S. government and U.S. national news media about the persecution of the Bahá’í communities in Iran and other Muslim countries. She testified in numerous hearings and briefings before Congress on the oppression of the Bahá’ís in Iran and in Egypt.

For eight years, she was the co-chair of the national Working Group for U.S. Ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She was actively involved in U.S. ratification of the UN Genocide Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Racial Discrimination. She was the representative for the Bahá’ís of the U.S. at the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In March 2000, she served as a public sector adviser on the U.S. government delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.Ms. Bigelow was co-founder and co-chair of the Working Group on the Human Rights of Women. The Working Group was formed to instill a human rights framework into the Platform for Action, the UN document of governments’ commitments from the Fourth World Conference on Women to advance women’s lives. She was also a founder and treasurer of the board of directors of U.S. Women Connect, which implements the Platform for Action and the U.S. Women’s National Action Agenda.

She is on the steering committee of the Women in International Law Interest Group of the American Society of International Law and has served as its co- chair. She is a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group and the Women in International Security.

Ms. Bigelow has spoken and published on human rights, religious freedom, international law, and the UN system, including at Harvard University and Law School, the University of Notre Dame, American University and Miami University. Her article, “A Campaign to Deter Genocide: The Bahá’í Experience,” was published in Genocide Watch by Yale University Press.

She received her degree at Smith College where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She holds an MBA in international business from Georgetown University. Before her work for the National Spiritual Assembly, she held professional positions in both the public and private sectors in financial management and economic development.


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