When first confronted with the assertion that
one or more Central
Figures of the Faith had spoken of America's Spiritual Destiny, as
America had anything unique or special to contribute to the future
development of the Baha'i Faith, my reaction was to laugh to myself.
Just what we need, I thought, someone telling we Americans that we
something special to contribute, when in reality we were the most
selfish, self-absorbed, materialistic, proud, and vain glorious people
on earth. It seemed to me that America was a spiritual wasteland, and
calling for a special contribution from America was wishful thinking
best, and at worst, would make American Baha'is that much more
conceited. Learning that other lands had also been called to special
unique contributions helped a little, but I certainly felt that those
other lands had a much better chance of actually fulfilling their call
to destiny. Besides, wasn't this supposed to be a global faith, calling
us all to think in world wide perspectives, and to regard ourselves
world citizens, not denizens of particular nations or lands?
Nevertheless, having accepted the challenge to question
just what could be a
spiritual destiny for America, in the context of the Baha'i Faith,
have come to regard it as not impossible that such a destiny could
exist. Having read the available Writings on the subject, and having
thought deeply about it, I have
these thoughts to share.
What is it about America that might be unique and
one thing that comes to mind is that, for all its current materialism,
worldliness, warmongering, etc., America only exists because of a
tradition of radicalism which goes back to way before the founding
the country, before even the settling of the continent by English
protestants, Puritans, religious refugees, and other assorted rabble.
The defining character of those radicals included religious passions
deep as they were wide, a longing for political freedom and democracy,
and a stubborn faith in a destiny to build a new nation that was somehow
better than what went before.
Now, the ideals behind the new colonies and immigrants
defamed than honored. While the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution declared that all men were created equal, a large portion
of the population were held as slaves, human property with no rights
no dignity whatsoever except what they could manufacture for themselves
out of whole cloth from within their unjust and unbelievable condition
of servitude. Native Americans were also sub-human, as far as I can
tell, in the minds of these American "radicals". Women, who certainly
had no advantage of "mutatis mutandi" (sp?) were better
off than the
slaves, but had no vote, little property, and few if any rights. So,
from the very beginning, the ideals of the American "radicals" were
honored more in the breach than in the observance; and in fact the
turpitude of this American rabble was so great as to make one wonder
they were not worse than those who had no such high sounding ideals.
Their good ideas and ideals were little in evidence, but yet had
potential for the future. To some extent, I see parallels with today's
Baha'i community, at least as I am familiar with it in North America.
But these Americans included quite a few radicals,
and this has made
a difference. By stating their high sounding ideals in writing, they
the stage for long and bloody battles as some became determined to
the ideals reality. I am thinking of John Brown, who sacrificed his
entire life and existence, as well as his family's, in an effort to
extend the concept of human equality to all people in the country;
like Abraham Lincoln, no saint but an instrument of God nonetheless
spill as much blood as necessary to purge the land of its primary sin,
and Frederick Douglass, who finally convinced Lincoln to forcefully
African American soldiers to turn the tide of the war, without which
the war could not have been won; men like Malcolm X, and yes
Elijah Muhammad. Radicals all, working towards a radical outcome. By
today's American standards these men were certifiably insane. John
was insane, a consummate loser, who never made much money and squandered
what he did have, all for a cause that was none of his business nor
responsibility. Could it be that we American Baha'is could find
inspiration in their very radicalism, their insane drive to right
wrongs, their quest for a better world, no matter what the cost?
From the very beginning too, there was a radical
sentiment in America. The better part of two hundred years before the
Dow Jones average hit 10,000, there was a Great Awakening across vast
swaths of this land, a religious revival so intense that it shaped
America to the very bone, and that would still find expression in
various American movements for generations. This was a religiosity
like its European forerunners at all; it was a religion of the soul,
spirit, and the common man and woman. It was informed by the spiritual
energy and soul of the down trodden African American slaves, translated
to peasant farmers, backwoods freemen, and small town shopkeepers.
believe that no valid American spiritual movement can be complete
without tapping into these spiritual roots.
All in all, it was an America which always believed
that it had a
spiritual destiny that drove every major change for the better, and
for the worse. The American revolution and the Civil War were bloody
battlegrounds of good versus evil, of ideal versus mundane, of new
versus old. The idealistic hippies of the '60's and the Black Panthers
were spiritual children of Thomas Paine and John Brown, and even of
George Fox who founded the Quaker movement in far off England as a
radical kind of Christianity that actually tried to take the ideals
Jesus seriously. We could do worse than try to tap into that sort of
radical spirit that tries to translate the most radical ideas and
principles into concrete reality.
It is, I fallibly submit, necessary for us today
to embrace that kind of radical facing
of the truth, wherever it may lead.
When we look around for truth in modern day America,
what do we find? The richest
nation the world has ever known contains more psychic misery than we
probably imagine. I have traveled somewhat to several countries much
less wealthy, where real material hardship is common. I find that most
people in these lands are happier than the average American. Look around
you any day in a Diner or Restaurant. Don't forget to look at the people
working there too! See the fear, the spiritual vacuum, the hopelessness
around you. We are drowning in a sea of dying souls thirsting for the
water of life.
I'll take my share of the blame, but am I the only one who sees this.?
I intend to get a little bit personal here, and I
make no apologies. We are all
individuals and we are all products of our backgrounds, and this chapter
an attempt after all to discover what could help us, as American
Baha'is, to reach out to our spiritual destiny. Well, I am an American
Baha'i and I have a background to which I must relate.
When I was a child, I grew up in a family which was originally of backwoods
stock. I was only exposed peripherally to the religious culture of
families' legacy, but that was enough to affect me a lot. I have several
American Indian ancestors, but I am primarily of Scotch, Irish, and
When I was a teenager, I had a born again experience.
It was quite
real. It remains, to this day, a defining moment of my life. I learned
from that experience that the human being is capable of a profound
spiritual experience, born of trust, love, and belief. Examining where
it came from, I find that my backwoods ancestors led a life centered
religious activities. No doubt their ancestors had experienced the
Awakening, as they had lived in the Cumberland river valley since Moses
Stephens came through the Cumberland Gap around the year 1800 and
settled in the Kentucky and Tennessee hills and valleys. The Southern
Baptist, Methodist, and later sometimes Pentecostal churches were the
center of their lives. They had very little material goods, less money,
and a life as happy and spirit filled as our modern American lives
usually drab and meaningless. I have since learned that the preaching
style I became acquainted with was patterned after the African American
preachers of the old south, as was much of the spiritual practice and
feeling, although no one of my ancestors would have known it.
This spiritual tradition had so much to offer in terms of depth of
community spirit, and radical-practical theology that it is difficult
to find its
like in this day and age. I suspect we must as Americans, tap somehow
our deepest American spiritual roots, absorbing all the good we can,
and at least exceed the fervency found in the Great Awakening and its aftermaths
before we can fulfill the
American Baha'i spiritual destiny.
I find in the Baha'i Faith a modern recognition of the worth of all
world's spiritual traditions, and a radical belief in the worth and
equality of all religious, cultural, and racial groups. I find in the
Baha'i Faith a religion for the future of mankind. And I believe
Baha'u'llah is the Manifestation of God for our age. There is no going
back. But I also want to tap into the legitimate spiritual traditions
forefathers, their radical search for the truth, and their radical
belief in the possibility of a better world. This is, to some extent,
our American legacy. We encourage groups like Native Americans to
explore, honor, cherish and keep alive their ancestral religious
sensibilities and activities. I think this is great and I think we
should do the same for other American heritages.
We need to encourage individual initiative
group initiative. We need to encourage new declarants to reach out
immediately to others,
to offer new ideas and energies; not discourage them immediately by
planting the notion in
their minds that they can't really contribute until they've "deepened".
We need to unleash
and revitalize the radical spirit of America's spiritual heritage and
I recently stood in a room in the Metropolitan Museum
in New York
and saw a huge painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware
some famous American artist, and right across from it, on the opposite
wall a picture of "the last moments of John Brown's life" as
dragged from the court house door to his death, with desperate words
looks being evidently exchanged with apparent sympathizers in the
throng, an African American woman especially reaching out to him in
heart and soul. I never liked George Washington very much
when I was
in school, I saw him as an aristocrat who happened to be on the
side of a war. I also never liked American paintings very much. But
got to admit that, standing there, I could for the first time sense,
this monumental painting that almost covered a whole wall, the sense
destiny which George Washington accepted and embodied as he spilled
blood as necessary to give added life to radical ideas stirring in
early American community. And in the eyes of the African American woman
touching John Brown's face I recognized the spirit I longed for from
youth, the kind of radical religious belief in an ideal which
seldom see in my home state now of Connecticut, didn't see much in
former homes in the Kansas City area nor the in the Cincinnati area,
which calls to me from the backwoods of my heritage.
I want to close by quoting a short passage written
by Baha'u'llah, and then one by a contemporary American bard. I guess we
should spend more time taking care of our spiritual
and human needs, and helping each other, than worrying about the
doctrinal purity of our neighbors.
"If ye meet the abased or downtrodden, turn not away disdainfully from
them, for the king of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth
with such tenderness as none can fathom..."
"They said it was the land of milk and honey, now they say its the land
Who'd of ever thought, they could make that stick? It's unbelievable,
strange but true...'
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