Saturday, May 27, 2006

Contradiction, Crisis, and the American Mind

From the beginning America has been a nation of moral contradictions that precipitate moral crises. One way in which this dynamic has been clearly dramatized has been in the painful history of race relations. A nation based on the highest ideals of personal freedom also enshrined the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery into its constitution. This moral contradiction would eventually precipitate a civil war that nearly destroyed a young republic. The Civil War eventually ended, but the contradiction continued in Jim Crow segregation of the South and the ghettoization and disenfranchisement of blacks in the North. Twice, America sent its black sons and daughters to battle abroad for the freedom of other peoples, yet continued to deny them that same freedom at home. A Civil Rights Movement erupted from the legacy of what the Civil War had failed to adequately achieve. The images of savage violence perpetrated against black men, women and children striving peacefully for a better America, stirred the moral consciousness of millions. People marched, laws were passed and it seemed that finally the dynamic of contradiction and crisis would come to an end and a new, integrated, just and free America would emerge. Sadly, the United States in the 21st century is still struggling with the same moral contradictions that appear deeply entrenched in the American mind. As in the past, these contradictions have precipitated the very crises that thoughtful men and women of all backgrounds wrestle with throughout our nation. We pride ourselves on being a country distinguished as a promised land of opportunity for immigrants, yet seem intent on criminalizing and dehumanizing so called “illegals” while simultaneously allowing corporate interests to exploit their desperation. We rightfully chastise Middle Eastern leaders for their lack of commitment to democracy, while believing we can promote democracy at gunpoint. We relish the material benefits of our free market economy while allowing the development of a global economic order that denies those same benefits to our fellow human beings. My point is not there are no Americans who recognize these contradictions and work to change them. My point is to say that the ways in which these contradictions get played out in the behavior of individuals and in public policy have become so deeply woven into the very fabric of our society that we may not fully appreciate the profound spiritual, moral and psychological transformation necessary to overcome them.

Baha’u’llah offers some insight into the spiritual nature of the moral contradiction that I have been trying to describe:

Behold the disturbances which, for many a long year, have afflicted the earth, and the perturbation that hath seized its peoples. It hath either been ravaged by war, or tormented by sudden and unforeseen calamities. Though the world is encompassed with misery and distress, yet no man hath paused to reflect what the cause or source of that may be...How bewildering, how confusing is such behavior! No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 218)

Say: Beware, O people of Baha, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others. Through them the brightness of your light can be shed upon the whole earth. (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 304)

My understanding of these verses is that moral contradiction is a reflection of the absence of what Baha’u’llah refers to as “inward” unity, a state of profound integration of spirit and mind, what some would describe as integrity. When this integration of spirit and mind is lacking it is reflected in behavior that is destructive to human relationships, so that we experience “outward” disunity. This integration of spirit and mind expressed in action is the definition of faith in the Baha’i Writings: By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds. (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 382)

The resolution of this state of moral contradiction involves the profound spiritual, psychological and moral transformation that I mentioned earlier. It is an issue of transforming human character. Such a transformation is the purpose of all divine Revelation and those Blessed Figures of history Who manifest the knowledge and love of God have been uniquely empowered to accomplish it: not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God's universal Manifestations would be apparent. (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 240)