Monday, May 28, 2007

Baha'u'llah: Prisoner, Prophet and Promised One

This is a photo of the author standing near the place where Baha'u'llah was held prison in Akka, (then Palestine) in the 1800's.

In the early morning hours (which for some Baha'is on the planet is right now) Baha'is around the world wipe their weary eyes and gather here and there to commemorate the Ascension of Baha'u'llah. This Holy Day does not generate the excitement in me that Ridvan does, but it packs its own emotional punch which is qualitatively different than any other in the Baha'i calender except for the Martyrdom of the Bab that is commemorated in July. During this somber time that at once breaks and mends the heart, I often reflect on one of my favorite passages from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, that I have committed to memory:

"Be not dismayed, O peoples of the world, when the day star of My beauty is set, and the heaven of My tabernacle is concealed from your eyes. Arise to further My Cause, and to exalt My Word amongst men. We are with you at all times, and shall strengthen you through the power of truth. We are truly almighty. Whoso hath recognized Me, will arise and serve Me with such determination that the powers of earth and heaven shall be unable to defeat his purpose."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 137)

I find myself getting emotional even now simply typing the words and my whole being longs to feel the presence of Baha'u'llah's transcendent and All-Loving Spirit moving within and around me. The last sentence of this beautiful statement I have taken as my personal marching orders, "Whoso hath recognized Me will arise and serve me with such determination that the powers of earth and heaven will be unable to defeat his purpose."

One of the delightful things that I have been enjoying lately is reading about the Bible, particularly the way that African Americans have understood this Holy, magnificent and transformative book, "The Good Book" as people say. I was just thinking about some of the ways that African Americans historically resonated with certain images of both Moses and Jesus in the Bible. It occured to me that there are certain images of Baha'u'llah in Baha'i scripture and other literature that hit my heart in certain ways as an African American Baha'i.

Baha'u'llah as "Prisoner"
I can't tell you how many times that I have been at professional gatherings concerning the plight of African Americans, where we have all been asked to raise our hands if we have a family member in the criminal justice system. Every hand in the room shoots up, reaching for the ceiling. These days, the young, black, male and poor (whether urban or rural) comes with a high probability of "doing time". You can read about this trend right here. For too many African American families struggling to raise children and youth, there is a culture of incarceration that has emerged as a predictable experience of life. While Baha'u'llah, like Jesus was an innocent who suffered at the hands of both church and state, it is His triumph over these forces that has the greatest spiritual significance, a significance that cannot be lost upon African Americans. Some of the greatest moments of Baha'u'llah's Ministry occured while He was in prison and this verse of a Baha'i prayer for detachment speaks to the redemptive power of God, even under the most trying conditions:

"I beseech Thee, O my Lord, by Him Who is Thy Name, Who, through the power of Thy sovereignty and might, hath risen above the horizon of His prison, to ordain for every one what becometh Thee and beseemeth Thine exaltation. Thy might, in truth, is equal to all things."
(Baha'u'llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha'u'llah, p. 34)

Of course, Baha'u'llah as Prisoner can be understood in a spiritual sense as well. "Prison" in Baha'i scripture is frequently used to represent a soul becoming too attached to the things of this world or to the dictates of the "insistent self":

"O MY SERVANT! Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more."
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

For African Americans, our captivity has never simply been physical, whether you are talking about chattel slavery or the contemporary prison industrial complex. Our captivity has been both spiritual and psychological as well. Ironically, at the very moment that our long struggle for liberation would appear to have gained its greatest successes, we now find ourselves captive to the raging consumer culture of American society. The excesses of certain species of Hip-Hop is but one of the many examples of this form of captivity. Baha'u'llah offers a powerful symbol of the possibility of liberation from all forms of captivity, spiritual and material.

Baha'u'llah as "Prophet"
In this sense of thinking more of "prophet" in the sense of the Old Testament as those who offer an thunderous critique of the systems of oppression on earth and those who are complicit in perpetuating them. The harshest critique is leveled at those who have been entrusted with leadership of the community and the well-being of those less powerful than they are such as the leaders of church and state. Anyone familiar with Baha'u'llah's life knows that He embodied these words of Isaiah:

"And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall grow forth out of his roots. 11,2 And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. 11,3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears; 11,4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the land; and he shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked." (Nev'im (Prophets), Yeshayahu (Isaiah))

In His Writings, Baha'u'llah puts it simply and directly:

"O OPPRESSORS ON EARTH! Withdraw your hands from tyranny, for I have pledged Myself not to forgive any man's injustice. This is My covenant which I have irrevocably decreed in the preserved tablet and sealed with My seal."
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

The prophetic dimension of Baha'u'llah's Ministry, cannot but appeal to African Americans whose religious and spiritual experience in America was born of the fight for survival in the face of withering oppression. As I have said in the past, the religion of Baha'u'llah is very much "prophetic" religion.

Baha'u'llah as "Promised One"

Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah is that Promised One, called by many names but anticipated in some form in the scriptures and oral traditions of all the peoples of the world, particularly the Bible and the Quran. The essence of religion is God's promise to humanity to provide us with that progressive guidance needed for our spiritual and social evolution and and humanity following that guidance. Unlike the popular notion among many religious people, that the process of Divine Revelation has ended, Baha'is believe that God will always have more to say to humanity in proportion to our level of spiritual receptivity and maturation. As humanity is entering its long await stage of spiritual adulthood, God has fulfilled His Promise to Provide us with One Whose teachings will usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, a global civilization that unites all humanity as members of one family. Baha'u'llah is the fulfillment of this ancient promise.

Of course, this promise of God involves more than the geopolitical impact that the Revelation of Baha'u'llah is destined to have, or even the spiritual revolution that is already taking place in human consciousness (both of which African Americans stand to benefit from). This promise of God, which God has always kept, is an expression of the love and trust that should distinguish any relationship that has integrity. It is the abscence of such integrity shown over and over again by those who have held the reigns of leadership in their grasp that represents the greatest betrayal of the soul and has been the source of all the suffering that African Americans have experienced. Baha'u'llah as Promised One represents God's intention to heal the rifts among His children that are the fruits of this betrayal.

I'll close with Baha'u'llah's Own Testimony that captures all of these images in one brilliant and moving statement:

"The Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage, and hath accepted to be made a prisoner within this most mighty Stronghold that the whole world may attain unto true liberty. He hath drained to its dregs the cup of sorrow, that all the peoples of the earth may attain unto abiding joy, and be filled with gladness. This is of the mercy of your Lord, the Compassionate, the Most Merciful. We have accepted to be abased, O believers in the Unity of God, that ye may be exalted, and have suffered manifold afflictions, that ye might prosper and flourish. He Who hath come to build anew the whole world, behold, how they that have joined partners with God have forced Him to dwell within the most desolate of cities!"
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 99)