Thursday, May 24, 2007

Positive Assimilation

These are pictures of some of the beautiful people the love of God so effectively brought together at the Baha'i Center in Boston a couple of nights ago.

Assimilation is a word I've been hearing a lot in the popular media, especially regarding illegal immigration. It's inspired to me to think about a few statements made in the Baha'i Writings:

"The Faith seeks to maintain cultural diversity while promoting the unity of all peoples. Indeed, such diversity will enrich the tapestry of human life in a peaceful world society. The House of Justice supports the view that in every country the cultural traditions of the people should be observed within the Bahá'í community as long as they are not contrary to the Teachings. The general attitude of the Faith towards the traditional practices of various peoples is expressed in the following statement of Shoghi Effendi's, published in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, U.S. 1982 edition, pages 41-42.

Let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Bahá'u'lláh.... It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world.... Its watchword is unity in diversity such as 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself has explained:

"Consider the flowers of a garden.... Diversity of hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof...."

Of course, many cultural elements everywhere inevitably will disappear or be merged with related ones from their societies, yet the totality will achieve that promised diversity within world unity." (25 July 1988, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly) [5]

"...the oneness of mankind will not be based on forced assimilation, but upon protection of cultural diversity. At the same time, however, we should beware of inadvertently settling upon a limited model, such as the one sometimes associated in contemporary discourse on multiculturalism. A distinctively Bahá'í culture will welcome an infinite diversity in regard to secondary characteristics, but also firmly uphold unity in regard to fundamental principles, thereby achieving a vigorous complementarity. For example, in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982), page 260-1, we find the following intriguing statement:

What a blessing that will be -- when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll.

The point is not to minimize differences, nor to make of unity and diversity a false dichotomy, but ever to keep in mind that the Bahá'í standard is very high and grounded in divine love."
(13 February 1996, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer) [7]

One of the problems that I see with the way that assimilation has historically worked in America is that it has been a process of ethnocentrism and oppression. Virtually all discussion of assimilation begins with the assumption that the dominant Western culture is obviously the best one and that to assimilate means to become more Western (basically a code word for "white"). Thus assimilation has functioned less as a civic virtue than as a enabler of white supremacy. Many of those being asked to assimilate are well aware of this historical dynamic, are less than enthusiastic about the idea and strive to uphold their distinct ethnic and cultural identities. On the other hand, those who strongly advocate assimilation believe that it is the most effective way of dealing with diversity because it promotes unity and social cohesion. What I believe is different about the Baha'i approach is that it discourages the negatives aspects of traditional assimilation (ethnocentrism and oppression) while encouraging what could be called a "positive assimilation". Positive assimilation is God-centered, consultative, voluntary, affirming and symmetrical.

Positive assimilation is God-centered in the sense of springing from a consciousness of one's spiritual identity, an identity that transcends the limitations of race, ethnicity, nationality or culture and weighs the relative value of each of these aspects of human experience against the Revelation of Baha'u'llah, the Manifestation of God for this Day. Positive assimilation is consultative in the sense that decisions about what aspects of one's culture should or should not continue to be practiced involve the communities effected rather than being imposed from outside and are guided by institutions who are committed to fostering unity among people of all backgrounds. Positive assimilation is voluntary in the sense that membership in the Baha'i community is something people chose for themselves and those cultural practices that do not contradict Baha'i teaching are largely left up to individual conscience. Positive assimilation is affirming because it does not involve the assumed superiority or inferiority of any particular culture and does not view diversity as a problem to be eliminated but as something that lends beauty and power to the community. Because of the affirming aspect of positive assimilation, it frees all people to engage in a symmetrical process where everyone's culture can influence everyone else's on the basis of unity, equality and justice rather than ethnocentrism and oppression. I'll close with these Words of Baha'u'llah:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. We cherish the hope that the light of justice may shine upon the world and sanctify it from tyranny. If the rulers and kings of the earth, the symbols of the power of God, exalted be His glory, arise and resolve to dedicate themselves to whatever will promote the highest interests of the whole of humanity, the reign of justice will assuredly be established amongst the children of men, and the effulgence of its light will envelop the whole earth.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 218)

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