Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Martyr, The Prisoner, and The Servant

Photo of the Shrine of Bab, taken when I was in Haifa, Israel in December, 2006

I've been having such a nice time reading about global Christianity recently. I've discovered Philip Jenkins who I highly recommend to anybody interested in that dynamic, world shaping religion which I consider part of my own spiritual heritage as a Baha'i. You should start with the first book in the three part series, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Christian thinkers have a long and rich tradition of mining the narratives of Jesus's life, death and resurrection for theological meaning. These thinkers have set a great example for how Baha'is might view the central figures of our Faith, The Bab, Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha. Like Jesus, each of them has a central aspect to their respective ministries that captures its essence, and theological implications for the lives of those who recognize the truth they each represent.

The Martyr

I believe that the central aspect of the ministry of the Bab (in Arabic "The Gate") was His martyrdom for proclaiming the advent of the Day of God. His willingness to courageously bear witness to the reality of the oneness of God, religion, and humanity in the face of fanatical opposition, dramatized the importance of willing sacrifice in the path of God. While many Baha'is have given their lives in the physical sense during the past century and a half, it is living sacrifice to which contemporary Baha'is are primarily called by God, especially in the West:

"The community of the organized promoters of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh in the American continent -- the spiritual descendants of the dawn-breakers of an heroic Age, who by their death proclaimed the birth of that Faith -- must, in turn, usher in, not by their death but through living sacrifice, that promised World Order, the shell ordained to enshrine that priceless jewel, the world civilization, of which the Faith itself is the sole begetter."
(Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 7)

This living sacrifice involves "dying to the self", which some might view as a greater challenge than physical death:

"Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favour and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth. The martyr's field is the place of detachment from self, that the anthems of eternity may be upraised."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 76)

The Martyrdom of the Bab has implications not only for the spiritual life of individuals, but is symbolic of challenges faced by humanity as a whole at this stage in its evolution. The Universal House of Justice offered this fascinating comment during the celebrations commemorating the opening the Terraces surrounding the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel:

"The sufferings sustained by the Báb so as to arouse humanity to the responsibilities of its coming age of maturity were themselves indications of the intensity of the struggle necessary for the world's people to pass through the age of humanity's collective adolescence. Paradoxical as it may seem, this is a source of hope. The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs. Simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration have clearly been accelerating throughout the planet since the Báb appeared in Persia. That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books. The Shrine of the Báb stands as a symbol of the efficacy of that age-old promise, a sign of its urgency. It is, as well, a monument to the triumph of love over hate. The gardens which surround that structure, in their rich variety of colours and plants, are a reminder that the human race can live harmoniously in all its diversity. The light that shines from the central edifice is as a beacon of hope to the countless multitudes who yearn for a life that satisfies the soul as well as the body."
(The Universal House of Justice, 2001 May 22, Statement on the Opening of the Terraces)

The Prisoner

I believe that the central aspect of the ministry of Baha'u'llah (in Arabic The Glory of God) was His imprisonment for proclaiming the coming of the promised Kingdom of God on earth and Himself as the One Whose Revelation would usher in that Kingdom. His willingness to endure forty years of imprisonment, torture and exile from place to place dramatized the significance of human liberation from oppression. Baha'u'llah Himself, eloquently testifies to the spiritual and social significance of His sufferings:

"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)

Like the cross in Christianity, the prison could be seen as the most significant image in the ministry of Baha'u'llah and thus of the Baha'i Faith itself. Baha'u'llah's triumph in establishing the foundations of what is today, a global Faith representing virtually every race, ethnicity and nation on the planet, dramatizes the transforming power of a God of liberation:

"The instigators of this oppression are those very persons who, though so foolish, are reputed the wisest of the wise. Such is their blindness that, with unfeigned severity, they have cast into this fortified and afflictive Prison Him, for the servants of Whose Threshold the world hath been created. The Almighty, however, in spite of them and those that have repudiated the truth of this "Great Announcement," hath transformed this Prison House into the Most Exalted Paradise, the Heaven of Heavens."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 115)

The image of the prison suggests that spiritual liberation is itself a journey from the prison of self, whether in its individual or institutionalized forms, to the Paradise of true love, unity and justice in the presence of God.

The Servant

The central aspect of the ministry of 'Abdu'l-Baha (in Arabic the Servant of Glory) was his complete and total servitude to God. Like Baha'u'llah, He made a statement that captures the whole meaning of His ministry:

"My name is Abdul-Baha, my identity is Abdul-Baha, my qualification is Abdul-Baha, my reality is Abdul-Baha, my praise is Abdul-Baha, Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection is my glorious refulgent diadem; and servitude to all the human race is my perpetual religion...No name, no title, no mention, no commendation hath he nor will ever have except Abdul-Baha. This is my longing. This is my supreme apex. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This is my everlasting glory!"
(Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v2, p. 430)

'Abdu'l-Baha's life of service, in spite of sharing virtually all of the sufferings of Baha'u'llah, and even more cruelties after Baha'u'llah passed away and 'Abdu'l-Baha had to lead the Baha'i community for the next two decades, was all about selflessness. The prayer that is read when visiting His resting place on Mount Carmel and in personal meditation says:

"O Lord, my God! Give me Thy grace to serve Thy loved ones, strengthen me in my servitude to Thee, illumine my brow with the light of adoration in Thy court of holiness, and of prayer to Thy Kingdom of grandeur. Help me to be selfless at the heavenly entrance of Thy gate, and aid me to be detached from all things within Thy holy precincts. Lord! Give me to drink from the chalice of selflessness; with its robe clothe me, and in its ocean immerse me. Make me as dust in the pathway of Thy loved ones, and grant that I may offer up my soul for the earth ennobled by the footsteps of Thy chosen ones in Thy path, O Lord of Glory in the Highest."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 318)

'Abdu'l-Baha tells us that it is selflessness, so unfashionable in a consumption driven culture, which is required for both spiritual and social transformation, so that we may be "born again":

"Look at me, follow me, be as I am; take no thought for yourselves or your lives, whether ye eat or whether ye sleep, whether ye are comfortable, whether ye are well or ill, whether ye are with friends or foes, whether ye receive praise or blame; for all these things ye must care not at all. Look at me and be as I am; ye must die to yourselves and to the world, so ye shall be born again and enter the kingdom of heaven."
(Compilations, Baha'i Scriptures, p. 503)