Saturday, September 08, 2007

Baha'u'llah and the Black Elite

More beautiful kids I met in Ghana. What will I do to see to it that they have the same opportunities I have had and more?

I've been thinking for a long time about privilege and power and how it relates to Baha'i thought. Because of my focus, which is black Americans, I've particularly been meditating on the black elite in this country, which is the strata of African America to which I belong. I'm an Ivy League educated, advanced degreed middle class black male and grew up that way, unlike my parents who came from backgrounds of rural and urban poverty in the South. I'm a first generation, post-Civil rights baby, part of that "privileged class" whose rage was eloquently documented by Ellis Cose and whose sanity has been questioned by no less than Michael Eric Dyson. I just got finished reading a fascinating essay by Cornel West called The Paradox of the African American Rebellion, which is part of a cool anthology entitled, Is It Nation Time? If you have some spare time, go out and get it right away. It's not light reading, but it offers some critical reflections on the issue of black nationalism. Cornel West has some choice remarks regarding members of the black elite that emerged near the close of the Civil Rights era:

"beneath the rhetoric of Black Power, black control, and black self-determination, was a budding "new", black, middle class hungry for power and starving for status. Needless to say, most young black intellectuals were duped by this petit bourgeois rhetoric, primarily owing to their own identity crisis and self interest. In contrast, the "new" black business, professional, and political elites heard the bourgeois melody behind the radical rhetoric and manipulated the movement for their own benefit. The rebellious black working poor and the underclass often either became dependent on growing welfare support or seduced by the drug culture." (page 31)

On our long walk to freedom, it appears, at least to West and similar critics, that the black elite has lost its way, seduced by those same worldly pursuits that fueled the Atlantic slave trade and built a paradoxical republic on the "backs of blacks". Many prophetic voices have thundered against this kind of idolatry, often in explicitly religious terms. Prophetic voices such as my man James Cone, one of the fathers of black theology. Thinkers like Cone have long mined the theological implications of the social status of Jesus to comment on the significance of His life for Christian identity.

"The meaning of Jesus Christ is found in God's will to make liberation not simply the property of one people but of all humankind. God became a poor Jew in Jesus and thus identified with the helpless of Israel. The cross of Jesus is nothing but God's will to be with and like the poor. The resurrection means that God achieved victory over oppression, so that the poor no longer have to be determined by their poverty." (page 6) Check out the book this selection is from here.

What is the meaning of Baha'u'llah for members of the black elite in America? Unlike Jesus who was born into poverty, in the humble setting of a manger, Baha'u'llah was born into a world of privilege. He belonged to an ancient and well known family of the Persian nobility and His father was a favored minister in the court of the King. You could say that the life into which Baha'u'llah was born offers a parallel to the lives of the children of middle and upper class black families of my generation. At an early age Baha'u'llah showed a deep affection for the poor and dispossessed of His country and preferred serving them to engaging in the pageantry of the Persian nobility, winning Him the title "Father of the Poor". Even at this early stage of life He embodied the standard that He would demand of His followers:

"O CHILDREN OF DUST! Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth. To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues."
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

"O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease."
(Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

Baha'u'llah's love for the poor would go far beyond admonishing the rich or acts of charity. Ultimately He would sacrifice a life of privilege and comfort, chosing to place Himself in the position of the oppressed of the earth in pursuit of His mission of universal salvation for humanity:

"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)

In one passage, testifying to God of the sufferings involved in the first of His several banishments after the horrors of imprisonment in the "Black Pit" of Tehran, He states:

"The throat Thou didst accustom to the touch of silk Thou hast, in the end, clasped with strong chains, and the body Thou didst ease with brocades and velvets Thou hast at last subjected to the abasement of a dungeon. Thy decree hath shackled Me with unnumbered fetters, and cast about My neck chains that none can sunder. A number of years have passed during which afflictions have, like showers of mercy, rained upon Me.... How many the nights during which the weight of chains and fetters allowed Me no rest, and how numerous the days during which peace and tranquillity were denied Me, by reason of that wherewith the hands and tongues of men have afflicted Me! Both bread and water which Thou hast, through Thy all-embracing mercy, allowed unto the beasts of the field, they have, for a time, forbidden unto this servant, and the things they refused to inflict upon such as have seceded from Thy Cause, the same have they suffered to be inflicted upon Me, until, finally, Thy decree was irrevocably fixed, and Thy behest summoned this servant to depart out of Persia, accompanied by a number of frail-bodied men and children of tender age, at this time when the cold is so intense that one cannot even speak, and ice and snow so abundant that it is impossible to move."
(Quoted in, God Passes By, p. 108)

As a privileged black American, Baha'u'llah's life offers me an example of a person of privilege, Who for the sake of love, willingly sacrificed the comforts of His status and took on the pain of the vast majority of people on this earth of all races. Like Christians who are challenged to take up their cross and follow the example of Jesus, I am challenged to accept my chains, my exile, my imprisonment and follow Baha'u'llah from worldly privilege to the heaven of justice for all those who are denied it.

"If ye stay not the hand of the oppressor, if ye fail to safeguard the rights of the down-trodden, what right have ye then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which ye can rightly boast? Is it on your food and your drink that ye pride yourselves, on the riches ye lay up in your treasuries, on the diversity and the cost of the ornaments with which ye deck yourselves?"
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 252)

What do you think reader?

PS I just have to add this poem that is on my man Malik's site the Struggle Within. Take a Listen