Sunday, March 11, 2012

Love Cannot Be Legislated

Article first published as Love Cannot Be Legislated on Blogcritics.

The Supreme Court will be taking up the controversial issue of affirmative action this year. Many are concerned that the court will ultimately strike down the use of race as a criterion for college admissions.Whatever the court decides, it is safe to say that the use of explicitly race-based policies to remedy racial inequities is unpopular among many Americans.

It's important to acknowledge that opposition to such policies is not necessarily animated by racial animus or a belief in racial superiority. For most people it is a question of fairness. "Why should I have to pay for the wrong-doing of people in the past?" This is a fair question to ask. It is particularly poignant for those White Americans who are struggling with material conditions similar to people color.

What this way of talking about the issue reveals however, are the limitations of materialistic approaches to race. Such questions reflect a deeper, perhaps unconscious, concern than fairness. They reflect the logic of the struggle for existence which we share with animals. I must put my needs, or those of my kin, first in order to survive and the social order should protect my right to do so. Such concerns are prominent features of the age in which we live as 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892-1921 explained:

"The mass of the people are occupied with self and worldly desire, are immersed in the ocean of the nether world and are captives of the world of nature, save those souls who have been freed from the chains and fetters of the material world and, like unto swift-flying birds, are soaring in this unbounded realm."

Obviously materialistic urges and reasoning are not unique to White Americans or to the issue of race. My point is that dealing effectively with racism, like every other challenge facing our species, must involve thinking and action that transcend material considerations. Doing so could free us to soar in an unbounded realm of new possibilities for social discourse and policy. It could unleash the power of spiritual urges and spiritual reasoning. For example, we might ask ourselves, "Why wouldn't I be willing to sacrifice myself for the good of my neighbor?"

Whatever the ultimate fate of affirmative action, we will have to come to grips with the reality that love cannot be legislated. Social conditions are a reflection of spiritual conditions, and it is through changing hearts that we will change the world. This is the insight that empowered the striving of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inspires contemporary efforts such as the National Center for Race Amity. As 'Abdu'l-Baha has written:

"...they shun the obscurity of the world of nature, their highest wish centereth on the eradication from among men of the struggle for existence, the shining forth of the spirituality and the love of the realm on high, the exercise of utmost kindness among peoples, the realization of an intimate and close connection between religions and the practice of the ideal of self-sacrifice."

Image courtesy of Wikimedia, author Daderot, considered in the public domain


  1. Anonymous9:16 AM

    Thank you.

  2. First I want to echo two of your points. One is that none of us can fairly expect justice not cost us anything economically. Another is that what governments can do to counteract the consequences of prejudice is very limited, and what is really needed is to change the hearts.

    One thing that I have seen disappear from public discussions about race issues is the idea of desegregation, which was the closest the discussions ever came to two central issues for Baha'is: fellowship, and elimination of prejudice. Affirmative action, like everything else, is debated in purely economic terms. It doesn't even really address the economic injustice it is supposed to address, except in a superficial, symbolic way. A few people from each of the minorities are admitted into the ranks of the privileged, and the systematic impoverishment of all the others goes on, and even intensifies. The "success" of those few is even used as part of the "blame the victim" propaganda.

    In the long run, the only answer to the injustices is for people to learn to love and trust Baha'u'llah. Meanwhile, the question we need to be asking ourselves is not what the governments should be doing, because they are obviously far beyond our control, but what you and I can do, now, to help improve the lives of the most abused and marginalize people.

    My answer is to go where they are, walk with them and work with them, learn from them, learn to value them and appreciate them, face their challenges together with them. Spend time with them, in their world, without trying to run it. Go and live in an impoverished neighborhood, and learn be a good neighbor. One reason desegregation didn't work is because it only went one way, trying to integrate minority people into white society, as if all the good things in life were there. One more way of depreciating and impoverishing people and their cultures. What we need now, even more, is to integrate white people into other cultures.

    If that's too hard, another way is to start or join initiatives to work with people side-by-side in their neighborhoods, to improve their lives and their neighborhoods. There are many possibilities, but the best initiatives I know of by far, for followers of Baha'u'llah, are the community development initiatives that grow out of the framework for action of the House of Justice. The reason is that the fruits of an initiative depend entirely on the spirit in which it is done.

    "All things are beneficial if joined with the love of God; and without His love all things are harmful ..."

    (Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 180)

    The framework for action will dramatically improve impoverished people's lives, where they are, in the very near future, and help change the whole world at the same time.

    If all of that is too hard, deputize someone that you know personally, who is doing those things.

    There are of course, ways of influencing governments, which can be fruitful too, if they are done in the right spirit, but I'm not anywhere close to being in that position, and I think very few people are. I imagine the best thing we can do to help the ones who are, is to draw people away from divisive pursuits into side-by-side action and fellowship in impoverished neighborhoods.

    Another thing we can do is stop selling our capacities to the highest bidders, regardless of how they use them. One thing that makes it possible for the some of the materially wealthiest people to abuse the rest of us the way they do, is the way we let them use our capacities, in exchange for crumbs from their tables, and in the hope of getting to where they are. My wife said I could quote her: "Everyone hates them, and wants to be just like them."

  3. Thinking some more about the governments being beyond our control brought me back to another hot issue these days, the subordination of national governments to global corporations, which are using them increasingly to benefit an ever-decreasing number of people at everyone's else's expense, driving more and more people further into poverty and misery, in a murderous rampage of increasingly naked plundering and pillaging.

    Again, part of what I see empowering global corporations to abuse people the way they do, is the willingness of so many people to sell their capacities to the highest bidder, regardless of how those capacities are used, and to turn their backs on each other, chasing carrots which, by design, only very few can possibly ever catch.

    Without that willingness of people to turn their backs on each other, it would be impossible for the the global corporations and their government subsidiaries to do nearly as much harm as they do.

    "Is it only a dream that there'll be no more turning away?
    - Pink Floyd

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