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One of the key goals of the Baha’i Faith is to help end war and achieve world peace. While this has also been the goal of many thinkers throughout history, thousands continue to die each year from war and its consequences. So what do the Baha’i Writings say about this issue?
To answer this, I use a framework developed by Kenneth Waltz in his classic text Man, the State and War, which begins by asking: “What causes war?” This is an important question because, just as one must understand cancer to cure it, war and its causes must be understood in order to reduce it. In his review of the literature on this question, Waltz finds that there are basically three answers to this question, which he calls “the three images”. These images claim that war is caused by:
1) Human nature.
2) War-like states.
3) The international system.
In this post, I summarize these three images and offer my understanding of what the Baha’i Writings say about each.
The first image: Human Nature
The first image claims that human nature causes wars. This belief is justified by religious traditions that see sin and evil as inherent to human. Secularists, however, have also linked war to a variety of human traits such as passion, ambition and aggression, often linking them to the human need to survive. From this perspective, wars are instinctual clashes similar to battles between animals for resources. Social Darwinism takes this view even further, seeing war as beneficial for strengthening the human species by only allowing the strongest and most capable to survive and prosper.
The Baha’i Writings add insight to this image by offering a more complex view of human nature. Whereas most thinkers offer a singular conception, Baha’is see a dual nature, encompassing both a material and spiritual side. The former involves following one’s earthly desires, while the latter requires a conscious effort to nurture one’s spirit each day. As Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone.Abdu’l-Baha. Paris Talks. (London, UK: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p.60
While these natures are united in many ways, they are also distinct in the methods by which they flourish and the actions they manifest. In addition, Baha’is view humans as inherently noble at birth. It is through our conscious actions that we can either move closer to our creator or be further removed. In The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah points to this, writing,
Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself?Baha’u’llah, Hidden Word 13 (from the Arabic).
If war does indeed start in the minds of men, as UNESCO charter’s preamble claims, then the Baha’i Writings offer hope as people can change through spiritual transformation. Such a change requires shifting one’s focus to a power already inside us. According to The Hidden Words, one must…
Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self subsisting.Ibid.
The second image: War-like States
The second image sees the internal organization of the state as the key to understanding war. Within this image, the world is comprised of good or peaceful and bad or war-waging states. What constitutes a ‘good state’ is a contested issue, but many thinkers agree that democracy, in which the people govern themselves, is best for promoting peace. According to Immanuel Kant, people are generally more reluctant to go to war in democracies because they have a personal stake in its outcome. Mothers, it was argued, would not send their sons to die if they had a say in the decision to wage war. It is dictators who seek war because they usually have little personal stake in the price of war. In Perpetual Peace, Kant explained that an evolution to a world of democracies could lead to an end to war. The record of the so-called democratic peace theory shows some validity to the idea, as few wars have been fought between democracies over the past two centuries, although the same record shows a limited number of true democracies over this period.
So what do the Baha’i Writings say about the structure of the state and whether it has a role to play in peace. In Their Writings, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi both mention the advantages of democratic and especially federal democratic forms of government, but also envision such a system as a possible basis for governing the entire world. 1 The Baha’i electoral system, with its own internal democratic structure, also suggest support for democratic means. However, little is written directly linking such systems at the national level to world peace.
The third image: The International System
The third image identifies the international system as the main cause of war. With no central power to create and enforce laws, Waltz argues that the system is inherently anarchic as each state has to rely on itself for survival and prosperity. In this situation, wars are inevitable as interests are bound to clash and interpretations of morality can often differ. While Kant believed that democratic states were rational and could only perform good acts, Waltz suggests that the nature of the system meant that force could, at times, be the rational choice when security and survival was threatened.
The main claim on the third image is supported in Baha’i literature, which envisions greater global governance, with a world legislature, executive and international force, as part of the means for achieving peace. However, the Baha’i Writings also incorporate concerns about how such a structure might encroach on individual freedoms and national sovereignty. This is addressed by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, when he states:
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. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity…Ibid. p.41-42.
In conclusion, I believe that the Baha’i Writings provide evidence that all of the three images have a legitimate basis. However, the first image – that wars occur due to human nature and the third – the international system – have the strongest support. While the remedy to the third image is largely material, in that it requires changes in the international system, the first image is spiritual, requiring change to the self. These transitions correlate well to the Baha’i concepts of the lesser and most great peace. The lesser peace being a shift in the international system to one which would eliminate war between states, and the second being a shift in such a world order to a spiritual character amongst humankind.
- Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah (Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1991) p.202-206.
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