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In 2010 the Universal House of Justice called the Baha’is of the world to reflect on the contributions that their growing vibrant communities make to the material and spiritual progress of society and one of these contributions is social action. If we imagine the Baha’i community as a fire, social action is one of its properties: released heat.
The Baha’i community is striving to translate Baha’u’llah’s teachings into reality in order to contribute to world unity and collective spiritual and material prosperity. Baha’u’llah said:
The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race… 1
…is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? 2
With this in mind we can see why the House explains social action in the following terms:
Irrespective of its scope and scale, all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly. Most appropriately conceived in terms of a spectrum, social action can range from fairly informal efforts of limited duration undertaken by individuals or small groups of friends to programmes of social and economic development with a high level of complexity and sophistication implemented by Baha’i inspired organizations. 3
Returning to our analogy, the heat from the fire can have different temperatures and influence different sized areas as the fire itself around the world comes in different sizes and intensities.
For the Betterment of the world, a document outlining the Baha’i community’s approach to social and economic development, gives different examples of social action ranging from individual initiatives to community efforts:
- A Baha’i youth from the United Kingdom holds meetings during lunch at her high school to discuss issues such as domestic violence, unequal pay rates, and trafficking of women to raise awareness among her peers about gender equality.
- A group of junior youth in Brazil decided to plant a vegetable garden to provide more nourishing snacks during school and make toys out of recyclable materials for the children in the lower grades to help create a friendly educational environment.
- Baha’is in Michigan in the United States to contribute to protecting the environment participate in an annual Earth Clean Sweep, in which 300 tons of “e-waste”—unwanted electronic equipment—are collected and recycled.
- The Baha’i Academy in India collaborates with institutions of higher learning to offer the Education in Universal Human Values Program, providing interactive courses and workshops on moral issues relevant to social progress and the development of the individual.
- A notable example of Baha’i activities in the area of health is the long-standing primary health education program in Zambia, through which over 1,600 individuals have participated in health education courses since 1998.
The House of Justice says that at the level of the community’s involvement with the life of society “the emergence of social action happens naturally, as a growing community gathers strength”. 4 This suggests that as Baha’is around the world wish to translate the teachings into reality in order to improve society, we need to help develop the strength and size of our communities.
Since 1996, the Baha’i world has been learning about how training institutes can help progress our communities. In its Ridvan 2013 message, the House mentions a document prepared by the Office of Social and Economic Development that distils thirty years of experience that has accumulated in this field:
Among the observations it [the document] makes is that efforts to engage in social action are lent vital impetus by the training institute. This is not simply through the rise in human resources it fosters. The spiritual insights, qualities, and abilities that are cultivated by the institute process have proven to be as crucial for participation in social action as they are for contributing to the process of growth. 4
We can add the training institute to the earlier analogy as a combustion material which helps increase the fire and its heat. This is why one of the first steps Baha’i communities take in their efforts to contribute to the advancement of civilisation is to establish a training institute that “helps equip individuals with the spiritual insights and knowledge, the qualities and attitudes, and the skills and abilities needed to carry out acts of service”. 5 This allows for the development of a pool of human resources which can sustain endeavours of social and economic development, the building of institutions which can guide such efforts, and the evolution of communities that can provide a nurturing learning environment for these initiatives.
This is important because the training institute and social action are based on the vision that “social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.” 3. In order to be effective and sustainable, social action needs to be directed, supported and owned by the community itself. Ultimately “while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world”. 3
Our work might be unseen by the masses of humanity because our efforts are in their early days and are only modest in comparison with other initiatives out there, but also because of the nature of our efforts – we are in it for the long haul.
One of the best places to begin contributing to social action (which is described further on the official website of the Baha’i community), is by participating in the institute process – it will enable you to refine your capacities for service the same way a professional athlete would bring their game to a new level (here is an introduction to the Institute Process, and you can contact Baha’is in your area to find out what’s happening near you). I believe that only a gradual and continued study and actual participation in these efforts will allow for a deeper understanding of the process of social change we are engaged in and of the magnitude of transformation we aim to achieve, as stated by the Universal House of Justice:
…understanding the implications of the Revelation, both in terms of individual growth and social progress, increases manifold when study and service are joined and carried out concurrently. There, in the field of service, knowledge is tested, questions arise out of practice, and new levels of understanding are achieved. 6
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 215
- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 240
- Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010 Message
- Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2013 Message
- Statement on Social Action, OSED p.7
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