I watched The Lord of the Rings again tonight. I was intrigued by the idea that the reason that Hobbits were chosen to carry The Ring was that they had no desire for power, while humans did. It made us power-hungry humans look pretty bad. But as William Hatcher explains in his book, Love Power and Justice, it is not the desire for power itself, but rather the desire for power over others rather than oneself, that is the essence of all evil. I believe that understanding and recognizing this distinction is of critical importance at this point in the development of the Bahá’í Community. Religion, whose primary purpose is to give us power over our own souls, can very easily be perverted – to be used to exercise power over others. We see this in the rise of fanatical and fundamentalist Christian and Moslem groups who try to control the behavior of believers and non-believers alike. We see it in members of clergy who use their position to abuse and exploit their followers. But we can also see it in our own communities when individuals and/or Assemblies become more concerned about controlling other people’s behavior than in manifesting love, unity and encouragement of others. This desire to control other community members springs from a view of the purpose of religion that is fundamentally different from the one I aspire to.
I believe that the Community may be at a crossroads. Each of us needs to consider which view of religion we wish to encourage. Do we want to use the Bahá’í teachings as clubs to beat other people over the head with in order to force them to behave in certain ways, or do we use them as sources of personal inspiration that change the way we treat other people? Are the Bahá’í laws tools for guiding our own spiritual development, or excuses for looking over the shoulders of our fellow believers? Is the administrative order a structure with which to coerce people into approved behavior, or a fountainhead of guidance and encouragement? When your Assembly meets, does consultation revolve around “how do we get the community or an individual to do XYZ,” or does it revolve around “how can we become more loving “Parents,” more encouraging, better examples?” How much of your time is spent trying to change the actions of other Bahá’ís or non-Bahá’ís rather than loving them? Though the following passage refers to national institutions, I believe it applies just as much to local Assemblies:
He hopes your Assembly will devote special, constant attention to encouraging the friends in their teaching work, and facilitate their tasks. As the new National Assemblies are being formed, he feels it incumbent upon him to issue a word of warning to avoid rules and regulations and tying the believers’ work up in red tape. Over-administration can be even worse for the Faith at this time than under-administration. The believers are, for the most part, young in the Cause, and if they make mistakes it is not half as important as if their spirit is crushed by being told all the time – do this and don’t do that! The new National Body should be like a loving parent, watching over and helping its children, and not like a stern judge, waiting for an opportunity to display his judicial powers. The reason he points this out to you is that constantly, for the past twenty years and more, he has been pointing this out to the old and tried National Assemblies, and he does not want the younger bodies to make the same mistakes.
(Shoghi Effendi: High Endeavors, Page: 35)
The one thing I got out of my workshop with Wm. Hatcher is the realization that, not only is trying to exert power over other people evil, it is almost universally ineffective! Success requires training and encouragement. In a different workshop, I was given a quotation from the UHJ that promised that when training and encouragement are in place, success is guaranteed. Training and encouragement are not the same as control. Control overpowers the other person’s will, while training and encouragement empowers the other person’s will. This, then, is the question that you and/or your Assembly can use when determining whether your decisions are appropriate: does this decision attempt to reduce a community member’s control of their own actions, or does it attempt to increase their control of their actions through training and encouragement? Please note that shaming a person for doing something wrong is not the same as training them in how and why to do it right.
As the world outside gets darker and darker, there will be two kinds of Communities evolving. One will believe that protection comes from purifying, perfecting and controlling the behavior of every active member of their group. They will focus on attacking every sign of darkness they can find. The other will dedicate themselves to serving, adoring and praising one another without distinction. They will focus on shining as much light into the world as possible. They will be applying the Bahá’í teachings to their own lives rather than promoting the Bahá’í teachings to others. I believe that the growth of the national community will be directly proportional to the number of local communities who chose the second path.