Self-Censorship and Covenant
By John Taylor; 2008 June 02, 17 `Azamat, 165 BE
Yesterday we discussed censorship and self-censorship. I just revised that essay and have posted a corrected version on the Badi' blog at:
Today let us continue the theme of self censorship as a central pillar of the Covenant. The need to restrain our tongues was erected and permanently enshrined in one of Baha'u'llah's most important Tablets, the Kitab-i-Ahd, or Will and Testament, where He writes,
"We exhort you, O peoples of the world, to observe that which will elevate your station. Hold fast to the fear of God and firmly adhere to what is right. Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk. God hath forgiven what is past. Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 219)
What, then, does God say here about the benefits of censoring ourselves?
First of all, He implies that we elevate our own spiritual station, and that of our listeners. Second, we can express our fear of God -- inner fear of God is necessary for this law, since it would be all but impossible to enforce by human sanctions. What supercomputer could keep track of the thousands of subtle barbs, insinuation, ambiguity and double meanings hidden in the interplay of quotidian language? Plus, beyond normative considerations, there is inherent value in curbing speech: "adhere to what is right." God created our tongues for a reason, to enable us to commune with and talk about the good, not to be abused as weapons. Verbal attacks, therefore, defile the very purpose of language.
It also says that God has forgiven the past -- and here one cannot help but think back to the history of this very document, Baha'u'llah's will and testament. What a sad and distressing story of dissent, lies and backbiting lies behind this supreme charter of unity! There followed the betrayal of Abdu'l-Baha's brother, Mirza Muhammad Ali, and later most of the holy family. What terrible pain it caused to Abdu'l-Baha and later the Guardian. The Master's reaction was exemplary; of course, he refrained from mentioning their behavior, even when it risked His own life. Only when their perfidy crossed all bounds did He publicly warn the believers of their letter campaigns.
The history of the reception of the Kitab-i-Ahd is difficult to read, so long-suffering was the Master. It takes long-suffering even to contemplate how, year after year, Abdu'l-Baha turned the other cheek to these embittered, envious foes. Thinking about it, I am reminded of an offhand remark He made in
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Even in the Passion of the Christ, He refused to badmouth His enemies. He did the reverse; he not only forgave but defended them before God. How many Christians, embroiled in their petty disputes about doctrine, think of the example of their Master? How many appreciate the beauty of such a grand geste towards those who oppose? In the same way, we Baha'is need to think of our Master's response to these words, "what is past is forgiven" in the Ahd, and of His astonishing example of restraint in the face of insult and assault. Bacon wrote,
"It is not what men eat but what they digest that makes them strong; not what we gain but what we save that makes us rich; not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned; not what we preach but what we practice that makes us Christians." (Francis Bacon)
I suppose you could add that in this new Day it is not what we say but what we restrain ourselves from saying that makes us Baha'is. Or maybe: it is not what we think is politically correct Baha'i belief but rather the sum of the unity that we build that makes us true to the Covenant. The example of the Center of the Covenant takes the Kitab-i-Ahd from mere knowing of to knowing how and who. The legacy and the heir are One. Shoghi Effendi put it like this:
"Baha'u'llah's inscrutable purpose, we must ever bear in mind, has been so thoroughly infused into the conduct of 'Abdu'l-Baha, and their motives have been so closely wedded together, that the mere attempt to dissociate the teachings of the former from any system which the ideal Exemplar of those same teachings has established would amount to a repudiation of one of the most sacred and basic truths of the Faith." (World Order, 143)
An invisible, unique, uncelebrated event took place during the darkest days of the Master's oppression by those invidious family rivals. At the time it looked like this cabal, burnt by the evil eye of envy, had seen a way to complete victory over him. The authorities, alienated by calumny, were coming down hard on the legitimate heir to the provisions of the Kitab-i-Ahd. Sunk in sadness and imminent danger, "the hope of a minute's life" lost to Him, some mystic circuit breaker was tripped deep down in Abdu'l-Baha. We do not even know exactly when this took place since He had to write the document in the utmost secrecy. The enemies had implanted spies among the believers and were watching His every move.
He had to compose it alone, in secret, in His own hand, and then literally hide it underground, probably under a basement floor in a building owned by Baha'is. It remained there at least fifteen years, untouched, unheralded. When Abdu'l-Baha's sister, Bahiyyih Khanum, apprised in strict confidence of its location and instructed to have it dug up only upon His death, she found that an entire section had been destroyed by encroaching damp.
This secret document, of course, was Abdu'l-Baha's own Will and Testament. It is written in three chronological sections, reflecting three increasingly severe stages of oppression by the unfaithful. Each time their behavior had become more egregious. In the opening paragraphs, Abdu'l-Baha refers back to the passage from the Kitab-i-Ahd, with which we opened this essay,
"According to the direct and sacred command of God we are forbidden to utter slander, are commanded to show forth peace and amity, are exhorted to rectitude of conduct, straightforwardness and harmony with all the kindreds and peoples of the world." (Will and Testament, 7)
This document is a three act symphony of increasing desperation, of love practicing forgiveness, yet valiantly struggling to protect the Cause of God from those who hate the light. As the document progresses, Abdu'l-Baha's suffering intensifies. We have a sacred obligation to be kind, but always to avoid the reverse of kind, words of war, even when that means shunning the insincere among us.
"O ye beloved of the Lord! In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of God's grace." (13)
I have been thinking about capital punishment, and when I saw this I suddenly saw why the provision was left in the Aqdas: a murderer is an aggressor, and by taking a life he deprives himself of the massive flow of love that God is shining upon the world. But how much worse it is to attack the Cause, the means by which that grace flows to all humanity! Yet even this, Abdu'l-Baha forgave, and the Cause we have today is the result of His dire need to protect this covenant for posterity.
The Guardian's station was first broached and later explained in this document -- it is not insignificant that a guardian class was first laid out by the greatest of philosophers, Plato, in his greatest work, The Republic. Abdu'l-Baha placed the learned of Baha directly under the Guardian, not the House of Justice (p. 13), thus giving all prominent teachers a duty not only to propagate but to protect as well.
Let me close with what Shoghi Effendi said about the Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha. He emphasizes that, just as Abdu'l-Baha had sprung from both the Mind and the loins of His Father, so the legacy of this document came from and passed on the mystic content of the Kitab-i-Ahd,
"The creative energies released by the Law of Baha'u'llah, permeating and evolving within the mind of 'Abdu'l-Baha, have, by their very impact and close interaction, given birth to an Instrument which may be viewed as the Charter of the New World Order which is at once the glory and the promise of this most great Dispensation. The Will may thus be acclaimed as the inevitable offspring resulting from that mystic intercourse between Him Who communicated the generating influence of His divine Purpose and the One Who was its vehicle and chosen recipient. Being the Child of the Covenant -- the Heir of both the Originator and the Interpreter of the Law of God -- the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha can no more be divorced from Him Who supplied the original and motivating impulse than from the One Who ultimately conceived it." (World Order, 143)