BIC, the Wilmette Institute, and You: How to Gain Knowledge for Public Discourse and Social Action

by Christine Muller

Christine Muller is faculty for the Wilmette Institute course Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind and lead faculty for Climate Change, a course she developed first for the International Environment Forum. She serves on the Board of the Rhode Island Interfaith Power & Light, a religious response to global warming.

The Bahá’í International Community (BIC) regularly issues statements that shed light on social issues from a Bahá’í perspective—for example, issues such as human rights, gender equality, climate change, eradication of poverty, and sustainable development. Usually these statements are prepared for United Nations conferences. As individual Bahá’ís, we may wonder how—or why—we should relate to such statements. Are they of significance to us, or are they only relevant for the conference attendees? I feel that the BIC statements are very important resources for individual Bahá’ís and Bahá’í communities. Following are some of the reasons why BIC statements are very important for all Bahá’ís and how they directly relate to our personal lives, our participation at some level in public discourse, and our service to the Cause.

What Is the Bahá’í International Community (BIC)? First, we need a basic understanding about the mission and the work of the Bahá’í International Community. The 2014 BIC statement Contributing to an Ever-Advancing Civilization: The Baha’i International Community and the United Nations ends with a paragraph summarizing its mission:

The work of the Baha’i International Community can be understood as seeking to facilitate, at the international level and particularly within the context of the UN, an ongoing conversation about the requirements of a world civilization progressing in all aspects of its individual and collective life.

The statement also describes the scope of the BIC’s actions:

From the moment of its accreditation, the Baha’i International Community began to play an energetic role in United Nations’ affairs. “Be anxiously concerned,” wrote Baha’u’llah, “with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” Throughout its nearly 70 years of association with the United Nations, the Baha’i International Community, often working in collaboration with UN agencies and other NGOs, has worked in many different areas in the fields of social and sustainable development including in particular, the equality of women and men, the protection of the girl child, the protection of vulnerable and marginalized populations, and the advancement of a culture of discourse and collective deliberation, among others. . . . Guiding these contributions has been a steady effort to apply intelligently and thoughtfully ethical and moral principles to the resolution of global challenges, and a steady striving for coherence between the material and moral dimensions of human life.

The statement further explains BIC’s contributions to an ever-advancing civilization:

At the world conferences of the 1990s, Baha’is actively contributed their vision and experience—at the world conferences on Education for All (Thailand), the World Summit for Children (New York), the UN Conference on the Environment (Rio de Janeiro), the International Conference on Population (Cairo), the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen) and the particularly vibrant Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Among more recent conferences, the Paris Climate Change Conference, COP 21, in December 2015 will probably go down in history as one of the most important international conferences ever held. The Bahá’í International Community contributed to it with the statement Shared Vision, Shared Volition: Choosing Our Global Future Together.

BIC documents are not only interesting, but they are also packed with information that Bahá’ís should read and study. For some, the concepts and language in the statements can be at times a bit abstract. This is unavoidable because these statements deal with complicated issues and need to be short and concise. But that should not be a reason to forgo studying them. They can help us all gain a deeper understanding of the enormous social issues confronting humankind and how the Bahá’í teachings provide the ethical framework for addressing them. Therefore, these statements are valuable tools for deepening our knowledge of contemporary issues and of our Faith and for preparing us to engage in public discourse, to conduct meaningful conversations, and to teach the Bahá’í Faith, as the Universal House of Justice, in its Ridván 2010 message (par. 30) encourages us to do:

At the level of the cluster, involvement in public discourse can range from an act as simple as introducing Bahá’í ideas into everyday conversation to more formal activities such as the preparation of articles and attendance at gatherings, dedicated to themes of social concern—climate change and the environment, governance and human rights, to mention a few. It entails, as well, meaningful interactions with civic groups and local organizations in villages and neighborhoods.

In its December 29, 2015, message to the Conference of the Continental Board of Counselors, the Universal House of Justice (par. 30) elaborates on the importance of learning to apply the Bahá’í teachings to social issues:

However humble an instance of social action might be at the beginning, it is an indication of a people cultivating within themselves a critical capacity, one that holds infinite potential and significance for the centuries ahead: learning how to apply the Revelation to the manifold dimensions of social existence.

Analyzing a BIC Statement on Sustainable Development: An Issue That Needs to Be “Embraced” by All. One BIC statement— Summoning Our Common Will: A Bahá’í Contribution to the United Nations Global Development Agendaserves as an example of how such statements can educate us and prepare us for participating in public discourse. It was issued in New York on October 13, 2015, in response to the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Agenda, a comprehensive framework for action to achieve seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the year 2030. You may remember these seventeen SDGs, which were listed in an article published in the Wilmette Institute eNewsletter in January 2016. These goals encompass five areas that are at the heart of sustainable development. An article about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights these five areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet as follows :

    • People        We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.
    • Planet         We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.
    • Prosperity          We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.
    • Peace         We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.
    • Partnership         We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalized Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.

For brevity, I will concentrate on the main point that Summoning Our Common Will (pp. 3–4) makes in support of these vital goals for humankind:

Many have noted that the true test of Agenda 2030 will be its practical implementation. Particularly important will be the degree that its efforts are able to secure the commitment, support and labours of the peoples of the world. . . .

. . . The Secretary-General of the UN, for example, declared that “If we are to succeed, the new agenda cannot remain the exclusive domain of institutions and governments. It must be embraced by people.”

Hence it is not only governments and international agencies that need to work on the Sustainable Development goals. Every person on the planet must become involved. The BIC statement (p. 6) then focuses on the question: “How do individuals and communities become motivated to contribute their efforts toward a higher cause, with no expectation of immediate, material recompense?”

Faith has shown itself to be key in this regard. Whether faith in the efficacy of the development process, the capacity of the human race, the virtues of family, community, or a host of other ideals, the combination of conviction and aspiration has been central to generating motivation. Among these, religious faith plays a unique and vital role in global development efforts.

After testifying to the importance of faith in motivating action, the BIC statement explains in its final paragraph (p. 15) that Bahá’ís are working to “translate moral and spiritual precepts into the practical forms of a new social reality”:

Baháís around the globe, in a wide range of settings, are striving to establish a pattern of activity and community life that helps translate moral and spiritual precepts into the practical forms of a new social reality. The Bahá’í community readily acknowledges that to uphold high ideals and to become their embodiment are not the same thing. Yet we remain committed to this path of learning, and seek to pursue it not only in explicitly “religious” settings or “development” venues, but across all spheres of life.

Are Bahá’ís and Bahá’í Communities Embracing the Sustainable Development Goals? We may ask ourselves to what degree our personal and community lives are expressing spiritual teachings in practical actions. How are we contributing to the UN’s sustainability goals summarized in the five points above? Do our actions contribute, for example, to ending “poverty and hunger” and to ensuring “that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment”?

Many people would argue that, as individuals, we have no influence on such global problems. As Bahá’ís, we may take the position that we need to focus on the Five Year Plan and core activities, which eventually will help humanity to solve its problems. The BIC statement (p. 7) clearly presents another view:

The link between religious conviction and service to the common good, however, is by no means automatic. It is entirely possible, for example, to have a congregation of noble-thinking and well-intentioned adherents whose actions do little to contribute to the betterment of society. Clearly there is much to learn about how noble ideals become expressed in committed, sustained action. In this sense, religious communities can be understood as communities of practice in which spiritual teachings are translated into social reality.

The view offered by the BIC statement opens up an entirely new perspective calling us to adopt a culture of learning and action that applies to social issues confronting humankind as well as to core activities. Due to the erroneous perception of the inherent aggressive nature of human beings and of the widespread myth that the economic system depends on the unlimited exploitation of people and nature, much of our society has accepted the unfair and cruel treatment of people and the destruction of the environment as inevitable. While it is impossible for us not to be affected by misguided cultural norms and a general paralysis of will, we are able to learn to be inspired and guided by the Bahá’í teachings and to apply them to the difficult issues facing humankind. As the BIC statement says (p. 7): “there is much to learn about how noble ideals become expressed in committed, sustained action.”

Knowledge is a prerequisite for expressing “noble ideas” in action. We need to learn how we can contribute to ending “poverty and hunger” and to ensuring “that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.”

How Can the Wilmette Institute Help Us Gain Knowledge, Take Action, and Participate in Sustainable Development? Beginning on September 10 (and running through October 28), the Wilmette Institute will offer a course on Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind. Learners who have taken the course in the past have found it very helpful in opening their eyes to the reality of serious issues about which all of us need to know more—issues such as extreme poverty, economic injustice, and the environmental crisis. Course participants are given the opportunity to develop a vision of how a spiritual, just, and environmentally sustainable civilization may look and to discuss how we can all become agents of change to get there.

Adopting a sustainable lifestyle does not require any additional activities that will distract us from the goals of the Five Year Plan, and most actions do not require much effort. Moreover, changing our perspectives is at the heart of building a spiritual civilization. Sustainability begins in our thoughts, which are then put into reality with wiser decisions in all aspects of our lives and community activities. Most of us can easily give up buying bottled water. We can all recycle or, even better, up-cycle materials, such as electronics, so they can be reused. There are even simple ways to compost kitchen scraps in the city. We can forgo buying that cute and cheap T-shirt that was likely produced by people under slave-like conditions. What we choose to eat, how we maintain our yards, and how we spend our vacations all make a difference in the well-being of other people and future generations. And, most important, we can reduce our consumption of “stuff” and learn to distinguish between real needs and luxury items. When planning community activities, we can apply spiritual principles by carefully considering issues of sustainability. The documentary video Frontiers of Learning illustrates how similar actions, often initiated by core activities, can transform society.

The initiative to put the Bahá’í teachings into practice should ideally come from the grassroots, from individuals, study groups, and local communities who want to advance toward a more sustainable way of life and not merely because the Bahá’í International Community often refers to the Bahá’í community as a model in progress. But the BIC statements can help us to open our eyes to the reality of the world in which we live and to the challenging problems we should be addressing.

Wilmette Institute courses can provide additional information and tools to help us add our efforts to bringing into being, as the BIC statement Summoning Our Common Will says (p. 15), a “spiritually and materially prospering world civilization.”

We invite you to join the Wilmette Institute’s course Sustainable Development and the Prosperity of Humankind. To learn more about the course, or to sign up, click here.

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Other courses that help you prepare for public discourse and social action:

Building a World Federation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Aug. 20 – Oct. 7, 2016)

The Equality of Women and Men: Application in Public and Private Life (Nov. 15 – Jan. 13, 2016)

Science and Religion (Jan. 25 – Mar. 10, 2017)

Applying Bahá’í Principles to Discourses on Governance in the United States (May 25 – July 13, 2017)

Climate Change (Apr. 15 – June 10, 2017)

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