A View From the Mountain: Covid-19 and the Condition of the World. (Or: The Universal *WHAT*?)   

Big hands, small world.


 [18-minute read]

Imagine: what if the world had a governing council, democratically elected, whose only mandate was to guide humanity towards oneness and global renewal? What if such a body were commissioned to rise above partisanship, indeed above the limited advantages of individual nation states, to consider thoughtfully the needs of all the world’s peoples? And while we’re in full-on fantasy, let’s imagine that this council’s members were chosen exclusively because of their capacity to serve, and not due to their power or fame or their desire for either. Wait, how about this? Let’s dispense with nominations, any sort of advantage for the rich (fundraising of any sort), narrowly based constituencies a candidate must favour, and the whole road-show of promises, slandered opponents and vote for me! What do you think? Which is stronger in your mind – the appeal of this flight of utopian fancy, or its impossibility?


Well, I have news. In truth, there’s no need for imagination. Such an institution is no mere dream. Did you know that there is a Universal House of Justice in the world? It was conceived in the writings of Baha’u’llah, the 19th-century Persian nobleman who was stripped of his social position and exiled far from his homeland, and why? For championing the renewal of religion, a new age of human prosperity, and the oneness of humankind. (If you have heard of the Baha’i Faith and its principles, Baha’u’llah is their author.) After steady growth in its numbers and capacity, the Baha’i community first elected what is now its supreme institution, the House of Justice, in 1963 in a remarkable process, completely free of campaigning or ambition. The electors, themselves chosen in a series of prayerful, conscientious procedures, privately vote every five years for those whom they feel have the best capacity to serve. This selection is based on assessments of the maturity, cooperative ability, mental strength, loyalty and selflessness of an individual. Not fame. Not good hair. Not vaulting ambition. Not wealth or privilege or lobbying or a telegenic smile. The difference between this process and the national elections we’re most familiar with – Baha’u’llah might have described them as “lamentably defective” – is as wide as your favourite ocean. Two particular qualities mark the distinctness of the Universal House of Justice from any other prominent governing body in the world. One is that most Baha’is in the world, I suspect, couldn’t even name a member of the House, such is its character and the nature of its elections. (A fame-watcher like me? I think I could name three, tops.) Second, and perhaps most important, not only are Baha’i communities everywhere in the world amazingly responsive to its requests, but they also love the institution of the House of Justice! Bizarre but true.

So now you know a little about this unparalleled system of governance, one that I’ve been mildly obsessing over and immoderately enthusing about for most of my life. Now, if you’ve never even heard of the Universal House of Justice, or barely have, don’t feel badly. This is a governing body that doesn’t send out press releases or trumpet its accomplishments, at all. Besides, with some astounding exceptions (such as the “Peace Message”, its 1985 letter to the peoples of the world), most of its communications are addressed to the Baha’i community, and in a human sea of over seven billion, Baha’is constitute only about one human in a thousand. I guess you could call this a minority report.

The seat of the Universal House of Justice, part of the Baha’i World Centre on the side of Mt. Carmel.

Dear reader, this has also been your preamble to a longer discussion of a superb talk I heard recently. The above introduction will help make sense of what follows, and explain why a group of us were so compelled to hear from a gentleman agricultural scientist we had previously known almost nothing about. (It’s a Baha’i Thing.)


For the second time in a year, the Ottawa Baha’is and their like-minded friends recently benefited from the insights of a former member of this institution, Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, on current conditions in the world. The first was in a sweltering lecture theatre at the University of Ottawa – we shook hands! hugged! listened and perspired, packed shoulder to shoulder! – and, the times being what they are, the most recent talk was on Zoom.

Originally from Iran, Dr. Javaheri trained as an agronomist, then made a pioneering move to Africa where he worked in several nations, primarily The Gambia and Zambia, finally as technical director for the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations. As a volunteer activist, he was in the forefront of the Baha’i community’s growing efforts in social and economic development and served on elected local and national councils – Baha’is call them “spiritual assemblies” – and subsequently as an appointed “Counsellor” for the African continent.¹ In his 50s, he was then elected to serve as a member of the Universal House of Justice, and did so for three 5-year terms, living and working on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, where the Baha’i World Centre is located.² He is now retired and living in southern Ontario, Canada, where he has family ties..

¹ I’ll try not to get started on this. But. Working alongside the elected institutions of the Baha’i fellowship is this second, appointed “arm” of the Faith’s administrative order. (Honestly, the whole thing is miraculous.) A Counsellor has no authority or decision-making power at all, but has the mandate to educate and encourage the people and consult with the elected bodies.
² Israel, you say? This is a historical accident – if you believe in such things. The centre of the Baha’i world is located near where Baha’u’llah is buried. He died, after years in exile and imprisonment, in the then-Turkish Empire outpost of Akka/Haifa. His family members and followers established his Faith’s operational centre there over 50 years before the state of Israel was born.

It’s understandable: members and former members of the Universal House of Justice are given great respect by the Baha’is when they meet. Yet the members themselves show great humility, shunning any form of special treatment and, especially, refusing any suggestion of a special rank or authority as individuals. It’s another amazing characteristic of the Baha’i system: someone like Dr. Javaheri characteristically speaks of the House as an entity entirely separate from himself. There is no “we” or “I contributed this to the decision”, but rather a sense of detachment from the House of Justice as an institution; members insist on speaking only as an individual, like any other believer, in a spiritual culture that has no clergy or formal personal leadership. (I have heard current and former members on several occasions, and what is never heard is “the inside story” or the taking of personal credit. The only authority comes from the deliberations of the group; an individual claims no special status or insight.) So what did this highly esteemed but deeply humble individual have to say? (You’ve been very patient.)

Dr. Javaheri set the stage for his discussion of the state of the globe. The human race, as 2019 turned to 2020, and led largely by young people, was finally focusing in a massive way on the threat posed by climate change. Just as this wave of attention and concern was achieving a critical mass, a global pandemic arose. Climatic disruption didn’t go away, though a widespread economic slowdown has caused breathing to become easier in many major cities. But as the novel coronavirus spread, and the response to this second international crisis deepened, the “inhuman act” of George Floyd’s murder caused “unprecedented global outrage” over longstanding racial injustices and indignities. It is an emergency piled upon planetary emergencies. Dr. Javaheri put it this way: “Humanity is demanding the establishment of a process that will institute true racial equality in the world.” But there is more. In all of these crucial spheres, “People are demanding a more united world.”

We have seen this before. The aftermaths of both World Wars, for example, led to efforts to create international order – the League of Nations, the United Nations – but each time, nations and leaders stopped well short of what is necessary to truly unite the human race. The end of the Cold War offered similar promise, and many humane goals were set as the new millennium began, but these have largely been ignored. There are many obstacles to the realization of the age-old dream of peace and harmony, but most clear is the gross imbalance between our levels of attention to the spiritual (or ethical, or moral) dimensions of human life, as opposed to the material ones. Collectively, we’re like a bird trying to soar on only one wing. We flutter upward, then fall to earth. As Shoghi Effendi, for 36 years the Guardian of the Baha’i community, put it, when times get tough

“…over-rated material needs are made to appear in their proper light….The present calamities are parts of this process of purgation….They are to teach the nations that they have to view things internationally…[and] make the individual attribute more importance to his moral, than his material welfare.”

Besides deepened spirituality, then, what are the particular remedies for the three crises we’re currently swirling in, and for all the world’s ills? Dr. Javaheri prescribed several: the renunciation of racial and other biases; revitalized concepts of leadership; greater appreciation for the power of relationships and of the growth capacity within our local neighbourhoods; an awareness of how consumerist attitudes and practices distort our efforts to address global problems; and, above all, a more active recognition of the oneness of humankind. To Baha’is, and increasingly to high-minded people everywhere, such prescriptions are the true foundations of all genuine progress. All of them are central to Baha’u’llah’s 19th-century proclamation of humanity’s needs in this era of rapid change. We are widely and well aware of these principles. So how do we assist in humanity’s efforts to overcome its weaknesses on the path to global integration, to a true marriage of spiritual and material progress?

One piece of under-reported good news is that the worldwide Baha’i community has never been stronger. The wider population is increasingly receptive to joining in its grassroots efforts toward what can only be termed civilization-building. Javaheri called upon all believers “to be flames of hope and reassurance” in supporting these essential activities – educational and devotional, the elevation of discourse and the taking of positive social action – that lead to the common good. The Baha’is, perhaps alone among the peoples of the world, have clear guidance about what to do in this unsettled time. In fact, Dr. Javaheri asserted, the current plight of humanity is synchronized with the growing awareness and influence of the Baha’i models of community and personal development. Even greater calamities may yet visit humanity, for which it appears to be poorly prepared, but the Baha’i world will continue, calmly but energetically, to foster the resilience that is needed to overcome difficulty and suffering. In 1932, many planetary emergencies ago, Shoghi Effendi, wrote,

Such world crisis is necessary to awaken us to the importance of our duty….Suffering will increase our energy in setting before humanity…the Message with which we have been entrusted…

In Dr. Javaheri’s view, the Baha’i community, though relatively small in numbers, has a contribution that is “essential to the evolving world consciousness”. Humanity’s leaders saw their health-care systems caught short of sufficient masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators; the job of Baha’is is to prepare in their own way, by generating the greatest possible number and vigour of their outreach activities and those that can facilitate them, because these are the low-tech tools of true social development. At some point, Javaheri insisted, humanity will have no choice but to turn to what the Baha’i community conceives of as a working model for how to better our personal and collective lives. During the mutually reinforcing crises of 2020, several messages from the elected Baha’i leadership, the Universal House of Justice, have urged the believers to “noble aims, high resolve and intense endeavour” in the particular forms of education and action that they’re learning to offer to humanity in this difficult, transformational time, to consider

…what means might be within their power to prevent, relieve, or mitigate suffering in the wider society of which they are an integral part. When society is in such difficulty and distress, the responsibility of the Bahá’ís to make a constructive contribution to human affairs becomes more pronounced.

It’s a lofty summons. The temptation exists, always, for Baha’is to feel overwhelmed by the suffering they see, and to long for more tangible and immediate community responses. They may think: This government is diametrically opposite the vision of Baha’u’llah and must be opposed! Or Fossil fuel corporations promote runaway climate change, so we should undermine their power now, and never mind children’s classes! Or The choosing of an auxiliary world language was mandated by Baha’u’llah and our efforts must be there. Or There are so many homeless people right here in _________, so that’s what we should be addressing; after all, eliminating the extremes of wealth and poverty is mandated in our writings! Or Racial injustice is the worst, so we need to fight that blight. And so on. There are unnumbered ills that separately afflict the body politic. On the other hand, those attracted to the teachings and the global system outlined by Baha’u’llah can get discouraged by the size of the mountain humanity is asked to climb, and they stop climbing — either because they feel they don’t measure up to the Faith’s standards, or because of disappointment at their local community’s response to such high ideals. It’s a conundrum. After all, the Baha’i fellowship, though united and forward-looking as it approaches its 200th year, remains small compared to other world religions. And yet, though humanity continues to struggle with the transition to a global perspective, Baha’u’llah’s writings promise a glorious future for human civilization and brilliant prescriptions for how its peace and prosperity are to be achieved. So what was Dr. Javaheri’s view of this conundrum?

Thanks for your insight, Pops.

He looks to the Universal House of Justice for guidance, just as any believer would. Having once been a member of this astonishing institution does not diminish his allegiance and reverence towards it. In speaking with his fellow believers and their allies, he referred to three potent messages issued by the House of Justice this past spring. At the Festival of Ridvan in late April, which celebrates the inauguration of Baha’u’llah’s mission, Baha’is of the world have long looked forward to an annual message from the House. This pivotal year, as the global pandemic was beginning to derange societies, the Universal House of Justice could not wait, and sent a consoling message to the world’s faithful at Nawruz, the Baha’i new year (March 21). And shortly after their Ridvan message, they sent another set of encouraging appeals to the Baha’i community’s “generals”, the over 180 National Spiritual Assemblies elected across the globe, on May 9. Based on these messages, he had several messages to convey, but it came down to this: Stay hopeful. Stay focused.

Despite the difficulties and the need for caution, Dr. Javaheri said, the Baha’is need to remember what their community mission has always been — and “we need to intensify it.” All three letters, while loving and understanding, underscore in various ways that the current period is not just “a hiatus to be endured with patience” but also a special opportunity to explore the paradoxical duality of Baha’i work: proceeding with a serene belief in humanity’s certain and glorious destiny, while urgently developing the organic, educational processes that can best prepare our localities to deal with everything. In other words, “The surest way we can help the world is through our global plans,” as Dr. Javaheri asserted. The world’s problems are numerous, but its central difficulties can best be addressed by patient but energetic and unrelenting efforts in certain key areas that are the special mission of the Baha’i community. At Nawruz, the House of Justice wrote that its

…thoughts and…prayers are focused on the health and well-being of all the friends…and all those among whom you dwell….May your minds be ever bent upon the needs of the communities to which you belong, the condition of the societies in which you live, and the welfare of the entire family of humanity, to whom you are all brothers and sisters.

The task is gigantic, yet the advice is consistent and clear: keep working to build loving and inclusive relationships; foster knowledge, volition and action right where you live; and, nurture the resilience and cooperative skill of your associates at all levels of society. These principles become tangible in the core activities and other initiatives that Baha’is have undertaken everywhere, and which prepare communities for whatever conditions are yet to come. And there are hints that it could get much worse still. As the House of Justice promised a month later at Ridvan 2020:

However long and arduous the road that must be travelled, we are supremely confident in your fortitude and your determination to see the journey through. You draw from stores of hope, faith, and magnanimity, putting the needs of others before your own, enabling those who are deprived to be spiritually nourished, those who increasingly thirst for answers to be satisfied, and those who long to work for the betterment of the world to be offered the means.

The Baha’i community’s contribution, Dr. Javaheri insisted, is essential to the evolving global consciousness. To carefully examine the condition of the world is to realize that crises are fruitful times for constructive grassroots work, especially that work of building diverse but united, cohesive yet outward-looking communities that he believes only the Baha’is can do. Shoghi Effendi designed the first global plan for the Baha’i community’s development, and since his ministry the Universal House of Justice has authored a series of plans that steadily nourish processes that are bringing Baha’u’llah’s vision into reality. The May 2020 letter of the House to National Assemblies is especially clear about the ongoing responsibility for the Baha’i institutions, communities and individuals, in the face of accelerating crises, to just keep going, “without alarm, but without delay”:

[T]he state of the world has made the need to render meaningful service to humanity more urgent. Naturally, the activities undertaken must suit the prevailing conditions, but there should be no doubt that this is a time for noble aims, high resolve, and intense endeavour. As is well known, the activities of the Plan are intended to cultivate a thriving community spirit, through which resilience to mighty challenges is also strengthened….In short, the promotion of the Plan implies building capacity to walk the path of service in every time and season…

So there’s no time off! And speaking of time, Dr. Javaheri echoed his in-person address to the Baha’is of Ottawa in 2019, where he confronted the uneasy issue of busy-ness and distraction. “Why don’t we have time?” he wondered. “The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds,” say the Baha’i teachings. Much of humankind suffers from information overload and the furious pace of the materialist “rat race”, but if Baha’u’llah’s followers also struggle to find time for their indispensable tasks, then some serious reflection is in order. There was praise, of course, there always is – “Ottawa is doing very well” – but it was followed by a smiling nudge – “but we can always do better.” He asked: what distinguishes someone dedicated to improving the world, and in particular what makes a Baha’i distinctive, if her or his lifestyle is basically the same as everybody else’s? He called on everyone to consider their ways and means, and the degree to which they are influenced by the “normal” beliefs and practices of a consumerist society. He smiled. He was gentle. And like a kindly but firm grandfather, he was clearly calling his listeners to rise from whatever comfortable pew they might be attached to.

Characteristically, though, he concluded with reassurance as well, in both his virtual remarks in 2020 and the face-to-face comments from last summer. The Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, wrote to an individual in 1949 that “all humanity is disturbed and suffering and confused; we cannot expect to not be disturbed and not to suffer—but we don’t have to be confused.” The Baha’is are not immune from catastrophe, from any dip in humanity’s fortunes. However, if they pay heed to the guidance, the vision, and the ongoing experience of their united global community of communities, they can rest assured that better days — soon or late — are coming. Characteristically avoiding any claim of individual authority, Dr. Javaheri’s talks, and his response to questions, invoked hope, as well as encouragement to realign our lives, with service and spirituality as the watchwords. He concluded with powerful words of confirmation from the institution on which he once served, the Universal House of Justice, from its mountainside seat. They wrote, on the first day of spring 2020:

However difficult matters are at present, and however close to the limits of their endurance some sections of societies are brought, humanity will ultimately pass through this ordeal, and it will emerge on the other side with greater insight and with a deeper appreciation of its inherent oneness and interdependence.

That is what a view from Mount Carmel, “God’s holy mountain”, looks like.

Comments (3)

  1. Claire Verney

    Thanks for sharing your latest post. I have now shared it with my local Thunder Bay Baha’i community. I’ve scrolled through some of your past entries and have discovered that you share my love of Eleanor Wachtel. [Ed. note: HECK, yeah!] I too have discovered the wonders of podcasts and delight in a new episode every Sunday evening. Her masterful interviewing style has drawn me in every week and exposed me to writers I would never have encountered otherwise. The Joan Didion and Laura Croft interviews I have listened to repeatedly (I’m an insomniac and Eleanor keeps me company through the night).

  2. Bahereh Sabet

    Wonderful piece of information and very well said. The recognition of the oneness of mankind is the obvious fact, and it seems the system of building capacity for service to humanity that the Baha’i Faith has put in place is the only solution to get out of the sufferings that humanity is going through.
    Thank you James!

  3. Leslie Clark

    Well done….
    Very well done.

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