“Without reference to particular individuals”
Posted by Sen on March 23, 2013
From the moment Pope Benedict announced his retirement, the names of possible successors were being discussed, along with ideas about the right kind of Pope to lead the Church in the years to come. A South American? An African? … It all makes for good press. Bahai elections, even the forthcoming election of the Universal House of Justice, are not so newsworthy.
The Bahai community has no clergy, in the sense of qualified religious experts who lead a religious community. Its affairs are administered by elected local and national “spiritual assemblies.” The members of the National Spiritual Assemblies administer the affairs of the community in their countries, and every five years they cast their votes for the members of the Universal (or International) House of Justice, which administers the global affairs of the Bahai community. They will do so again in April, 2013, at an international convention in Haifa, Israel.
At the local, national and international levels, the elections are conducted without candidates, or even any reference to particular individuals. The qualifications for electability in all these elections are well known:
… it is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider … the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience…
(Shoghi Effendi, letter of June 3, 1925, printed in Directives from the Guardian, p. 24)
On the face of it, we can tell the Press to move along, there’s nothing to see here. No personalities to dissect, nothing to discuss. If it was really that dull, I wouldn’t be writing about it either. But there’s more to the story. Shoghi Effendi has also said that, prior to an election to a Bahai institution, the friends should “discuss among themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference or application, however indirect, to particular individuals.” (Letter to the Spiritual Assembly of Akron, Ohio, dated May 14, 1927).
But we know the qualifications for membership don’t we? And we are not to make references to particular individuals, who may or may not meet those requirements. So why does Shoghi Effendi call all the Bahais (not just the convention delegates) to discuss the requirements and qualifications for membership? Could he have forgotten that he had told us the qualifications, just two years earlier? That would be uncharacteristic, for he was systematic and meticulous by nature.
The answer I think is that, while he has told us the general qualifications which electors should always look for, in any situation, (unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability and mature experience…), he was also aware that every national community has particular needs, and that the needs of one year may not be those of the following year, or of ten years later. What Shoghi Effendi asks us all to discuss must be the requirements of the hour.
The House of Justice has given similar guidance (March 25, 2007):
While there should be no mention of personalities in connection with Bahá’í elections, it is quite appropriate for believers to discuss the requirements and qualifications for membership in the institution to be elected. … Among the “necessary qualities” specified by the Guardian are those “of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience”. With a heightened awareness of the functions to be performed by the elected body, the believer can properly assess those for whom a vote should be cast. From among the pool of those whom the elector believes to be qualified to serve, selection should be made with due consideration given to such other factors as age distribution, diversity, and gender. The elector should make his choice after careful thought over an extended period before the actual election.
In my opinion, one requirement for membership which the delegates to the international Bahai convention should weigh very heavily is the desirability that the members of the next Universal House of Justice should have long and fruitful experience as members of National Spiritual Assemblies. In any Bahai election, proven effectiveness on an Assembly is one important sign by which a person’s maturity and wisdom may be known. In the case of the forthcoming election of the Universal House of Justice, four other factors make experience on a National Spiritual Assembly especially important.
If the membership of the Universal House of Justice were to be drawn largely from experienced members of the National Spiritual Assemblies, this would strengthen the relationship between the National and International bodies, whose tasks after all lie in the same sphere of the Bahai Administration;
It would provide the Universal House of Justice with members who have experience in implementing, in national communities with diverse patterns of development, the plans and policies which the Universal House of Justice enacts, and that would help to making those plans more relevant and practicable;
It would signal a fresh start, in comparison to the present situation in which members of the Universal House of Justice are drawn from the International Teaching Centre rather than from the ranks of national administrative bodies; and
It would highlight the natural and fruitful relationship between the elected and appointed arms of the Bahai Administrative Order, a relationship which is obscured if all the members of the Universal House of Justice are drawn from the International Teaching Centre. The ITC then appears to resemble a line up of the papabile cardinals.
These considerations might also weigh in the minds of the Counsellors, and especially the members of the International Teaching Centre. Would it not be better for the development of the Bahai Administrative Order, if they were to ask the convention delegates not to elect them to the Universal House of Justice? There are good precedents for such a request. The first is the example of the Hands of the Cause, who by asking the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies not to vote for them (Ministry of the Custodians, p. 20) gave concrete expression to the separation of the spheres of authority and administration on the one hand, and of guidance and wisdom on the other hand. The separation of these two spheres was outlined by Shoghi Effendi in The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah as follows:
… these twin institutions of the Administrative Order of Baha’u’llah should be regarded as divine in origin, essential in their functions and complementary in their aim and purpose. … Acting in conjunction with each other these two inseparable institutions administer its affairs, coordinate its activities, promote its interests, execute its laws and defend its subsidiary institutions. Severally, each operates within a clearly defined sphere of jurisdiction; each is equipped with … instruments designed for the effective discharge of its particular responsibilities and duties. Each exercises, within the limitations imposed upon it, its powers, its authority, its rights and prerogatives. … Far from being incompatible or mutually destructive, they supplement each other’s authority and functions, and are permanently and fundamentally united in their aims.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 148)
This separation of the spheres of the Guardianship and the House of Justice — and between their attendant institutions — requires a distinction between their personnel, where this is possible. A letter on behalf of the the Guardian states:
… the Guardian states that the Hands of the Cause are eligible to administrative offices except those permanently residing in Haifa and helping the Guardian in the administrative work. Whenever the time comes when the Hands should give up their administrative offices in order to be more free to serve under his direction, he will inform the friends.
(Letter of May 30, 1952, on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, published in The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 182)
As is sometimes the case with letters written on behalf of the Guardian, the wording is unhandy, as ‘administrative’ is used in two different senses. What must be meant is that the Hands residing in the Holy Land and assisting the Guardian with his work, cannot be elected to an administrative office, and that in the future this rule will be extended to the other Hands.
Similarly, the Universal House of Justice has decided that Counsellors, during their terms of office, are not “eligible for membership on national or local administrative bodies… ” (Wellspring of Guidance, pp. 141-142) and it has asked the members of the Auxiliary Boards to suggest to delegates at national convention, that it would not be desirable to elect them to the National Spiritual Assembly:
National Assemblies in whose areas of jurisdiction Board Members reside, should point out to the delegates at Convention that whilst teaching and administrative duties are not mutually exclusive, it is desirable that Auxiliary Board Members, whether for teaching or protection, be left free to concentrate on the work allotted to them… The following extract from the Guardian’s letter, written through his secretary, could be shared with the delegates for their guidance when casting their votes:
“Teachers of the Cause can surely become members of any Assembly or Committee. There should be no incapacity attached to them. But, Shoghi Effendi would just prefer to see them devote all their time to teaching and leave the administrative function for those who cannot serve as teachers. (Bahai News, October, 1932)
(From a letter of the Universal House of Justice to all National Spiritual Assemblies, November 25, 1963)
It would therefore be both permissible and laudable if the members of the International Teaching Centre were to tell the delegates that it would be preferable to leave them to devote themselves to their own functions, in their own sphere of action. The same effect could be achieved the Universal House of Justice made a practice of appointing women only to the most visible appointed positions in the community. As of 2010, 48% of all Counsellors were women, and that proportion is rising. It will be interesting to see whether the Universal House of Justice’s goal is 50% representation, or something much higher.
What do you think?
Without reference to particular individuals, post a comment about what you think are the requirements and qualifications for membership of the Universal House of Justice, in view of the needs of the community today. What House of Justice would you like to see emerge from the International Convention?
Edited April 20, 2013: added the reference the Universal House of Justice’s letter of March 25, 2007, and the letter on behalf of the Guardian stating that Hands residing in the Holy Land to assist the Guardian were not to be elected to administrative offices.
Postscript, May 27: See also Arash Abizadeh, ‘How Bahá’í Voters Should Vote,’ Journal of Bahá’í Studies 18. 1/4. 2008, online here.
PPS, February 2016: The post above might give the impression that none of the members of the Universal House of Justice have experience on a National Spiritual Assembly. In fact, Stephen Hall served as secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of Australia, before being appointed a Counsellor Member of the ITC.
Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-2el