"The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens," wrote Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith in the mid-19th century. "Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self."
These simple but potent exhortations provide a blueprint for action for many Baha'is, who represent roughly 2,000 cultures and ethnicities around the world. For some Baha'is, myself included, the principle of the oneness of mankind serves as both a cornerstone of spiritual belief as well as a motive behind one's work.
Observing the world in all its disarray and then believing -- sometimes as an act of faith -3- that there are perhaps better alternatives is not altogether an easy proposition. As individuals, we face a collective action problem, where well-meaning efforts amount to little when not joined by many others. There is also the halting view that life is mostly a zero-sum game, and the benefits enjoyed by some necessarily come at someone else's expense.
This leads many people to view the prospect of world peace as simply wishful thinking, particularly when held against the evidence of the daily front pages. And who can blame them? The world's most powerful nations show only tentative signs of wishing to work together for the collective good, while sending clear messages to their citizens and neighbors that national interest must be preserved above all else. Could it be that the end result of human progress over thousands of years is simply to end up with a sub-optimal outcome because we cannot overcome the prisoner's dilemma?
Many do believe that is indeed the case, and I can't fault them for a conclusion that can sometimes make an awful lot of sense. In these dim moments, I am heartened by my faith's teachings that we not only have the potential to do better, but that ultimately it is our destiny, the culmination of our collective advancement. Baha'is believe that "world peace is not only possible, but inevitable," and that "it is the next stage in the evolution of this planet." Baha'u'llah taught in the mid-19th century that the human race as a distinct entity has undergone an evolutionary process, much like a child growing into adolescence, and that it would necessarily pass through difficult and traumatic stages before ultimately arriving at a state of maturity when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb" (Isaiah 11:6).
Nowhere have I witnessed more of this trauma, and the incredible distance to that promised period, than here in Afghanistan, where I am currently working. The conflict here is complex, with ethnic, tribal, geo-political, economic, and religious dynamics at work. After 30 years of instability and conflict, it is hard to find a spot on this earth that has endured more suffering, particularly for women and children. As a result, the large majority of Afghans genuinely want peace for their country. But how?
Of course, the solution to the Afghanistan riddle is deeper than simply training an army, building a school, or reducing government corruption. While worthy endeavors, these are all tools that treat symptoms instead of underlying root causes, which are tricky even to understand, let alone address through some type of political initiative or aid package.
Part of the solution to an elusive world peace is that we must see each other as members of the same human family, whose well-being is inextricably linked together. "The world of humanity is a composite body," the Baha'i Writings state, and "when one part of the organism suffers all the rest of the body will feel its consequence." Accepting the genuine oneness of humanity is a spiritual act with profound consequences for one's daily life.
When taken on a larger scale, this has consequences for society and our collective choices. The Baha'i Faith teaches that the world will eventually arrive, by a twisted path of its own choosing, at the conclusion that both the survival and prosperity of the human race depend on internalizing our collective well-being. "It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country," Baha'u'llah wrote, "but rather for him who loveth the whole world."
The son of Baha'u'llah, Abdu'l-Baha, who led the Baha'i community following his father's passing in 1892 and who is an important figure in Baha'i history, once encountered H. Maxim, a celebrated inventor of munitions and weapons. Abdu'l-Baha told him that while his name had become famous in the science of war and human destruction, he should strive to become famous also in the science of peace, by inventing "guns of love which shall shake the foundations of humanity." People would praise this inventor of guns as having also "invented means for increasing life and love of man; who has put an end to the strife of nations and uprooted the tree of war," Abdu'l-Baha said. "Then will your name be recorded in the pages of history with a pen of gold."
Instead, we have found it much easier to invent increasingly severe means of destruction than more effective means of love and peace. Our creativity in devising methods of conquest has extended to food, raw materials, finance, industrial power, ideology, and terrorism. As society has advanced, so has the technology and tools at our disposal to change and influence the world. The task now is to turn our intellect, power, and creative energy into forces for peace that builds a lasting and secure system.
On this thought Abdu'l-Baha wrote, "let's try peace for a while? If we find war is better, it will not be difficult to fight again."