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Rob Sobhani

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Baha'i: A 21st Century Faith

Posted: 11/ 6/2011 8:11 am

The man standing to my right was a pensioner from Moscow whose grandfather had been in WWII. To my left was an architect from Tasmania with his wife and young daughters. Immediately behind me stood the chief technology officer for a leading energy company. And straight ahead of me was a schoolteacher from Uganda. What brought these and others from across the globe to Israel this sunny day in October was their firm belief in a certain set of principles. Foremost among them was a belief in the oneness of man. In the spirit of the 14th century Persian poet Saadi, who said, "Human kind is all from one branch," this crowd found unity in diversity. The Russian, Mexican, African, Arab, Israeli, American, European and Australian all found a commonality in their diversity: a belief that we are all bound together by our oneness. This ideal, I thought, would certainly be one way to start doing away with prejudice among nations.

Another fundamental ideal shared by this colorful group from around the world was universal education: a belief that education is a fundamental human right and the world's greatest equalizer. If Costa Rica exports computer chips instead of illegal immigrants to the United States it is because they have invested in education. And if countries are struggling with the challenges of underdevelopment then investing in education is the key to growth and prosperity. Of particular interest to me was the comment from the Tasmanian architect that men and woman had to both be educated and, in fact, if a family has minimal means it should be spent on educating the female member of the family because woman play a more important role in the formative years of a child's life. This emphasis on education reminded me of the billions that have been wasted in countries like Mexico and Nigeria rather than investing the country's petro-dollars on educating its youth. Mexico and Nigeria's potential as prosperous countries can blossom if its leaders shift their priorities to educating all its citizens.

The fact that science and religion should progress together was another very interesting tenant of the faith shared by those present at this gathering. By espousing the importance of science alongside religion these believers have expunged superstition from their belief system. Furthermore, they recognize that in a modern world in which stem cells can save lives religious beliefs should not impede scientific discoveries nor should science be decoupled from spiritual underpinnings. The same principle applies to the environment. The Ugandan teacher made a very interesting point: "If we harness God's power of light (solar energy) to electrify all of Africa then we have married science and religion."

Service to humanity at both the macro and micro level was part and parcel of the daily lives of the participants. For example, one lady from the U.S. has started visits to a Hispanic community in Montgomery County, Md., called Spiceberry. Here, she and other young volunteers have classes for the neighborhood youth on empowerment and taking responsibility for their community. This emphasis on responsibility was of great interest to me because in today's culture of self-indulgence and deflecting all ills onto others taking personal responsibility is refreshing. Another young lady recounted a story of a village in Africa where the women worked and the men drank and abused their wives. She started a program at the micro level to address this problem by first asking the men to take a break for just one day from drinking. Day one brought the realization that their wives really worked hard. On day two they were asked not to go to village and buy alcohol, which they did. By day three these men who were by now sober decided to pitch in to help their wives. And by the end the men had taken responsibility for cultivating a large parcel of land and growing fruits and vegetables thus creating a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

And as I am reminded of the global economic crisis facing Europe and the U.S. the ethos of "working hard but giving back harder" to society came to mind. Those gathered from around the world were united in the belief that it is important to work hard, be self-reliant and become prosperous in the process but that capitalism requires a conscience. For example, misleading borrowers into signing mortgages they cannot pay is morally reprehensible and erodes the fundamental glue that holds economic transactions together: trust. "Our faith tells us that trustworthiness is the foundation of all human virtues," I was told by the pensioner from Moscow.

Even though I am not a member of this faith group, it occurred to me that the 21st century can certainly use these messages and universal teachings. The people who had gathered this October day on Mount Carmel were members of the Baha'i Faith.