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Getting On : Faith


from moon beam - Saturday, June 03, 2006
accessed 924 times

Written by Brendan Cook

A lonely block of houses in the inner city. Brendan Cook arrives walking from the south. He stops when he sees Justice wandering in the middle of the street. She appears to be a woman of about middle age, her clothing very old and faded, and around her head there is a crown of withered flowers. She is looking anxiously from one house to the next, like someone struggling with a difficult decision. Brendan approaches her cautiously.

BRENDAN: I'm sorry, can I help you? Is there something wrong?

JUSTICE: Yes... I'm not sure where I... I don't know where to go.

BRENDAN: Is there something I can do? Would you like to tell me your name? I'm Brendan.

JUSTICE: My name is Justice. And I need your help because I'm lost. I've been looking for somewhere that I'll be welcome for a long time.

BRENDAN: Justice! Please accept my apologies. This city has so many poor and disoriented people wandering the streets I mistook you for one of them. But if what you say is true, then you don't need to worry about anything. If you're really justice, you shouldn't have a problem finding a home here. Or haven't you heard that the whole world loves justice? The whole world cries out for justice, demands justice. Justice is the very thing that each person on earth prizes most. I promise that wherever you go, people will welcome you like a queen.

JUSTICE: That's what I also believed once, but I'm beginning to suspect it isn't true. As I go from one place to the next, people tell me just what you've said now. They all say that nothing is more precious in earth or heaven than justice. But when I ask if I can stay with them, they start to sing a different tune. They tell me that the person next door or across the street or who goes to the other church needs justice more than they do. The rich talk about a rise in violent crime and tell me that the poor are escaping justice, but when I visit the poor I hear that it's the rich who need to be held to account for taking advantage of working people. Jews complain about Christians, and Christians about Muslims and Muslims about Jews, but no one talks about justice for their own religion. I've heard about the Holocaust, and the World Trade Center attacks, and the Occupied Territories, and the Armenian genocide, and the massacres in Rwanda—I've even heard about the Crusades—but it's never from the people responsible for any of these crimes. Everyone points to injustices done in the name of others and not in their own. Just before I'd met you, I'd been going door to door down this street and getting practically the same answer at every house. The first person I talk to says that he doesn't need justice, but that his neighbor does: but when I go to the neighboring house I'm told there must be some mistake, and that it's the people who live the next house down who need justice in their lives. I'm beginning to suspect that no one is telling the truth. I'm beginning to feel that while people say they love justice, they really only like the idea of holding others to account for their actions.

BRENDAN: Well, what can I say? I'm sorry to hear you tell me this. And I can see that you're sincere. But you've got to be mistaken. The truth is that justice isn't something people are afraid of: justice is something everyone loves. And you don't have to look very far to see this. I don't know as much about the world as many people, but even I can think of places where you wouldn't just be welcomed, you'd even be celebrated.

JUSTICE: Yes? And where do you suggest I go?

BRENDAN: How about the Ministry of Justice? Have you ever thought of going there?

JUSTICE: The Ministry of Justice?

BRENDAN: Yes, it's named after you, isn't it? It's also a perfect example of how much the world loves you. If you want to understand what people think about justice, consider this. Go anywhere on earth, from China to the Americas, and you'll see that each government has a Ministry of Justice or a Department of Justice. The justice system couldn't operate without them.

JUSTICE: And this justice system, what does it do for the people that it's so important?

BRENDAN: Only committing them to prison. The system has other functions, but this is definitely one of the first. Every year around the world, the different Ministries of Justice arrest people in your name and send them away to jail, sometimes for years, sometimes for their entire life. And they work so hard promoting you that more people get locked up in each new year than in the last. The more I think about it, the best place for you to go would probably be the United States: this is a country which has incarcerated more of its own citizens than any other nation on earth. They build new jails there all the time - in many smaller American towns the biggest and most beautiful buildings are jails. You could think of them as monuments in your honor. And the American justice system is exceptional in other ways too. For one thing, it's multicultural in a country where little else is. Minorities still have trouble getting ahead in business or government there: but the prisons are crowded with blacks and Hispanics. And the same's true for the mentally ill, or people with learning disabilities, or who come from broken homes, or grow up with drug abuse or alcoholism. You might say the justice system welcomes the people no one else wants. Even poverty is an advantage. When looking for work or education, the poor always have it the hardest: but no one, no matter how poor, has trouble finding a prison cell.

JUSTICE: And is this all that the justice system does?

BRENDAN: That's just the start. As I told you, you shouldn't underestimate how much men and women love justice. In the end, they're not just willing to imprison their fellow creatures for your sake: but even to end their lives. These Ministries of Justice I've been describing, they don't only incarcerate, they actually kill in your name. And what more could you ask for? If you want to know how people feel about you, look at it this way. Whenever we execute someone we're saying that nothing is more precious to us than justice, not even life. We're saying that we're willing to go against all our other principles to honor you. On the one hand we condemn the taking of life, but in your name, in the name of justice, we'll do the very thing we say is worse than any other.

JUSTICE: And do you really feel that you honor me this way?

BRENDAN: Well, I admit, it seems a little strange at first. But the justice system is often like that. I think it may have something to do with the way that serving justice, especially in America, is tied up with religion. When people testify in court, they swear an oath on the bible or some other holy book, regardless of whether they've had a religious thought in their life. And in many American courthouses, they've also put up the Ten Commandments to remind people that justice comes from God. As a result, the justice system takes on some of the mystery of faith: and faith was never mean to be understood. If you think it's strange that we punish the killing of one person by killing a second, remember that most Christians find the Holy Trinity hard to get their heads around too. Some things aren't meant to be explained but simply trusted in, regardless of the facts. And then even this isn't the most mysterious aspect of the justice system. What really deserves to be called miraculous isn't the punishment for murder, but that the wrong person is never on the receiving end. In the modern history of the United States, thousands of people have been put to death, but not one of them was ever innocent. Nowhere else is the justice system so like God as that in matters of life and death, it cannot make a mistake.

JUSTICE: And how is it that you know this? On whose authority can you claim that the system is never wrong?

BRENDAN: Only the president of the United States. Or haven't you heard? In his two terms as governor of Texas he presided over hundreds of executions, and yet he assures us that every single person was guilty of the charges against them. We have his word, and if his word couldn't be trusted, he wouldn't be president, would he?

JUSTICE: Well...

BRENDAN: For that matter, what about the president? You say you've traveled everywhere looking for a home, but have you ever tried the White House?

JUSTICE: I don't remember if I have. Can you tell me why you think I should go there?

BRENDAN: If you want to find someone who not only loves justice, but has the influence to act on his feelings, I can't think of a better place. George W. Bush is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, and he's done even more for you as president than as governor. Only hear how he praises you in his public announcements and you'll know what a warm welcome he'd give you. In one speech, he tells us that "lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance," and in another he reminds us that we "move forward in every generation by reaffirming... ideals of justice... that are the same yesterday, today, and forever." When he was re-elected in 2004, he celebrated his new term with the inaugural address There is no Freedom without Justice. And when in 2001, he decided to bomb Afghanistan, the name chosen for the campaign was Operation Infinite Justice. It's true that the public and the press didn't like this, and that the operation was renamed Enduring Freedom, but you can't blame him for that. His first choice was always to honor you. The president and his circle couldn't think of a better name for a sustained campaign of aerial bombardment than Infinite Justice, and I feel they were right. I believe that justice and American bombs have a lot in common.

JUSTICE: They do?

BRENDAN: Think about it. It's always said that `justice is blind,' but that's not literally true, is it? You aren't really blind, are you?

JUSTICE: No, as a matter of fact I'm not. If anything, my problem has been that I see too clearly.

BRENDAN: Right. When we say `justice is blind,' we're speaking figuratively. What we mean is that justice is always fair and unbiased, blind to the prejudices that obscure human judgments. And this is why I say you have so much in common with American bombs. Like the very best laws, ordinance is impartial: it hits male and female, young and old alike. Human beings may be fickle and inconsistent, but a bomb, like justice, never discriminates. It doesn't care about the color of someone's skin or how much money they make. It will blow their arm off no matter who they are. That's why I think the president was right to call his bombing campaign Infinite Justice.

JUSTICE: And is this really why you say I would find welcome in the White House?

BRENDAN: Not only for this. The president isn't simply a man who loves justice: he's also someone who embodies justice in his personal qualities. He's a man of God who turns to God in all his difficult decisions. Which is perhaps why he acts with such perfect justice.

JUSTICE: And how do you know that his actions are always just?

BRENDAN: Because he never apologizes for anything he does. Whether he's executing hundreds of people in Texas, or presiding over record deficits, or leading the nation into the most divisive and destructive war in more than a generation, President Bush is always certain that he's made the right choice. In this respect, the president is like the justice system itself. Because he relies on God, he's beyond the reach of any human error. In the last election, he was asked in one of the television debates if he could name any mistakes from his first term. The only one he came up with involved trusting people who didn't deserve it. He hadn't failed, although others had failed him. And this is why the American people awarded him a second term: they responded to his belief in himself. His approach never changes, and his policies never change because he doesn't make mistakes. Which is why I know he'll give you such a warm welcome. A man whose decisions were less irreproachable might not want to bring justice to the White House, but this won't be a problem for President Bush.

JUSTICE: I see. But I think you'll have to forgive me. I appreciate your advice, but I'm not sure if there's a place for Justice with any earthly institution.

BRENDAN: Really? I'm sorry to hear that. But that doesn't mean you're out of options. I've told you justice is often bound up with faith, and the great religions have always supported and sustained the highest ideals of justice.

JUSTICE: And you're suggesting religion might provide an answer?

BRENDAN: It's worth a try. Have you visited the Vatican?

JUSTICE: Yes, but not for a long time. I have a few dim memories, but it's been many hundreds of years since I've been anywhere near there. What are things like today?

BRENDAN: Very good, I think. Benedict XVI hasn't been pope long, but he shows every sign of being a man who will uphold justice in the largest church on earth.

JUSTICE: I suppose you'll tell me that he has many kind things to say about me.

BRENDAN: Of course. Which isn't to say that his predecessor ignored you either. John Paul II was always asking the faithful to "pray... that the ways of justice and peace may prevail," but Pope Benedict seems especially devoted. Just before he was chosen as pope he presented a homily entitled A Call to Justice, where he reminds his listeners that "the call to justice is not something that can be reduced to the categories of this world." I like this because it seems very close to what I was telling you earlier. I said that we can't always understand why the justice system demands that a person be put to death, and that this is a mystery of faith. Well, I think Pope Benedict is saying something similar here. He says that those who deny the mystery of justice repeat the mistake of the people who killed Jesus. He says that because "they reject the significance of what they've seen and heard," their idea of justice is limited. "They remain on the level of human judging and human justice," is how he puts it. So Pope Benedict doesn't just talk about you, he's someone who's considered your nature very deeply and profoundly.

JUSTICE: As much as I can understand them, they're certainly very moving words.

BRENDAN: I agree. But his words would only count for so much if they weren't backed up by actions. More than anything else, Pope Benedict XVI is a man of justice in his leadership of the church. Like President Bush, you can see this in his firmness, the absolute confidence he has not only in himself, but in all of his policies. In a time when people are criticizing the papacy for any number of things; saying it needs to change regarding the ordination of women, or clerical celibacy, or birth control, that it needs to be more open or less centrally run; in a time when it would be so easy to lose confidence, the church is fortunate to have as its head a man as certain and as steadfast as Pope Benedict. Like President Bush, Pope Benedict feels he has a charge from God, something which provides him with an invincible belief in the justice of his choices. In this sense, he's a perfect leader for the modern church, a man who won't apologize for a church that won't apologize: not for the 1933 concordat that helped Hitler gain power in Germany, not for failing to defend the Jews of the Holocaust, not for the abuse of children by priests, not for forbidding condoms while AIDS poisoned the living heart of Africa. Better than many people, Pope Benedict understands that if you're never wrong, you never have to say you're sorry for anything. And this is why I think he'd make such a good host. Other people have so many reasons to avoid justice, by a man as consistently righteous as Pope Benedict will embrace you in an instant.

JUSTICE: Well, I see what you're trying to say. But I think that since I've been away from the Vatican so long already, there wouldn't be much use in my going back there now.

BRENDAN: If you really feel that way. Let me just think for a moment. Surely there has to be somewhere you could go.

JUSTICE: It doesn't matter. Perhaps it would be better...

BRENDAN: Of course! And why didn't I think of it before? The most obvious choice is always the last one you consider. Here I've been thinking about the White House or the Vatican and forgot what's most natural. The Universal House of Justice!

JUSTICE: The Universal House of Justice? I don't think I've ever heard of that before. But I like how it sounds.

BRENDAN: Well, it isn't as well known as it should be. I happen to know about it because I'm one of the few million people currently fortunate enough to be part of the Baha'i Faith.

JUSTICE: I'm sorry, but I don't think I've heard of the Baha'i Faith either. Is it a new religion?

BRENDAN: Relatively speaking. It isn't two hundred years old at this point. But it's not just that it's new, it's what it stands for. The Baha'i Faith is a world religion, one that embraces people from every national and spiritual heritage on earth. It's a bright, open, forward-looking movement that's dedicated to uniting the people of the world in recognizing their common humanity. The Baha'i Faith is opposed to every kind of superstition or prejudice and upholds the equality of men and women and the agreement of science and faith and asserts the oneness of all the world's belief systems. This is how Abdu'l Baha, one of its central figures describes it.

The Baha'i movement is not an organization... The Baha'i movement is the spirit of the age. It is the essence of all the highest ideals of this century. The Baha'i cause is an inclusive movement. The teachings of all religions and societies are found here. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Theosophists, Freemasons, Spiritualists... find their highest aims in this cause. Socialists and philosophers find their theories fully developed in this movement.

JUSTICE: That certainly sounds very promising. And the Universal House of Justice? What role does it play in the Baha'i Faith?

BRENDAN: The House is the divinely ordained leadership of the Faith. It's made up of nine men who...

JUSTICE: Nine men? I thought you said the Faith upholds equality? Aren't there any women?

BRENDAN: No, only men can make up the membership of the House. But of course the Faith teaches that men and women are equal in all things, didn't I just tell you that? But this really isn't important. What matters is that the nine men of the Universal House of Justice have a special authority bestowed on them through something called the Covenant. This is a sort of guarantee which goes back to Baha'u'llah, the prophet who founded the Baha'i Faith more than one hundred years ago. The Covenant promises that in whatever decision the House makes, big or small, it will always be correct. And this is above all why I think that the Universal House of Justice would be a perfect home for you. No one else can welcome you as freely as they can, because no one else has less cause to fear you.

JUSTICE: I'm sure that I'm being impossibly dense here, but can you please go through this one more time? What, exactly, is the connection between this Covenant and how you believe I'd be welcome in the Universal House Justice?

BRENDAN: It's simple. As I've told you before, the quality that really distinguishes those who act with perfect justice is the inability to make mistakes. I've explained how the defenders of the justice system say it's never wrong when it puts someone to death, and how President Bush says he's never wrong in any of his policies, and how Pope Benedict believes that his church is never wrong. But compared to the Universal House of Justice, all of these are imperfect examples, all them fall short of absolute confidence in their own rightness. This is because none of them has the same divine guarantee of infallibility that the House does. However certain they may pretend to be, the worldly institutions and worldly leaders, at least in theory, can still be in error. Even the popes, who have the power to pronounce infallibly on Catholic doctrine, have exercised this ability but twice in the history of the church. Only the Universal House of Justice is consistently infallible in all of its statements. Only the Universal House of Justice is always right. And this is why Baha'is believe that we can trust it as we can trust no other institution on earth. Whether it is condemning homosexuality as deviant, or driving out dissidents, or imposing censorship on Baha'i scholars, or neglecting the world AIDS crisis in favor of spending vast sums of hard-won money on a pile of glittering marble in Haifa, we can be assured that the House must be correct in every ruling and every decision. The central figures of our Faith have promised us this: and to doubt it is to doubt the very foundation of our religion and to be branded an outsider and an enemy of the Faith. This is the promise we've been given.

JUSTICE: I hope you'll pardon me for saying this, but these things don't sound just to me, at least as you describe them.

BRENDAN: They may not seem just, I'll give you that, but you can only put so much trust in appearances. I've told you before that the justice system is a mystery, in a sense a religious mystery. And I've told you about the president's faith in God and about the pope's homily, where he says that justice can't "be reduced to the categories of this world." The infallibility of the Universal House of Justice is simply the greatest mystery of them all. It doesn't come out of rational observation. Rather it's the central premise of our religious belief. The justice of its decisions isn't something obvious or apparent, it's a guarantee.

JUSTICE: So you assume that the house deals justly out of faith?

BRENDAN: Now you're beginning to understand things better. And this guarantee that the House will always act with perfect justice is useful in other ways too. For one thing, it means the House doesn't have to waste any time proving its commitment to justice. If it were a merely human institution, people would look for some indication that it actually cared about you, or want to hear it say inspiring things on your behalf: but Baha'u'llah's promise makes this unnecessary. Why look for confirmation of what we already know? Even fallible religious bodies like the Catholic Church find a great deal of their time taken up with issues of poverty, and inequality, and human rights. But the Universal House of Justice never has to deal with any of these problems because we already know it's perfectly just. If we have Baha'u'llah's word, we don't need any evidence to support it. The name alone is enough.

JUSTICE: I certainly see why that might prove useful.

BRENDAN: It has many applications. Even the fact that the House doesn't have to divert any of its energies talking about you is an advantage. This leaves its members free to focus on the things that matter, like "the formulation of derivative plans and strategies at the national, regional, and local levels," or "developing formal programmes and putting into place effective systems for the delivery of courses." Instead of drafting endless calls to freedom or fraternity, they can produce statements about "clusters" and "pyramids," and "intensive cycles of growth," and about "focus on the core activities" and "potent stimulus to institutional and individual initiatives," and all the other subjects which occupy their attention. This is a freedom not even the prophets who founded the great religions ever enjoyed. Jesus had to talk about the blessing given to the poor or to those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, Mohammed had to speak out on behalf of the needy and the orphan; but neither of them had the same guarantee the Covenant confers on the House. If they did, perhaps they wouldn't have needed to constantly prove themselves through inspiring words. Perhaps they would also have been able to say more about "the twin processes of growth and consolidation" and not been sidetracked so often by talk about loving our neighbor or setting prisoners free or bringing light to those in darkness. In any case the House, whose justice is guaranteed, doesn't need to resort to any flashy rhetoric.

JUSTICE: I see. And if the House always acts with such perfect justice, does that mean it doesn't suffer any setbacks along the way? Are there never any failures that might cast doubt upon its reputation for infallibility?

BRENDAN: Of course there are. But that's beside the point. It's not that things can't go wrong: far from it. In fact half of what the House tries fails dismally. It's just that when things do go wrong, the House is never responsible. It's the ordinary believers, who don't try hard enough or whose thinking isn't sufficiently spiritual, who bear the blame if an initiative doesn't work. In this sense, the members of the House are in much the same position as President Bush. They can't fail, but others often fail them. Dr. Peter Khan, who's a long-standing member of the House, said something about this very problem in a recent talk he gave in New Zealand. He admitted that there were serious issues in the community, but he also stressed that it was individual believers who were at fault.

In your community, you may be aware of the fact that people are drifting away from the Faith. Why? Because they have neglected that sense of heightened spiritual consciousness... They're giving up on the Baha'i community not because there is anything wrong with the Baha'i community or the Baha'i Faith, (but) because they have failed in their primary duty as Baha'is...

JUSTICE: He sounds very certain he's right.

BRENDAN: He does, doesn't he? And there are so many other examples I could mention too. I could talk about the Ruhi courses which have been a disaster not because of their insipid content, but because believers haven't supported them, or about the constant shortfalls in all of the various funds, but there are really just too many examples to mention individually. What matters is that you can see why the Universal House of Justice deserves its name, why of all the great institutions that celebrate or commemorate you, none would hesitate less in welcoming you. If those who fear justice are those who fear seeing the motives of their decisions laid bare when they have built policies on mistaken assumptions or errors in judgment, or have confused human prejudice with divine wisdom -- equating the inability to admit mistakes with the inability to make them; if those who fear justice fear criticism, challenge, or scrutiny because their actions cannot withstand the light of truth; or fear debate or discussion; or fear the revelation of the fallibility, the susceptibility to error, the essential humanity of their rulings; what can the Universal House of Justice fear from you? Even if the whole world feared justice, the Universal House of Justice alone would not. As individuals they are only men, but when these nine sit together in judgment, they leave behind the human condition. Their decisions cannot be scrutinized, cannot be criticised, challenged, or refuted by any argument devised by fallible minds. The Universal House of Justice has nothing to fear from you because it rests upon an authority higher even than you. For as powerful as justice is, faith is more powerful still. And it is to faith, and not to justice, that the House is finally answerable.

JUSTICE: I don't know what to tell you. I'm grateful for your help, I really am. But I'm not as sure as you are that I would be welcome in any of the places you mention. I think I may have to go on wandering for a long time.

BRENDAN: That's fine with me. You can think what you want. It's not my choice if you'll ignore my advice.

Justice turns, and continues very slowly and reluctantly on her way.

BRENDAN: Oh, so you're leaving are you? Go ahead! I'll bet you really aren't Justice anyway. You're probably just some crazy homeless person. Imagine it: the very idea that there was no place for justice in the world! I don't know why I considered it for a moment.

As Justice gets farther away, Brendan turns his back and starts heading for home.

BRENDAN: I'm glad that's over. Who knows what I'd believe if I'd talked to her much longer—she wouldn't have had me trust anyone. I was even beginning to suspect that she might be some sort of Covenant breaker.

Reader's comments on this article

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from Polychrysos
Wednesday, July 19, 2006 - 11:42

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)
I wrote this piece, and I'm pleasantly surprised to see it here. I didn't know that my experiences with the Baha'i Faith might be relevant to those dealing with other religions, but I'm glad to see that this is the case. I have never written anything before, but my encounter with narrow-mindedness and fanaticism inspired me to write a good deal. That people here have appreciated my writing means the world to me.
(reply to this comment)
from AndyH
Sunday, June 04, 2006 - 19:58

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

This was quite interesting and enlightening. It's amazing how easy it is to convey points through this medium. I found this bit particularly appropriate to TF leadership.

"It's not that things can't go wrong: far from it. In fact half of what the House tries fails dismally. It's just that when things do go wrong, the House is never responsible. It's the ordinary believers, who don't try hard enough or whose thinking isn't sufficiently spiritual, who bear the blame if an initiative doesn't work. In this sense, the members of the House are in much the same position as President Bush. They can't fail, but others often fail them. Dr. Peter Khan, who's a long-standing member of the House, said something about this very problem in a recent talk he gave in New Zealand. He admitted that there were serious issues in the community, but he also stressed that it was individual believers who were at fault. "

How true that is of TF. It seems that the few times that apology is hinted at, is to the effect of "We are sorry that a some members misinterpreted our words, and did these terrible things." Or whenever there was a financial crisis, they accused individual homes of holding out on tithes, or not focusing enough on fund-raising. I think that believers react in one of two ways, realizing that they are NOT infallible as Brendan obviously has, or accepting the blame and working harder to bring about the unrealistic utopia their leaders have promised them. It's a shame, the latter.
(reply to this comment)

From AndyH
Sunday, June 04, 2006, 20:17

Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5Average visitor agreement is 5 out of 5(Agree/Disagree?)

AHA! I've just taken this point a step further, to apply to all the angry non-TF Christians, who tell me how different they are, and how real Christianity isn't bad, and God will judge blah blah blah.

They place the blame for all the religious atrocity committed on individual persons, rather than admitting that religion just might not be the perfect mindset that they are so dependent on. Now if that's what it takes to get you through the day, more power to you, but as Fish and Roughneck have recently requested, please keep it the fuck to yourselves, and stop trying to cram it down my very unappreciative throat. Thank you.(reply to this comment

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