The American Gun Question

In the wake of the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we’ve seen predictable results in the American news media, on social media, and among our politicians. Some call for more and tougher gun control laws, while others rail against any such suggestion, or simply ignore it altogether. We can likely be sure of just two things. First, little or nothing will come of this verbal brawl. Second, it’s only a matter of time before another such tragedy occurs.

We are not making our communities safer by persisting in divisive argument, with its attendant insults and slurs and its mangling of statistics to suit our whims. Bickering and fear mongering have never done one good thing for us. Never. If we really want to solve the problem, we need a new approach. We need to forge bonds of unity among all people, all elements of society. Only then can we hope to build a secure home for ourselves and our children.

Let me put that in practical terms. In decision-making of all kinds, Baha’is employ a process they call consultation. Consultation is a complex subject, but in brief it means setting aside all prejudices and entrenched views and joining forces to examine the problem honestly and fairly. It means considering, without any selfish motivation whatsoever, how to deal with an issue for the good of all involved. It means actually listening to each other, trying to understand each other’s thoughts and views, and then critically examining every suggestion, including our own.

In consultation, we share facts and opinions. We listen to everything, giving it all due consideration. We allow our views to be shaped by facts, guided by a few core principles. We might all come out of the process altered, with new insights and views. Ultimately, we seek a unified decision aimed at providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Consultation is not about compromise, not about selfishness, not even about so-called enlightened self-interest (an oxymoron if there ever was one; there is nothing enlightened about self-interest). It’s about working toward truth, resolved to support the decision of the group even if we don’t agree with it, knowing that the best test of a decision is how it actually works when tried in the real world. Bad decisions can always be changed, so long as we can clearly see their effects. But if half of us decide to torpedo a decision, how can we ever know if its failure is due to its merits or to sabotage?

To begin applying this to the question of gun violence, I suggest we consider two key questions: the root problem, and the urgency of the problem.

First, the root problem is not guns. People do not become homicidal maniacs simply because they possess a gun. The root problem is far deeper and can only be addressed through significant, long-term effort to transform our culture from one that breeds violence and injustice to one that breeds peace and justice. This truth urgently needs to be explored. Without a solution to the underlying problem, no measures to address gun violence can ever be successful.

Second, there can be no doubt that we face an urgent and growing problem. Reliable statistics indicate that the number of mass shootings–defined as one person shooting four or more people in a single 24-hour period–has been risen sharply each decade since the 1970’s. The vast majority of these shootings in the past 30 years have been committed by individuals with mental health issues. Given this and that the root problem cannot be quickly addressed, it seems prudent to take such steps as are possible to render gun violence less likely. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that immediate measures will prevent all gun violence, but neither should we ignore the matter. It’s worth viewing this from a security standpoint. We cannot make a breach impossible, but we can make it hard enough that few will bother to try, fewer still will succeed, and any who succeed will be caught.

You will note that I haven’t proposed any specific solution here. Rather, I’ve proposed a process to find solutions and offered a starting point. I’m not an expert in the many complex issues involved. I simply know–as do you, I’m sure–that continued bickering will fail to resolve anything, and in the meantime more of our neighbors and friends and children will needlessly die. Isn’t that enough to convince us to set aside our fear and our hardened political opinions, and instead to consult together in humility and unity?

Invoking the Divine

We don’t often question the familiar. Common, ordinary things, things that have been with us since childhood, don’t usually seem worth much scrutiny. Yet nothing springs out of nowhere. Everything has a history, and sometimes it can be interesting or fun to dig into the meaning of something very ordinary. Occasionally, deep insights may even result.

Take, for instance, the word “God.” What does it mean? Not what is God, not what is God like, but what does the word mean? What is its etymology?

Modern English speakers inherit the word from Old English. “God” is derived from the Proto-Germanic gudan, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European gutom. The meaning is not entirely clear, but is generally thought to be one of two things: to pour or libate, or to call or invoke. The meaning of the word “God” is thus either “one to whom sacrifices are made” or “one who is invoked.” Perhaps both.

Note that the word is Indo-European. It is not Semitic. The earliest Semitic writings use “il” or “el,” specifically the latter in the Old Testament. From this is derived the Arabic al-Ilah (“the deity” or “the God”), which probably became Allah. Muslims and Arab Christians alike use the word “Allah.” “Allah” and “God” mean one and the same thing. Likewise, in English translations of Baha’i literature, “Allah” is rendered as “God.”

Baha’is, though, use a few terms untranslated, including what is called “the Greatest Name.” These are all are references to Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God for our age. In one sense, Baha’u’llah Himself is the Greatest Name. In another, the name “Baha’u’llah” (“the Glory of God”) is the Greatest Name. Other forms include “Allah-u-Abha” (“God is the Most Glorious”) and “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” (“O Thou Glory of the All-Glorious”). A well-known calligraphic form of the “Allah-u-Abha” is often found in Baha’i homes, and “Allah-u-Abha” is often used as a greeting. Also, Baha’u’llah instructs His followers to repeat it 95 times each day as a meditation. “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” is used as an invocation, often as an expression of joy but at other times as well.

One further invocation used without translation is a prayer revealed by the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s forerunner: “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath”, which means, “O Thou God Who art invoked.” The Bab instructed His followers to recite this in times of trouble or difficulty, and it is generally considered by Baha’is to be among the most potent of prayers.

All of these short phrases have a single thing in common: they call upon God through His Manifestation. Put another way, they invoke “the One who is invoked.” There is great value in such invocation. The world is often a confused, confusing place. It can be hard to navigate and very easy to become distracted. Invocations have a focusing effect, turning our thoughts and feelings toward God and centering us in Him. I’ve recently discovered that using them in combination can have a powerful effect, particularly when seeking to overcome some personal failing. From time to time, I repeat “Allah-u-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath” nine times. This is the work of less than a minute, yet during that time all but God sublimates like ice vanishing in the warmth of the springtime sun. Moreover, whatever issue is plaguing me is kept at bay through occasional invocations.

Naturally I can speak only for myself; the above practice is merely something I’ve found useful in my own life. You may choose to try it or not, or may adapt it in various ways. Regardless, the principle is that found in Qur’an 17:110 and cited by Baha’u’llah in The Seven Valleys:  “…by whichsoever (name) ye will, invoke Him: He hath most excellent names.”

Symptoms and Diseases

When something goes wrong on the inside, sooner or later it manifests as symptoms on the outside.

I’ve spent the past week in the hospital with my wife Kathleen, who started vomiting blood last Sunday afternoon. That’s a particularly scary symptom, but we knew more or less what was going wrong. Back in 2014 the same thing had happened. It turned out she had cirrhosis, which caused an increase in blood pressure in the portal vein system, which led to the development of varices (basically swollen blood vessels) in her stomach. Some of these burst and she began bleeding. The fix was what’s called a TIPS procedure (transjugular interhepatic portal shunt), a shunt that redirects some of the blood flow around the liver, reducing pressure in the portal system.

But the varices remain, and probably due to some medication she was on for another problem, one or more of them began to bleed again. Because we recognized the symptoms and got her to the hospital immediately, it didn’t turn out too bad. She’s having a procedure now that should make it less likely for another episode to occur.

While sitting here waiting for her to return from the procedure, I’ve been on my computer and spent more time than usual scrolling through Facebook. There, too, I see the external symptoms of something deeply wrong “on the inside.” Distrust. Division. Dislike. Even hatred. I’m looking principally at posts from people in the U.S., since most of my connections are there, but I imagine it’s not much different in many other countries. Someone need only do, or in some cases merely say, something with which others disagree to trigger the most vile reactions.

Granted that in one degree or another this has often been the case in human society, it seems that people have become so polarized that they can’t bear the thought that someone of a different viewpoint even exists. Maybe that explains why some controversial actions result in a barrage of death threats.

This sickness goes beyond political alignments or social agendas. It afflicts everyone, be they right or left or anywhere in the middle.

The foregoing is simply an observation based on looking around with open eyes and setting aside all personal opinion on any particular subject. I’m not looking at people’s positions on things, but on their behavior, on how they react to each other. But at this point I have to risk expressing an opinion.

The only way out of this morass lies in spiritual regeneration. The human spirit is not one of division and hatred, but of unity and love. It is not a spirit of opposition and condemnation, but one of cooperation and support. It is neither liberal nor conservative agendas and movements that destroy our societies, but this negation of the human spirit itself. This is the deep illness, the “something wrong on the inside” that manifests itself in the symptoms so evident around us. The issues of which everyone complains are the blood being vomited up, not the cause of the bleeding.

As a Baha’i, I believe in the human spirit. I believe we have the capacity to develop our spiritual nature, both individually and collectively. Moreover, the human spirit is not the property of any one religion. Baha’is are engaged in a community building process based on spiritual principles and invite people of all faiths, or of no faith, to join with them in this endeavor. I invite you to investigate this process and, if you find it worthy, join us.