Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Ascension of Baha’u'llah

"His bed was in the middle of the room. The mattress and quilt were covered with white sheets and He was propped up on two or three pillows. Mirza Diya'u'llah and Mirza Badi'u'llah were fanning Him. His body was extremely frail and his voice was weak - though He spoke clearly. He revealed words of separation and departure, emphatically commanding unity and love among the believers. ...

As we heard these words and clear verses from the mouth of the Beloved of the worlds, the effect on us can be imagined. 'Andalib was utterly distraught; his heart broke. With tears in his eyes, he cried out: 'Ya Baha! Ya Baha!' expressing his grief.

Baha’u'llah dismissed us from his presence, saying 'Go in God's care'. Every one of us prostrated at His blessed feet and circumambulated His bed. We left the room in deepest sorrow, burning from separation from the Beloved."

From Samandari: Moments With Baha'u'llah pp 30-33, published by Kalimat Press

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LAMENT at the Ascension of Baha’u'llah

by 'Andalib (Mirza ‘Ali-Ashraf, a famous Baha'i poet)
translation by Ahang Rabbani and Anthony A. Lee

He is the Powerful, the Mighty, the Beloved!

Today the cupbearer, by God’s design,
poured bile into the cup of life, not wine.

Every wound has its balm, each ache a cure-
except this wound! this endless ache of mine!

The nightingales refuse to sing. No trees.
The world’s gone dark, and every eye is blind.

Calamity! The universe unbuilt.
Calamity! The reign of God undone.

On the Sea of Mercy all waves lie still.
But waves of woe rise high! The storm’s begun.

The banner of God's Name collapsed. Such grief,
such grief that heaven will be overrun.

Through Him the Day of Resurrection dawned:
Now earth quakes at the setting of His Sun.

From Sinai He called, "Come see!" Now Moses
hears these final words: "You shall never see."

On the Most Great Ocean the Crimson Ark
has sunk. The tears of Noah drown the sea.

Look west! The Sun of Holiness has set.
Look up! and in His placeless place He’ll be.

We'll never hear His voice again, but there
the Nightingale of Paradise flies free.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Infallibility parallels

Over the last couple of weeks, some events have happened in New Zealand that have parallels with the Baha'i community's struggle with the concept of infallibility.

When I ran my case against the New Zealand NSA in 2002, my lawyer, Colin Withnall QC, was at the same time preparing a case for a young man, David Bain, who had been accused of killing all his family. This mass murder occurred here in my hometown of Dunedin in the early 1990s. What happened was that David Bain went out early one morning as usual to deliver newspapers. When he got back, he found all his family dead. The police argued that David had sneaked back early, killed his family, and then used his paper round as an alibi. A message had been left on the computer in the house by, apparently, the murderer. It said something like "You were the only one who deserved to live". The police argued that David had turned on the computer and written the message to make it look like his father had done the killings, left the message and committed suicide. As it turned out, David was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment.

But that wasn't the end of it. A businessman from up north, Joe Karam, took up David's cause and tried to get David's conviction quashed. New evidence kept on emerging; for example, some witnesses testify that one of David's sisters was having an incestuous relationship with her father and that she was about to make this known to the family. A year after my court case in 2002, Colin Withnall took this new evidence to the New Zealand Court of Appeal and asked for a retrial. But the court refused. David's supporters argued that the Court of Appeal made the mistake of itself determining whether the evidence was persuasive, not whether the evidence should be put to a jury in a retrial.

In the years following, Colin Withnall had been interviewed by the media at various times and he was reported to have said that he was not happy with our criminal justice system. I remember him saying on TV that he didn't believe that an adversarial system delivered justice. When my case was thrown out by the High Court, Colin couldn't believe it. To him, I had a clear case. I remember him saying that sometimes judges did strange things and this was one such instance. He felt that the judge had missed the point of our arguments, and had actually decided the case, when he was only required to decide if a prima facie case existed.

Here's a quote from Colin about the justice system, from the New Zealand Listener in March this year:

If anyone knows about playing the system, it’s veteran defence lawyer Colin Withnall, QC. He fought for 10 years to get Rex Haig cleared of murder and has another case before the Court of Appeal after a jury "went right off the rails". He thinks it is time for a judicious makeover.

"Back when I was doing a lot of crime [defence] 20 odd years ago, I would have said the adversary system is the greatest thing since sliced bread," says Withnall, "because I enjoyed playing these games. But it’s not a search for the truth. It’s a question of putting forward the best case on the material you have within the ethical constraints. It is a bit devious."

He knows of police and prosecution taking liberties with their duty to disclose all the evidence and he has had important documents turn up months after a trial. Defence lawyers also have their tricks, he says. "Abstract justice means finding out the truth, not finding out which side puts up a better case or manages to obscure the truth more effectively."

"Evidence to the contrary" by Amanda Spratt, March 24-30 2007 Vol 208 No 3489.

One of the points made in my final submission (and in previous submissions) related to the House's infallibility. The NSA, with its arm now up its back due to court scrutiny, was now cuddling up to the court saying that it would be 'only too happy' to review the decision to expel me. Here's the submission I made in response, pointing out that such a review would be waste of time given that the original decision was made by the 'infallible' House:

  1. It is not accepted that the "review" procedures suggested by the Defendant offer any real means of redress. Paragraph 11.9 of the affidavit of Mr Wilcox dated 27 June 2002 makes that perfectly clear. In that paragraph, Mr Wilcox states that the appropriate course of action for an individual that has had his or her membership removed by the NSA is to seek a review of the decision by the NSA in the first instance. He goes on to say that where the NSA made the relevant decision itself it would give full and impartial consideration to any request for reconsideration. However, in this situation, where the NSA had received and acted on an express instruction from the Universal House of Justice, he says that it "would refer any request for review to the Universal House of Justice."
  2. This follows on from paragraphs 7.7 and 7.9 in which he says that the NSA will carry out any instruction it receives from the Universal House of Justice without question, and that it does not have any discretion to disobey or to fail to carry out the instruction.
  3. It is therefore abundantly clear that any request for a reconsideration made to the NSA will result in nothing more than that request being passed on to the Universal House of Justice in Israel. There is no reason to suppose that that body would even consider reversing the decision which it has made, as it is considered, and considers itself to be, infallible and incapable of being wrong.

Early this year, Joe Karam took David's case to the Privy Council in London. Until a few years ago, the Privy Council was New Zealand's highest court - a remnant of our colonial past. David's defence asked the court to quash David's conviction on the basis of the new evidence, which our Court of Appeal had felt did not justify a retrial. In a shock decision released about 10 days ago, the Privy Council quashed David's conviction, describing it as a "substantial miscarriage of justice" because all the evidence had not been heard by the trial jury. The court ordered a retrial.


David Bain hugging ex-Baha'i and long-time campaigner, Patti Napier, after his release on bail. (Photo courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald)

As a result, early this week, David was released from prison on bail. He had been in prison for 13 years. When he walked out of the courtroom and onto the street after so long, he was an instant celebrity. He was greeted by a wall of media - more cameras and attention than most people ever face in a lifetime. His life had been turned upside down in a matter of days.

I was listening to Colin being interviewed on Radio New Zealand National about the Privy Council decision. I was fascinated to hear him describe the issue with the criminal justice system as a problem with the assumption of infallibility. He said that the public believes in the system and that it is infallible. So, if a person is convicted, then people assume that the person must be guilty. But, he argued, an 'infallible' system is, in fact, one that can admit it can get it wrong.

Another lawyer who previously worked on the case, Colin Withnall QC, says what the Privy Council in London heard is basically what the New Zealand Court of Appeal heard.

He said there's a drive in New Zealand to maintain the belief that the system is infallible and that's what the Court of Appeal did by rejecting the idea that David did not get a fair trial.

But, he said on Morning Report, people should have more faith in a system that's prepared to say: "we got it wrong".

Lawyers ask how New Zealand judiciary got David Bain case wrong

It is also interesting to note that the Privy Council's criticism of the Court of Appeal's decision in David Bain's case is essentially Colin's criticism of the judge in my case. In both cases, the courts' role was simply to assess that sufficient issues were raised by the evidence for the case and all its facts to be presented before a court so that a jury/judge could rule on it. Instead, in both cases, the court made this ruling itself, even though it did not have all the evidence placed before it.

The quote from Colin above indicates that Colin believes the Court of Appeal did this because, perhaps unconsciously, it wanted to maintain the facade of infallibility in the system.

I can only guess why the judge did it in my case. As I understand it (I wasn't at the hearing), the NSA's lawyer bombarded the judge with a lot of irrelevant evidence - the sort of evidence and detail you'd expect at a full hearing not an interlocutory hearing as this was - and come about 3pm, Colin reports, the judge got tired and just stopped listening. After that, he started looking for ways to get rid of the case and turned his attention to finding me guilty for not doing things he assumed I would have done if I'd been bone fide. It seemed that the NSA's attempt to discredit me in the eyes of the judge had worked, for some of the material they presented was designed to paint me as unstable. As Colin explains it in the quote above, the system isn't designed to find the truth but to run with the side that "manages to obscure the truth more effectively".

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

For us and against us

I am reading the Gospel of Luke for the first time. I've read the Gospels of Matthew and John, but this is my first journey into Luke. Whenever I get submerged in one of the Gospels, I marvel at the things Jesus said. What a guy! He's pure magic. He had snappy answers for everyone. Very impressive and a joy to read (except for the crucifixion).

One passage I felt compelled to mention was Luke 9:49-50:

49 "Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us." (New International Version)

I had to laugh. Jesus had annointed the disciples so that they could do what he had been doing: going around healing people and driving out demons. So there's the disciples going around the towns doing exactly that, and what do they find? A guy doing the same thing as them only without any authority from Jesus! What a cheek! The disciples were none too happy about finding this pretender at work, so they tried to stop him. After all, he wasn't one of them.

This has parallels with the situation today where the administration isn't happy about the unenrolled Baha'is calling themselves Baha'is and teaching the Faith. After all, they're not one of them! What a cheek! Teaching the Faith without any authority from the administration, not even a membership card!

What did Jesus say in reply?

50"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you." (New International Version)

What a reply! First of all, Jesus didn't mind that this guy was driving out demons in his name without his express permission. Secondly, he tells the disciples that the principle is: to assume the guy is on their side, given that he shows no signs of being against them. Gee, that would be nice, if the administration were to heed Jesus' advice and assume that I was for them. I'm certainly not against them. It's not my fault I have to work for the Cause independently of them. It still baffles me that they'd prefer that I just let Baha'u'llah go. I don't think Jesus would have wanted that guy to let him go.

In any case, this got me thinking about George Bush and his silly comment about everyone who was not for him being against him. After reading Luke 9:50, I thought Bush had misquoted Jesus. But I discovered that, a bit further on in chapter 11, Jesus actually says that as well:

23"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (New International Version)

That got me thinking. Here, on the face of it, Jesus has said the opposite to what he said above. It's just as well I'm not a literalist; for otherwise this would be a nightmare to sort out. My commentary on the Bible says that verse 9:50 is a warning against intolerance and that verse 11:23 makes the point that it is impossible to be neutral in the conflict between good and evil. That strikes me as a sound understanding of the difference between the two passages.

I assume George Bush thought he was working on the second principle and that he was on the side of good and everyone not on his side was on the side of evil. But I can see how easy it is to confuse the two principles. If you're intolerant, you're going to assume that people are against you when they're not and you're going to justify this on the basis that anyone seemingly not for you is against you.

Baha'u'llah was asked why he didn't oppose Azal earlier than he did. In reply, Baha'u'llah gave a similar answer to the one Jesus gave in 9:50: that God judges people on outward appearances and considers a person on God's side unless they openly rise in opposition:

"Salman, the Absolute Truth has always judged the people according to outward appearances, and has commanded all the prophets and messengers to do the same. It is impermissible to do otherwise. For instance, consider a person who is at this moment a believer and a monotheist, such that the sun of divine unity is refulgent within him. He affirms and recognizes all the divine names and attributes and whatever the preexistent Beauty testifies to, he bears witness to that, for himself and by himself. In this station all descriptions are true and current in regard to him. Rather, no one is capable of describing him as he really is save God. All these descriptions refer to the effulgence that shone upon him from the sovereign of manifestation. In this station, should any of the people oppose him, they would be opposing God himself. For in him nothing can be seen save the divine effulgences, as long as he remains in this station. Should a bad word be said about him, the speaker would be a liar. After he rises in opposition, however, that effulgence that had been the basis for describing him, and all the other related attributes, depart to their own habitation. Now that individual is not the same person, for those attributes do not subsist in him. If you look with sharp eyes you will notice that not even his clothes are the same. For a believer, while he is believing in and affirming God, might be wearing clothes of cotton, but in God's eyes they are of heavenly silk. But when he rises in opposition, they are transformed into the flaming tar of Gehenna. At this point, should anyone praise such an individual, he would be a liar and would be mentioned by God as among the people of hellfire." Commentary on a Verse of Rumi paragraph 6
Although it is also true that one can't be neutral in the conflict between good and evil, I think the principle above is the one we are expected to apply in our everyday dealings with people. We have to assume well of others unless they give us good reason not to. In which case, I think justice requires the administration to cut me and other unenrolled Baha'is some slack and start seeing us as workers in one Cause.