Sunday, January 27, 2008

Positive? Negative?

My college Baha’i club was something of a haven for certain members of the local Baha’i community. One woman had memorized a prayer which she said at every opportunity. It was something like, “O, God, make me so meek and such a nothing that no difficulty perturbs me in the slightest . . .” You know, that sort of thing, though of course in much more elaborate language. The line that got me bad every time was about quelling every rebellious passion. I would sit there in the silence of my rebellious passion and think, “I can’t help it, I hate this prayer.”

From a different person I might have felt it differently. But the combination of those words with that personality, everything so neatly ordered and just so and tied up with perfect reasonableness, rationality and good cheer . . .What was it we used to say in sixth grade? Gag me with a spoon. Life is not neat, or reasonable, nor, if you’re paying attention, does it give cause for never-ending good cheer. And a prayer like that should be handled with care, if at all, as it is the kind of thing that helps keep people (women especially) in very bad places when feelings of rebellion and repulsion and the assertion of self should propel them out. I wondered why I never saw this prayer in print, and it gave me unholy pleasure not much later to discover that it was inauthentic, or at least not authenticated for Abdu’l-Baha or Baha’u’llah.

Now I find that another oft-referenced passage that I have always disliked, for much the same reason, is apparently unauthenticated as well: “Look always at the good and not at the bad. If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, we must look at the ten and forget the one. And if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, we must look at the one and forget the ten.” According to the handy-dandy search tool at TrueSeeker, this appears in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, in the section titled “The Sin-Covering Eye” (p. 82–83). We are told that “Abdu’l-Baha tells us,” but not when and under what conditions Abdu’l-Baha tells us.

A longer text (BC#36) containing this passage can be found at Baha’i Library. That version comes from the personal papers of one Dwight Barstow. If anyone can trace it to any other source, I would love to know. The title given for this longer version is “The Commands of our Blessed Master, Abdu’l-Baha as revealed in tablets and instructions for the beloved in America,” which suggests it is a kind of summary or paraphrased compilation. Not only the title but the text indicates that the writer was not Abdu’l-Baha but an individual Baha’i, as it contains the phrases “our Master has said,” “the Master also said that,” and “our blessed Master said.” My guess is that these are notes of a talk by Abdu’l-Baha, possibly the same talk of which a different version appears in The Promulgation of Universal Peace (pp. 452–453). It was given on December 2, 1912, in New York, and ends, “Be illumined, be spiritual, be divine, be glorious, be quickened of God, be a Baha’i.” I am sure you know the one.

The two texts cover much the same territory and have stylistic similarities, though I greatly prefer the “Consider all men as your equals” of the latter to the “Know that we are less than anyone else” of the former. Each contains passages that are in some sense about seeing only good in others. Both have weak provenance. In any case, my business is not to define the real principle of the Faith by weeding out inauthentic passages and looking at what remains in the context of reason, experience, and the whole body of Baha’i writings. I am interested in examining what is widely believed by Baha’is partly because of these passages. And although these texts don’t, when scrutinized, look very authoritative, the likelihood is that Abdu'l-Baha did say things of this sort. We have similar passages, solidly authentic (I think, but I do start to wonder about everything), such as in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha (p. 169), “One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise,” and a bit down the page, “Thus it is incumbent upon us when we direct our gaze toward other people, to see where they excel, not where they fail.”

It is a principle often signified by the succinct phrase “the sin-covering eye.” At first I thought this phrase must have some prominent place in primary writings, judging from how often I saw it deployed. But p. 169 of Selections is the only place I’ve located where Abdu’l-Baha uses it, and that in the strange context of his story (not found in the Gospels) about Jesus extolling the whiteness of a dead dog’s teeth while others exclaimed how disgusting was its rotting carcass. The term occurs twice in Shoghi Effendi’s searchable writings, once in God Passes By (pp. 164–165), in reference to Baha’u’llah’s response to his brother’s covenant-breaking activity, and once in Directives From the Guardian (pp. 140–142), where he distinguishes between what should be the response of individuals to the failings of others and an Assembly’s appropriate response.

In Baha’i discourse, “the sin-covering eye” is a whole complex of beliefs about what can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be thought, said, or done; about the of nature persons, organizations, and communities; about negative and positive, bad and good, in what sense they coexist and how we should respond to them. It ranges from sophisticated to simple, from individuals to everything. I can’t possibly take on the whole array in one essay so I won’t. Ironically, speaking openly of negatives, faults, or problems is one bad thing for which devotees of the sin-covering eye will often suspend their principle of seeing only the good. The one definitely addressable negative is the addressing of negatives. This knocks my funny bone.

Some years ago a friend of mine took to describing Larry, my husband, whom she had met only a few times, as very honest. This is what Larry was to her, honest. “He’s really honest. I think he’s very honest.” She was, I think, fulfilling her idea of her Baha’i duty to identify good qualities in this particular other and hold them up. And while I think it is essentially true that Larry is honest, it is not, as the phrase goes, who he is. And so long as she holds onto that as who-he-is, she will know nothing of the real wilderness that is his particular person.

Ignoring the bad and focusing on the good, if taken up simplistically, thus mutilates people in one’s imagination. Persons become collections of qualities that are distinct, separable, and evaluable as good or bad. Whatever is deemed to be bad is ignored, and whatever is deemed to be good is taken as the whole. I don’t doubt that there is something sick in us that wants to fondle what we take as other people’s faults, missteps and wrongdoings, or even to become obsessed with trying to correct them, rather than attending to the order of our own homes. But people are not collections of good and bad qualities; who we are is not divisible, and what is awry in us affects all of who we are in complex ways. If in other human beings you reject and ignore what you deem to be faults, you don’t get something wonderful to affirm, you get a dissected carcass of personhood in your imagination. And you may get a significant danger in your life.

If Baha’i children are raised to see only the positive in others and to perceive faults only in themselves, how then are they, on coming of age, to be equipped to investigate the character of another and to choose someone to spend their life with? It’s like being expected to do calculus when you’ve been banned from doing arithmetic. Inability to see the negative sets people up for victimhood. What’s to stop a Baha’i child from getting in the car of a stranger who offers them a ride? The person is being friendly, right? Why look at negatives? How will her good Baha’i parents protect her from abusers who would gain their own trust through good qualities—favors, kindness, openness? And if a young woman is taught to see only the uprightness, good service, and generosity of the young men she looks upon with interest, what are the chances that she will be skilled in perceiving how one who returns her interest uses these to mask his duplicity, ambition, self-righteousness, and violence?

Selectively seeing the faults of others is like saying, “You suck and I don’t.” But selectively not seeing the faults of others is like saying, “Please use me.” Hands go up, objections are made: The Baha’i Faith does not condone abuse. It is for justice and for the punishment of abuse. People should not allow themselves to be abused.

Yes, but how? There seems to me an assumption in this line of thinking that you can get rid of something and keep it at the same time—ditch your cake and eat it too. An assumption that you can not see the faults in others, yet be able to do just that when it really matters. But abuse is complex; recognizing it is far from automatic. And it isn’t separable from lesser sins like manipulation and lying. Where is the line between what can be perceived and discussed, and what shouldn’t? And if the sin-covering eye is not meant to overlook real wrongs, if ignoring the “bad qualities” only means not freaking out when your spouse doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste, then what are we talking about, anyway? Are breaches of etiquette sins?

Shoghi Effendi wrote,

There is a tendency to mix up the functions of the Administration and try to apply it in individual relationships, which is abortive . . . But individuals towards each other are governed by love, unity, forgiveness and a sin-covering eye. Once the friends grasp this they will get along much better . . . (Directives from the Guardian, pp. 41–42)

But LSAs, NSAs, and the Universal House of Justice cannot handle everybody’s problems, difficulties, and faults. There are too few of them and too many of us; there always will be. And besides, how are assembly members to be skilled in doing this if before they’re on the assembly they’re not allowed to think, converse, and make decisions about the bad stuff? Everybody has need of perceiving more than just the nicenesses in others in making decisions as parents, citizens, supervisors, landlords, tenants, patients, teachers, just about every role a person can occupy. Hell, merely in opening the front door to a stranger who has knocked, one needs to be alert to more than the pretty whiteness of his teeth.

The idea that all critical thought about actual people can be left to assemblies is frankly dumb. And writing an over-long essay to point this out seems dumb too. Like, duh. Yet I’ve seen the trouble these ideas can make. And I think every religious community should look honestly at the ways its culture, ideals, scripture, and ways of functioning can enable abuse.

But I’m not saying it’s OK to talk however, whenever, whatever. I don’t believe that. Talking needlessly about what’s wrong with other people is probably one of the more recurrent sins of my life. I can remember being in middle school and talking with a friend during a sleepover about everyone we knew, picking them apart for pleasure. When we’d done with one we’d think of another. I think the game was driven more by me than by her. I remember saying, “Who next? What about so-and-so?” and having simultaneously a hovering awareness, slightly outside the moment, that something was not right in me. I think after that I never engaged again in this practice overtly as a form of entertainment. I’m still figuring out, though, the more subtle and not-so-subtle ways I err in my thought and speech about others.

But I thank Baha’u’llah, Jesus, the boogie man, maybe even the tooth fairy—certainly my own desire to be a whole healthy person in good relationships—that I never really succeeded in implementing this “Baha’i ideal” of the sin-covering eye, that never sees the “faults” of others. Life is just way too hard, way too dangerous for that.


Anonymous said...

I have to say that this is one of the more powerful posts I have read online, and one of the few dealing with the occurance of abuse in the Baha'i community-particularly the abuse of women and children, although men are maimed in the process, as well. The Bahai Faith isn't unique in having pedophiles and abusers in it's ranks, I'm sure every religion does, but we sure protect them, don't we? I never knew what to make of the sin-covering eye advice and felt silenced by it for years, and endured many, many things that should not go on in any community, Baha'i or otherwise. Like you say in your post, I did always look at my own faults and ignore those around me, so much so that I thought it was my fault and imagined I was alone in my suffering. Growing up and watching the majority of my female Baha'i friends enter relationships where their virtues of long-suffering and forgiveness and not backbiting (and don't forget family unity and honoring your spouse)actually led to repeated hospitalizations, broken bones, and rapes started to drive it home that the destination of that spiritual path is, ultimately, death. These were not "marginal" believers or "bad Baha'is," these were the girls leading Workshops and conferences and reciting whole Tablets by heart. These were girls who had remained ignorant of their sexuality until marriage and had never experienced any space in the Baha'i community for their own power or survival. So far, none of us have been killed. But beaten, yes. Raped, yes. By Bahai men. Try going to your Assembly with that and getting advised to forgive and look the other way, to hide their sins and be forbearing. Try having Auxiliary Board members showing up at your house telling you to keep silent and not cause "disunity." To sit down with your attacker and pray, because, after all you share Baha'u'llah. Imagine Board members ignoring your requests for help completely. Eventually you do the math-I'm supposed to keep silent and refer this to an Institution, but when I do the Institution refers me to umpteen other Institutions who keep referring me out. Example, you approach the LSA but they say it's a matter for the Auxiliary Board. You go th the ABM and they refer to a different ABM, etc etc etc. Violence in the community is under no one's jurisdiction- the "Protection" refered to by the Auxiliary Board for "Protection" is the protection of "The Faith." Not the lives of it's women.

Susan said...

Anyone who thinks that a 'sin-covering eye' means ignoring violence against women and children in the Baha'i community is just plain wrong. In the U.S. every Assembly is *required* to take a seminar designed by the National Spiritual Assembly on domestic violence and are told explicitly to get the civil authorities involved when necessary. You can read for yourself the contents of this workshop:

Here is the guidance from the House of Justice on this issue:

What Baha'is say about the sin-covering eye is really no different from what Jesus said about 'he who is without sin throwing the first stone' or taking the blank out of your own eye before you try and take the speck of another's. If you are going to reject the Baha'i Faith because of this then be consistent and reject Christianity as well.

Priscilla Gilman said...


Thanks for reading and commenting.

1) I am reasonably familiar with the “Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence” produced by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, and I am ready to say they are pretty good guidelines. But then, guidelines are not the same thing as what is happening in actual situations. A great next step would be for the NSA to allow an independent study of abuse in the Baha’i community and how it is actually being dealt with, including review of the NSA’s own actions and policies. To my knowledge nothing of the sort is in the works. An even bigger step would be for the UHJ to allow such a study of its actions on this issue.

2) You don’t make clear in your comment whether you are responding to my essay or to the anonymous commenter. But my essay, at least, was not about the actions or guidance of Baha’i institutions on the issue of domestic violence. It would be great if you could say something about what the “sin-covering eye” means to you. Do you think there is any danger in the idea? How can Baha’i youth be taught to have it and still be able to protect themselves in the world? What are the different responsibilities of Baha’i institutions and individuals and do they really make sense? These are some of the issues I addressed in the essay. I would be glad to hear your take on these issues.

3) I did not leave the Baha’i Faith because of this issue and I never said that I did. I did say that “I think every religious community should look honestly at the ways its culture, ideals, scripture, and ways of functioning can enable abuse.” I most certainly include all Christian communities in that belief. I don’t think the two Bible passages you mentioned are particularly troublesome in this regard (for reasons I’m not going to get into just now), but the turn-the-other-cheek passage is, I think, very tricky. I’m surprised you didn’t name that one. I am sure it has been used a great deal to help keep people in bad places, though I haven’t experienced or witnessed that myself. I think it’s one the Christian community needs to think about very carefully—and there are others.

Insha’Allah, this won’t be the last time I post on this issue. I hope you’ll come back and comment again. You said, “Anyone who thinks that a 'sin-covering eye' means ignoring violence against women and children in the Baha'i community is just plain wrong.” So maybe we can find a way to be allies in making sure that violence against women, children, and men in the Baha’i community is properly addressed.

My best to you,


Amanda said...


You are right that the guidelines you posted a link to are actually very good. For those who haven't studied them already, I hope your link is helpful.

A problem with them, is that they are not followed at any level by the community. I am quite sure that there are communities and LSAs who have managed to foster a more enlightened view that do a better job of applying them, but even the simplest survey of girls raised in the Baha'i community reveals rampant abuse.

Publishing a set of guidelines, no matter how good the guidelines are, does not change culture. That takes work. The obstacles to any person, victim or advocate, who speaks out about these issues are enormous. Take the tone of your comment as just a small example.

Enlightened guidelines that exist (mostly unread) in an inert community that is caught up in the drama of it's own contradictions, so far, have not done much good. Neither does quoting scripture at victims of violence. Domestic violence hotline numbers are probably a better choice in that instance. (Try 1-800-799-SAFE for anyone who is interested.)

What else do you think might do some good?

Neil Maneck said...

A few notes:

* The story about the dog and its teeth is apparently found in the writings of al-Ghazali, a Sufi philosopher. I am unaware of any source predating that and do not have access to al-Ghazali's work. This is mostly a point of interest; I don't think it's really relevant to the discussion at hand.

* I was raised a Baha'i and never once heard the phrase "sin-covering eye". I had heard voicing negative opinions about another person discouraged, but usual the prohibition against backbiting in the Aqdas. I only add this note to caution against the assumption that any of us knows what is going on in "the community" as if it were some homogeneous entity that is the same everywhere.

* In any case, I think in the passage from Selections referenced, Abdu'l-Baha is explicitly suggesting how we might better understand ("be a friend to" is the language used) and I'd imagine also offering what he thinks will lead to one's spiritual wellbeing. To some extent, this is making oneself vulnerable.

I certainly think the passage is being badly misread if it is being used to justify abuse or to encourage victims to stay put. I think it discourages acts of hatred or passing judgment by individuals. Escaping abuse, helping others escape abuse, and alerting authorities to abuse does not qualify as such.

It is heartbreaking to hear Anonymous' stories of Baha'i teachings being misused in this way, and I can only hope these stories of systemic failures are not widespread.

Finally, the original post was really less about being stuck in abuse and more about raising the concern of prevention, that is, avoiding dangerous types by being aware of them. I realize the passage cited uses the words "Every person," but I take it to be a general admonishment and am not at all convinced it was meant to be read to apply to every relationship.

For the case of marriage in particular, Abdu'l-Baha says potential spouses must "exercise the utmost care and become acquainted with each other's character," and I presume he does not mean to say only the admirable aspects of each other's character.

Mrs.Love said...

Fantastic post. Brilliant. I love how so many of your postings are SO well read, not just mindless opinionated drivel - which is why I've never engaged in blogs prior to this one. Flattery aside... The man who taught me the Faith also abused me with it. Used the Writings to manipulate and control my young Bahai and young (19) mind, he used the Writings to make me feel like a worthless whore - that I should be lucky the likes of him (with 2 bastard children and mothers who disowned him as father) should love someone as low as me. He used it for much worse things with me. When I finally left him (by order of my father revoking permission for marriage - an excellent example of this being a good thing when properly exercised) I was a broken mess. The Bahai community was actually shocked that I was "still a Bahai" after being with him. None of them really knew what went on between us but they knew of HIM - based on prior hideous behavior with the mother of his last out of wedlock child. Only then did I find out some of the things he had done and truly I learned only a smidge of that because no one wanted to back bite him. I remember crying to an Assembly member asking them if I "had" to engage in consultation with him if I didn't want to. He had told me I must "consult" with him as a Bahai if he demanded it - it was my duty. He was dangerous on many levels and I was scared. The member who knew about him was quick to defend my right to say "hell no" - and this was all news to me. My point is, many people in the community knew about him, knew I was a new Bahai and no one told me anything. No one warned me. When I wanted out they were supportive and loving but prior to that I was left to my own defenses and to his wicked manipulations. I remember someone saying there should be an police like APB on him to all communities so women can be forewarned of him. Of course this never happened. I am not angry over it but your comments have made me think of this event in my life (some 20 plus years ago...) and how the Bahai community handles these things. I think you're absolutely right - the idea of covering up sin is not well managed. I don't say it as a criticism... but as a truth that is present. One that I believe will be better managed in the future with experience on behalf of the believers and the institutions. I also believe your blog is a helpful analysis of this problem. Thank you.