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How should we respond to challenges to the Covenant?

Recurring attacks on the Cause and misrepresentations of its teachings, particularly on the Internet, have moved a number of believers to raise questions about the propriety of their undertaking responses. Aware as they are of Bahá’u'lláh’s injunction to avoid contention in matters of religion, these friends wonder whether this principle precludes efforts on the part of Bahá’ís to correct serious misrepresentation of the Faith by individuals who, rather than being merely confused about its history and teachings, seem deliberately bent on doing it harm….

While counselling His followers not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men, but to approach diverse opinions in the spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy, Bahá’u'lláh makes it clear that deliberate attacks on the Faith are to be treated in a quite different manner:

It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God…. He that wisheth to promote the Cause of the one true God, let him promote it through his pen and tongue, rather than have recourse to sword or violence…. By the righteousness of Him Who, in this Day, crieth within the inmost heart of all created things: God, there is none other God besides Me! If any man were to arise to defend, in his writings, the Cause of God against its assailants, such a man, however inconsiderable his share, shall be so honored in the world to come that the Concourse on high would envy his glory.

That the Faith will increasingly become the target of attacks from within and without is a subject that has been dealt with at considerable length in the writings of the Guardian. Speaking of “the forces that are destined to contest with God’s holy Faith”, the Guardian foresaw some decades ago the emergence of problems of the kind that have begun to concern present-day Bahá’ís, especially those friends who participate in Internet discussion groups:

They will assail not only the spirit which it inculcates, but the administration which is the channel, the instrument, the embodiment of that spirit. For as the authority with which Bahá’u'lláh has invested the future Bahá’í Commonwealth becomes more and more apparent, the fiercer shall be the challenge which from every quarter will be thrown at the verities it enshrines.

This being the case, Shoghi Effendi drew attention to the clear obligation the situation creates for members of the Faith:

No opportunity, in view of the necessity of ensuring the harmonious development of the Faith, should be ignored, which its potential enemies, whether ecclesiastical or otherwise, may offer, to set forth, in a restrained and unprovocative language, its aims and tenets, to defend its interests, to proclaim its universality, to assert the supernatural, the supranational and non-political character of its institutions….

The Guardian’s reference to the spirit that should govern such responses on the part of the friends echoes the perspective set out in many of ‘Abdu’l- Baha’s Writings:

You must withstand them with the utmost love and kindness; consider their oppression and persecution as the caprice of children, and do not give any importance to whatever they do. For at the end the illumination of the Kingdom will overwhelm the darkness of the world…

The friends will find reflection on this perspective helpful in freeing themselves from the natural distress that abuse of the Faith they love can at times arouse, as well as from any temptation to respond inappropriately. In correcting misrepresentations of the Faith made by those who are hostile to it, our obligation is to set forth Bahá’u'lláh’s teachings cogently and courteously, but firmly, supporting them with rational proofs. Once this has been done, the challenge rests with our hearers, whatever their interests or motivations, to consider our responses in this same spirit of courtesy and objectivity. For Bahá’ís to go further than this, by engaging in acrimonious debate, much less by reflecting on the character of others, would be to cross the line that separates legitimate defence of the Faith from contention.

Because circumstances differ so widely, the responsibility must rest on each individual believer to determine, on the basis of the specific situation, where that line applies. Under most circumstances, it would seem worse than futile for a Bahá’í to attempt to defend the institutions or members of the Faith from the kind of reckless slander that has become an all too common feature of the moral deterioration of contemporary society, and that tends to characterize much of the language of the Faith’s current critics. Similarly, for believers to be drawn into discussion of subjects which the Writings themselves tell us will find clarification only through the passing of time, such as the wisdom of Bahá’u'lláh’s limiting membership of the Universal House of Justice to men, the full implication of the Will and Testament, and the process by which the Bahá’í Commonwealth will emerge, would tend to divert attention from real and pressing issues. Such speculation may, indeed, be the real reason why such subjects are often so ardently pursued by opponents of the Cause.

Apart from the spiritual principles that must determine Bahá’í conduct in matters of this kind, it is important, too, to bear always in mind the reaction that the discussion of controversial issues, particularly in matters of religion, tends to arouse in those who are merely casual readers and listeners. While appreciating a lively discussion — and particularly the clarification of important issues — , most well-intentioned inquirers are understandably repelled by the spirit of argumentation.

Where opposition chooses to assail the Faith on points where scholarly expertise in a particular field is required, the challenge to respond falls directly on those believers who are thus qualified, and the Bahá’í community is fortunate in having the human resources necessary to this purpose. For discussions that are of a more general nature, a wider number of the friends will be in a position to provide helpful comment. While the initiative in all such matters rests primarily with the individual believer, the institutions of the Faith are in a position to offer guidance on how the Faith’s interests can best be served. Indeed, where discussions of this kind have a direct and immediate impact on the perception of the Faith among the non-Bahá’í public, the Guardian has emphasized the importance of the friends’ seeking “the guidance and approval of the National Spiritual Assembly” in all attempts to counter open attacks on the Cause….
The Universal House of Justice, 1999 Nov 22, “Defending the Cause against its opponents” (from Ocean)

The Guardian feels that one of the best antidotes to those…who seek to undermine the faith of the believers…is to place in their hands a German edition of “God Passes By”. For in that book he (the Guardian) has clearly pointed out that the Cause of God has always been attacked from within, and that, beginning in the days of the Báb, the “Sea of Truth” has over and over cast out its spiritually dead. It must do this, even as the body seeks to rid itself of poisons so as to preserve the health of the entire organism.
Written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 136

…the believers need to be deepened in their knowledge and appreciation of the Covenants of both Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is the stronghold of the Faith of every Bahá’í, and that which enables him to withstand every test and the attacks of the enemies outside the Faith, and the far more dangerous, insidious, lukewarm people inside the Faith who have no real attachment to the Covenant, and consequently uphold the intellectual aspect of the teachings while at the same time undermining the spiritual foundation upon which the whole Cause of God rests.
Written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v II, p. 84

The effect of continued exposure to such insincerity about matters vital to humanity’s well-being is spiritually corrosive. When we encounter minds that are closed and hearts that are darkened by evident malice, Bahá’u'lláh urges that we leave such persons to God and turn our attention to the opportunities which multiply daily for the promotion of the truths which He teaches. In words written at the direction of the Guardian, regarding a situation similar to, though much less serious than, the present one, “…the friends should be advised to just leave these people alone, for their influence can be nothing but negative and destructive….”
Written on behalf of The Universal House of Justice, 1999 Apr 07, Cover letter to “Issues Related to the Study of the Baha’i Faith”

The friends should …not assume an attitude of mere resignation in the face of persecutions. They should rather welcome them, and utilize them as [a] means for their own spiritual uplift and also for the promotion of the Cause. As the Faith grows stronger and attracts the serious attention and consideration of the world outside, the friends must expect a similar, if not a greater, increase in the forces of opposition which from every direction, both secular and religious, will be massed to undermine the very basis of its existence. The final outcome of such a struggle, which will be surely gigantic, is clear to us believers. A Faith born of God and guided by His Divine and all-pervasive spirit cannot but finally triumph and firmly establish itself, no matter how persistent and insidious the forces with which it has to contend. The friends should be confident, and act with the utmost wisdom and moderation, and should particularly abstain from any provocative act. The future is surely theirs.
Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 24 June 1936, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 147

…the Universal House of Justice instructs us to say that it is to be expected that books will be written against the Faith attempting to distort is teachings, to denigrate is accomplishments, to vilify is Founders and leaders and to destroy is very foundations. The friends should not be unduly exercised when these books appear and certainly no issue should be made of them.
Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 30 March 1976, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 149

In meeting attacks the friends should learn to combine the spirit of steadfastness and courage with love and wisdom. They should avoid argument and conflict and conduct themselves in such manner that they do not provoke retaliation.
Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, 22 August 1983, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 150