How do we overcome this cultural past-time?
As with many things, deeds not words are what is required:
However, deprivation of voting rights is usually of little help in such circumstances and should be resorted to only after other remedies have been tried and failed . . . Rash action can dampen the zeal of the community, and this must be avoided at all costs. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 60)
We’re asked to refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causes sadness in men:
Verily I say, the tongue is for mentioning what is good, defile it not with unseemly talk. God hath forgiven what is past. Henceforward everyone should utter that which is meet and seemly, and should refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men. Lofty is the station of man! (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pp. 219-220)
A silent tongue is the safest:
A silent tongue is the safest. Even good may be harmful, if spoken at the wrong time, or to the wrong person. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 125)
If the situation is not serious, we should ignore it:
Sometimes, however, the matter does not seem grave enough to warrant reporting to the Spiritual Assembly, in which case it may be best to ignore it altogether. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
‘Abdu’l-Baha longed to see us use our lips in praise of others instead:
I hope that the believers of God will shun completely backbiting, each one praising the other cordially. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)
One must expose the praiseworthy qualities of the souls and not their evil attributes. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)
If some means were devised so that the doors of backbiting were shut eternally and each one of the believers unsealed his lips in praise of others. (’Abdu’l-Baha, Star of West, Vol. IV. p. 192)
We must overlook people’s shortcomings and faults and speak only of their virtues:
The friends must overlook their shortcomings and faults and speak only of their virtues and not their defects. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)
We must think of our own imperfections and try to remove them:
On no subject are the Bahá’í teachings more emphatic than on the necessity to abstain from fault-finding and backbiting while being ever eager to discover and root out our own faults and overcome our own failings. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 88)
In ‘Star of the West’, Volume 8, No. 10, on page 138, there is a record of a reply given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a private interview in Paris in 1913. He was asked ‘How shall I overcome seeing the faults of others — recognizing the wrong in others?’, and He replied: ‘I will tell you. Whenever you recognize the fault of another, think of yourself! What are my imperfections? — and try to remove them. Do this whenever you are tried through the words or deeds of others. Thus you will grow, become more perfect. You will overcome self, you will not even have time to think of the faults of others.’ (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
The task of perfecting our own life and character is one that requires all our attention, our will-power and energy:
Each of us is responsible for one life only, and that is our own. Each of us is immeasurably far from being ‘perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’ and the task of perfecting our own life and character is one that requires all our attention, our will- power and energy. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 92)
I love this analogy – If we allow our attention and energy to be taken up in efforts to keep others right and remedy their faults, our own furrow will assuredly become crooked:
If we allow our attention and energy to be taken up in efforts to keep others right and remedy their faults, we are wasting precious time. We are like ploughmen each of whom has his team to manage and his plough to direct, and in order to keep his furrow straight he must keep his eye on his goal and concentrate on his own task. If he looks to this side and that to see how Tom and Harry are getting on and to criticize their ploughing, then his own furrow will assuredly become crooked. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 92)
Here’s a story of how ‘Abdu’l-Baha helped someone overcome the things she’d said about her worst enemy:
A woman went to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, received His teachings and blessings, and asked for a special work. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, ‘Spread the law of love. Live in accord with love, reciprocity and cooperation.’ She answered, ‘I want something special. All Baha’is are asked to do this.’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá answered, ‘Very well. Come tomorrow morning, when you are about to leave, and I will give you the special work.’ She was very happy all that day and night, in anticipation. The next day ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said to her, ‘I am going to give you my son that you may educate him physically, mentally and spiritually.’ She was surprised, and was made happy at this. But her surprise gave way to wonder when she reflected that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had no son. What could He mean? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked, ‘Do you know this son of mine?’ Then He told her: In her city there had lived a man, her worst enemy. He had died leaving a son, who no one to take care of him: this was now her task. When she heard this she was overwhelmed. She was spiritually reborn. She wept and said, ‘My Master, I now know what the Baha’i Cause means.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 106)
When We Hear Others Gossiping
Justice requires we do our own investigation; seeing with our own eyes and knowing through our own knowledge, instead of relying on others:
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 2)
We should ignore it:
Ignoring gossip and slander is a positive, constructive and healing action helpful to the community, the gossiper and to the persons slandered. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
We should close our ears to it:
You must not listen to anyone speaking about another, because no sooner do you listen than you must listen to someone else and thus the circle will be enlarged endlessly. (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Ramleh, Egypt, 29 October 1913, Star of the West – 4, p. 104)
We should tactfully but firmly prevent others from making accusations or complaints against others in our presence:
We should therefore, as tactfully as possible, but yet firmly, do our utmost to prevent others from making accusations or complaints against others in our presence. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 93)
When we hear gossip and backbiting, we can stop the discussion in a friendly manner, with questions such as:
- Would this detraction serve any useful purpose?
- Would it please the Blessed Beauty?
- Would it contribute to the lasting honour of the friends?
- Would it promote the holy Faith?
- Would it support the covenant?
- Would it be of any possible benefit to any soul?
If any individual should speak ill of one who is absent, it is incumbent on his hearers, in a spiritual and friendly manner, to stop him, and say in effect: would this detraction serve any useful purpose? Would it please the Blessed Beauty, contribute to the lasting honour of the friends, promote the holy Faith, support the covenant, or be of any possible benefit to any soul? No, never! On the contrary, it would make the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more, and the eyes would not longer behold the light of truth. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
We could tactfully draw the offender’s attention to the teachings on the subject:
Or perhaps the relationship is such that he can tactfully draw the offender’s attention to the teachings on the subject — but here he must be very careful not to give the impression of prying into a fellow-believer’s private affairs or of telling him what he must do, which would not only be wrong in itself but might well produce the reverse of the desired reaction. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
We could tactfully draw the offender into Bahá’í activities hoping that as his knowledge of the teachings and awareness of the Faith deepens, he will spontaneously improve his patterns of conduct:
There are also other things that can be done by the Bahá’í to whose notice such things come. For example he could foster friendly relations with the individual concerned, tactfully drawing him into Bahá’í activities in the hope that, as his knowledge of the teachings and awareness of the Faith deepens, he will spontaneously improve his patterns of conduct. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
We can always consult our LSA or Auxiliary Board member for advice:
If a believer faced with knowledge of another Bahá’ís conduct is unsure what course to take, he can, of course, always consult his Local Spiritual Assembly for advice. If, for some reason, he is reluctant at that stage to inform his Spiritual Assembly, he can consult an Auxiliary Board member or assistant. Whatever steps are taken, it is vital that the believers refrain from gossip and backbiting, for this can only harm the Faith, causing perhaps more damage than would have been caused by the original offense. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Here are 3 stories of how ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed us how to handle discussions that involve backbiting:
When once someone complained of Lua to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, He turned to the person who had made the criticism and with a benign smile, said, ‘But she loves her Lord.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 164)
Under a grove of trees near Lake Michigan, while in Chicago in 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave intimate and loving counsel to His friends: ‘Some of you may have observed that I have not called attention to any of your individual shortcomings. I would suggest to you, that if you shall be similarly considerate in your treatment of each other, it will be greatly conducive to the harmony of your association with each other.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 88)
It is related that His Holiness Christ — May my life be a sacrifice to Him! — one day, accompanied by His apostles, passed by the corpse of a dead animal. One of them said: ‘How putrid has this animal become!’ The other exclaimed: ‘How it is deformed!’ A third cried out: ‘What a stench! How cadaverous looking!’ but His Holiness Christ said: “Look at its teeth! how white they are!’ Consider, that He did not look at all at the defects of that animal; nay, rather, He searched well until He found the beautiful white teeth. He observed only the whiteness of the teeth and overlooked entirely the deformity of the body, the dissolution of its organs and the bad odour. This is the attribute of the children of the Kingdom. This is the conduct and the manner of the real Bahá’ís. I hope that all the believers will attain to this lofty station. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 91)
He stopped the fault-finding by focusing on something positive instead.
‘Abdu’l-Baha also understood those who gossiped, and showered them with love and forgiveness, as these stories illustrate:
That very afternoon, in my room with two of the believers, I spoke against a brother in the truth, finding fault with him, and giving vent to the evil in my own heart by my words . . . A little later we all went to supper, and my hard heart was unconscious of its error, until, as my eyes sought the beloved face of my Master, I met His gaze, so full of gentleness and compassion that I was smitten to the heart. For in some marvellous way His eyes spoke to me; in that pure and perfect mirror I saw my wretched self and burst into tears. He took no notice of me for a while and everyone kindly continued with the supper while I sat in His dear Presence washing away some of my sins in tears. After a few moments He turned and smiled on me and spoke my name several times as though He were calling me to Him. In an instant such sweet happiness pervaded my soul, my heart was comforted with such infinite hope, that I knew He would cleanse me of all of my sins.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 63)
We began to argue about the New York Assembly: as to whether or not it was united! Mr Kinney declared that it was. I said it was not. I even went so far as to mention the breeder of the discord, to condemn her destructive work! But when X and I crept off to the room we were temporarily occupying — crept through the black, vaulted halls and rooms, over the old stone floors, to the rear wing of the house — a feeling of guilt such as I could hardly bear consumed me. Next morning when I met our Lord outside the dining room door, in the sunny little court I so love because it is associated with His footsteps, with the benediction of His Presence, looking with eyes that … forgave? … no, that understood … deep, deep into my eyes, He put out His hand and took mine in a clasp of love. (Diary of Juliet Thompson)
Who Can Help?
As with everything in the Faith, we need all 3 protagonists – the individual, the community and the Institutions.
First, as individuals, we need to really study the Writings and become peacemakers:
What the believers need is not only … to really study the teachings, but also to have more peace-makers circulating among them. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
The the older and the more mature Bahá’ís can help the weaker ones to function and live like true believers:
It is one of the functions of the older and the more mature Bahá’ís, to help the weaker ones to iron out their difficulties and learn to really function and live like true believers! (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
The NSA could provide for the proper deepening of the friends to instill in them a respect for Bahá’í laws:
We think it would be much better for the National Assembly to provide for the proper deepening of the friends and in a loving and patient manner attempt to instill in them a respect for Bahá’í laws. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 60)
How has this helped you understand this topic better? Post your comments below!