239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

October 6, 1912
Storify Feature

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Ayn Rand, and the Poor

AYN RAND, the libertarian philosopher and novelist, has enjoyed enormous press coverage this past year. For those of you who haven’t encountered Ms. Rand, her corpus of fiction and non-fiction works, published in the mid-twentieth century, are a triumphant celebration of capitalism, of heroic class competition, and of individuals emboldened by an unapologetic commitment to selfishness.

Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, grabbed the bulk of the coverage. It imagines an era when the world’s “productive” people go on strike, withdrawing their services from an ungrateful society. The novel’s social vision rests on a binary opposition between “producers” who generate wealth and “moochers” who feed off them. It also contains a sixty-page-long social darwinist fantasy — a speech by John Galt, the novel’s protagonist — which argues that making life hard for the poor is good for them.

The novel’s resurgence this year was prompted by a budget resolution introduced in the House of Representatives, which included deep cuts to programs that aid the poor. The budget triggered a series of letters from the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including one to the sponsor of the resolution, himself a Catholic. “In short,” the letter concluded, “your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Jesus, of course, had been very clear regarding the treatment of the poor: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a young man, his father wrote a series of letters to the world’s political and religious leaders. He called them to account for their treatment of the powerless. “Fear the sighs of the poor,” he wrote to Sultan ‘Abdu’l-‘Azíz, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, “and of the upright in heart who, at every break of day, bewail their plight.” The poor, Bahá’u’lláh stated, “are thy treasures on earth. It behoveth thee, therefore, to safeguard thy treasures from the assaults of them who wish to rob thee. Inquire into their affairs, and ascertain, every year, nay every month, their condition, and be not of them that are careless of their duty.”

In America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke regularly of the means of alleviating poverty. Legislation must protect the poor, he said, and work to limit extremes of poverty and wealth. But more essential, he argued, was a change in people’s hearts — something that would demonstrate itself through material generosity and sacrifice. Moreover, he called on people to associate with the poor. It was something he had spent a great portion of his life doing.

When Myron Phelps — one of the first Americans to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá — visited the prison city of ‘Akká in 1902, he told of a street scene that unfolded beneath his window. A group of men and women wearing tattered garments had gathered. “Many of these men are blind,” Phelps wrote, “many more are pale, emaciated, or aged. Some are on crutches; some are so feeble that they can barely walk. Most of the women are closely veiled, but enough are uncovered to cause us well to believe that, if the veils were lifted, more pain and misery would be seen.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá emerged and approached them. “He knows them all,” Phelps wrote. “He caresses them with his hand on the face, on the shoulders, on the head. Some he stops and questions.” For those too proud to be seen, Phelps added, “he sends bread secretly.”

On April 19, his ninth day in America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the Bowery Mission in New York, a homeless shelter for men. “Tonight I am very happy, for I have come here to meet my friends,” he told them. “I consider you my relatives, my companions; and I am your comrade.” Then he asked them to accept him, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as their servant.


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/1203381202 Pascal Molineaux

    The way a society treats and shows respect or disrepect for its weakest memebers, be they poor, sick, old, or in tender age, is a reflection of how tghtly knit and healthy that society is. As with a family, we simply should not allow our hearts tp harden so tat we believe the poor are primrily responsible for their lot and trust that the magic ‘market’ or ‘economioc growth’ will, somehow, give them a chance and a certainty to a dignified life, as fellow human beings. Generpsty of hear and spirit does not only reflect itself in ‘tithe-giving’, or church-sponsored activities, or even civil-society actions. A healthy society should have, built-into its socio-economic system, an ensurance that the weakest members wil NOT be left to fend for themselves. Our common human heritage and nobleness os spirit should not allow that. Why we still haven´t been able to rgapple with such a bsic reality, even in the most developed countries, baffles me. ‘Abdul-Bahá, time and again, set a shining example of how the poor are our brethren and their well-being should be one of our primary dilay concerns.

    • Karridine

      “‘Abdul-Bahá, time and again, set a shining example of how the poor are
      our brethren and their well-being should be one of our primary daily
      Quite so, Pascal, and we note that the remedy is two-fold: one public, collective and enacted through laws, and the other the personal, profound and productive CHANGE OF HEART that leads us to CHOOSE to give to the poor, give of time, give of resources and give of money when we can…

      • http://twitter.com/LoieMead Loie Mead

        Karridine, the two-fold approach stands in need of emphasis. Thank you for such thoughtful discussion.

  • Chris Seubert

    In his recent book “The Price of Inequality,” the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, makes the case that a more balanced economy with reduced extremes of wealth and poverty is better for the wealth and prosperity of all, even the rich.

    • Faramarz Ettehadieh

      Good comment

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      Chris, I’ve had that book on my reading list for the past few months. I gather you recommend it?

    • Loie Mead

      Chris, “The Price of Inequality” is on my reading list. With stronger attention, we may be able to head off the spread of extreme individualism noted by Dean Hedges. Taking responsibility and learning from past lessons promises a good outcome:
      “Today the nations of the world are self-engaged, occupied with mortal and transitory accomplishments, consumed by the fires of passion and self. Self is dominant; enmity and animosity prevail. Nations and peoples are thinking only of their worldly interests and outcomes.
      (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 8)

      • Karridine

        On a similar note, ‘Abundance’, by Peter Diamandis, illustrates how We, the People of the world, are stepping up and addressing issues that USED TO BE the sole domain of nations, wherein small teams of unselfish but non-conforming people are bringing pure water, abundant energy and even space travel to humankind, on levels and in ways previously impossible and unforeseen…

  • Dean Hedges

    “No aspect of contemporary civilization is more directly challenged by Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the future than is the prevailing cult of individualism, which has spread to most parts of the world. ” … …

    … …
    “There is nothing in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings to encourage the illusion that the changes envisioned will come about easily. Far otherwise. As the events of the twentieth century have already demonstrated, patterns of habit and attitude which have taken root over thousands of years are not abandoned either spontaneously or in response simply to education or legislative action. Whether in the life of the individual or that of society, profound change occurs more often than not in response to intense suffering and to unendurable difficulties that can be overcome in no other way. Just so great a testing experience, Bahá’u’lláh warned, is needed to weld the earth’s diverse peoples into a single people.” ….

  • http://www.facebook.com/JenDu09 Jen Du

    So inspirational!

  • Candace Hill

    Good, good, very good.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.kinzinger Bruce Kinzinger

    For those that feel our government does too much for the poor, the concern is that the government “steals” from the rich to give to the (sometimes unappreciative – “entitlement-minded”) poor — “God loves a cheerful giver” — recognizing that the government does not generate, but simply redistributes wealth. For those that feel it does too little, the concern is that the wealthy do not do enough, and there is a need to take forcefully, to fulfill these ethical demands.
    Recognizing the lower nature, assuming the worst of a citizen would allow the economy to play out freely, as it will, is not objectionable. Recognizing the higher nature & the responsibility of society, seeing that people are not left in adject poverty – a solid “safety net,” would reduce the anxiety of all — who knows when any of us could end up poor? This, also is not objectionable.
    The attitude of a positive giver, and grateful recipient is ideal — we are all happier, if this is where we are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terence.mcbride1 Terence McBride

    I have always observed that the disparity between the extremely wealthy and destitute poor is similar the the extremes of air pressure that exist in the earth’s atmosphere…
    For example if there is huge extremes in air pressure you will see severe thunderstorms HAIL and devastating tornadoes hurricanes and blizzards…
    Similarly human society you see the effects of poverty on people and in extreme cases violent social revolutions are inevitable…
    Therefore if one want’s to eliminate war from the earth then you must focus on the ROOT CAUSES of war…..

  • shahla

    A timely discussion! A few days ago, I send a video clip about the power of words to a number of friends, including some Baha’is. Because of the presence of a beggar in the video, two Baha’i friends wrote back, one reminding me that begging and giving to beggars is forbidden in the Baha’i Faith, the other asking a question about how to reconcile our desire to help with the law. Of course, the video was not about begging or the poor, but the power of words. I plan to send an email explaining both topics with a powerful quotation from Baha’u’llah about the constructive and destructive power or words.
    Unfortunately, often public laws that appear to have been devised to protect and aid the poor are not well-intended. Much of the resources that are assigned to social welfare actually compensate wealthy individuals and private corporations who line up to provide the necessary services. These corporations and individuals continue to get wealthier while the poor continue to remain poor. Unless a good portion of the public realizes these faulty schemes, public funds will continue to flow to the wealthy.

  • Arman Mina

    I chose to read this story because it talks about the effects of poverty. It was astonishing what h described some people of Akka were. it was also amazing how Abdul Baha, so kind, secertly gave some of the people bread.
    I will try to be like Abdul Baha and try helping those who are less fortunate