Warning Sign

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is just around the corner, hosted in a country where the disparity between rich and poor is striking.  The paradox of hosting a multi-billion dollar global entertainment event amongst an economically lopsided population brings to light society’s seemingly tunnel-vision attitude towards pleasure-seeking, coupled with an indifferent oversight of attempting to meet the community’s basic needs:

We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing; those who possess several stately palaces, and those who have no where to lay their head.

Abdu’l-Bahá : Paris Talks

One could mention that an event such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup provides employment for thousands.  This may be true, but of a certainty there exist more genuine approaches of sustainable empowerment and community building; approaches that are not the mere by-products of a once-off event.

One could also argue that this camaraderie and entertainment promote personal as well as community well-being. This may be true, but where do our boundaries lie?

One of the signs of a decadent society, a sign which is very evident in the world today, is an almost frenetic devotion to pleasure and diversion, an insatiable thirst for amusement, a fanatical devotion to games and sport, a reluctance to treat any matter seriously, and a scornful, derisory attitude towards virtue and solid worth.. Frivolity palls and eventually leads to boredom and emptiness, but true happiness and joy and humour that are parts of a balanced life that includes serious thought, compassion and humble servitude to God, are characteristics that enrich life and add to its radiance.

(From a letter dated 8 May 1979 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

Presently, the global sports industry is worth billions.  The question is what should it be worth?  Are the salaries that individual players earn just and acceptable?  Is the importance attached to one’s fanatical devotion to largely commercial entities justified?  Importantly, what qualitative value can be attached to sports, as far as the rank of professions and service to society is concerned?

The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, that everyone, as far as possible, according to his rank and position, shall share in comfort and well-being.. Now the remedy must be carefully undertaken. It cannot be done by bringing to pass absolute equality between men.. Equality is a chimera! It is entirely impracticable! Even if equality could be achieved it could not continue — and if its existence were possible, the whole order of the world would be destroyed. The law of order must always obtain in the world of humanity. Heaven has so decreed in the creation of man.

Some are full of intelligence, others have an ordinary amount of it, and others again are devoid of intellect. In these three classes of men there is order but not equality.

Certainly, some being enormously rich and others lamentably poor, an organization is necessary to control and improve this state of affairs. It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good. To be seated in the mean [1] is most desirable.

[1 'Give me neither poverty nor riches.' -- Prov. 30: 8]

Abdu’l-Bahá goes on further to outline the basic requirements of preserving the ‘law of order’:

There must be special laws made, dealing with these extremes of riches and of want. The members of the Government should consider the laws of God when they are framing plans for the ruling of the people. The general rights of mankind must be guarded and preserved.

The government of the countries should conform to the Divine Law which gives equal justice to all. This is the only way in which the deplorable superfluity of great wealth and miserable, demoralizing, degrading poverty can be abolished. Not until this is done will the Law of God be obeyed.

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  1. I enjoyed reading this, well done.

    Just a few thoughts I couldn’t resist sharing on this…

    1) Sometimes we Baha’is see solving economic problems (as well as other things) as just a matter of desire and effort, which I think oversimplifies the issues. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has said that should the entire human race embrace the Golden Rule, economic outcomes would dramatically improve. But I was also surprised to read in your post how much he emphasized actual policies in fixing these problems. I think he understood that even when the human race matures spiritually and embraces its oneness, solutions to things like extreme inequality will remain challenging (though finally achievable).

    2) If South Africans desire the World Cup to be hosted in South Africa (and FIFA agrees), then it should be hosted in South Africa. It is tempting for Westerners and development practitioners to transplant their preferences and values onto other nations, but this attitude I think is one of the main reasons why development has been so unsuccessful over the past 60 years.

    3) Yes, it seems like wages are high in pro sports, but what to do about that? Many people the world over, including all Baha’is, decry the extremes of wealth and poverty. But few of us actually put forth realistic solutions. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has, for instance, endorsed the idea of a progressive income tax as one tool, but this alone isn’t enough; even in countries with the most progressive systems, you still see extremes. I quite frankly can not come up with a concrete solution to curb extreme wealth without slowing growth and worsening unemployment (and thus hurting the poor), for instance. This doesn’t mean that inequality is inevitable or desirable, it just means that it’s a much higher priority to deal with the poverty side of the issue rather than the wealth side.

  2. Hi Eamon,

    I think the lessening of extremities in wealth will come about not only because of regulations made by an authority, like a government. A large part will come about through people getting the insight that extreme riches and extreme poverty does not help society ultimately. of course this will not happen overnight, probably a few hundred years. And probably a lot of human beings have to learn the hard way still. So after a lot of suffering and a lot of setbacks which will affect not only the poor but also the rich, people may eventually develop the insight just like at a certain point in a small part of the world the realisation that women should at least been seen legally as equal broke through to the masses.
    Without enough people who have the insight, rules and regulations will disappear again, will be replaced with less enlightened rules and regulations.

    Without the insight, without enough people who have the insight, any solution to poverty will not give enough results. People have to feel first that we are truly brothers and sisters, then they will see the economic advantages of it, and the economic advantages of sharing their wealth, to the point that extreme poverty is non existant at least in the country they reside in. Slowly, very slowly, there is a beginning of that realisation, but it is still very slow. I am thinking of Haiti for example, whose debts were remitted.

  3. Interesting article, thanks! Yeah, the signs of a disintegrating society are all around us and growing year on year.. How great a relief it is to know that these impurities will not last in the long term, and that ultimately the destiny of humanity will be a great one.

    And here’s a quotation which I think gives a good overview of the idea of spiritual solutions to economic problems:

    “The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit. This is fully explained in the Baha’i teaching, and without knowledge of its principles no improvement in the economic state can be realized..

    Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently..

    For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.”

    (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 238)

  4. Perhaps if the host country [ies] could place a percentage of whatever profits made by hosting such an event into an international charity fund of their choice [provided that pot is not their economy ...] this would make somewhat of a difference. Let’s recall, however, the Master’s comment: “Equality is a chimera! It is entirely impracticable! Even if equality could be achieved it could not continue — and if its existence were possible, the whole order of the world would be destroyed. The law of order must always obtain in the world of humanity. Heaven has so decreed in the creation of man.”

    In any such ‘no win, no loss’ situation, we can only do what we can do. But the decision, whatever it be, should be universally agreed upon. … I’m pretty sure the Master would have that in mind, as well.


  1. On Sport in America: Courage, integrity & fair play, but also a down side: Baha’i Views - January 17, 2012

    [..] (From a letter dated 8 May 1979 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer) http://www.bahaiperspectives.com/2010/05/25/warning-sign/ [..]

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