November 28, 2020


Johanna Jochumsdottir, an Icelandic-Canadian historian, recently made an outstanding presentation in the “Big Ideas” series to an online audience of 100. She took a counterintuitive approach to “Why History Matters” in her overview of the 20th century: can we see that astonishingly eventful period as anything but a catalogue of horrors?

Commonly, recounting “the magnitude of the horrors” of the 20th century is seen as history’s job. Dr. Jochumsdottir did not minimize the stream of catastrophes, though her superb photographic selections were suggestive, not brutal. She began with Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1887, a massive celebration of the colonial era when few questioned the apparent right of small but powerful nations to dominate huge swaths of land and populations, or of men to rule over women.

We know the tragic results. Genocide in Tasmania, Congo, Turkey, Rwanda…World War I. The “Spanish” flu. Fascism in Europe. World War II dwarfs the first. Cold War (and its proxies: Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua…). Nuclear proliferation. Global terrorism. When 9/11 introduced a new century, it seemingly extended the tragedies of the 20th. This focus on loud and destructive currents in the 20th century – via thoughtful historians and mass media – resulted in widespread hopelessness, a belief in humanity’s inherent aggressiveness.

However, the destructive events are not the whole story of that century. The Bahá’í community sees history as a dual process of human social evolution. According to the Universal House of Justice, its central governing authority, both processes serve to unite the human family:

“[H]umankind as a whole is in the midst of an unprecedented transition... [and we] see in the revolutionary changes taking place in every sphere of life the interaction of two fundamental processes. One is destructive in nature, while the other is integrative….The operation of the former…[t]hough devastating in [its] effects…tend[s] to sweep away barriers that block humanity’s progress, opening space for…new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.”

Jochumsdottir challenged her audience to look carefully at the nuanced relationship between the disintegrative and integrative processes of the 20th century and to see the consequent opening of new horizons for humanity''. The emancipation of women, for instance, has been a 500-year journey which accelerated greatly in the last hundred years. Furthermore, the release of entire continents from the yoke of colonialism, while turbulent, has seen enormous populations taking charge of their own destinies.

In 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, listed seven aspects of progress leading to the eventual and inevitable unification of humanity. Dr. Jochumsdottir used these “candles of unity” to inform a second tour through the century, this time highlighting its integrative achievements.

Unity in the political realm. The 1900s began with rapid gains towards women’s suffrage. Women gathered in Europe during and after the Great War, demanding peace and then a more just Paris peace treaty. The establishment of the League of Nations in 1919 then led to the more robust United Nations Organization in 1945, and later the formation of the African Union, the Organization of American States, and other multinational coalitions.

Unity of thought in world undertakings. Few grasped this concept in 1912, but the U.N.’s Human Rights (1948) and Millennium (2000) Declarations were profoundly visionary. We’ve seen great advances in universal education, poverty reduction, life expectancy and environmental consciousness, things barely imaginable in 1900.

Unity in freedom. The emancipation of women and the collapse of colonialism demonstrate the ever-stronger shining of this “candle”.

Unity of religion. The World Parliament of Religions and other interfaith movements have grown. Now, religious bigotry is routinely condemned, and commonalities among faiths are well known and celebrated.

Unity of nations. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá predicted it would “be securely established” in the 20th century; pandemics, disasters and climate change reinforce its necessity.

Unity of races. Educated, thoughtful people almost universally endorse this, and theories of racial superiority have been undermined.

Unity of language. This great tool, Bahá’u’láh’s prescription of a universal auxiliary language, continues to evolve.

For Jochumsdottir, these lights of unity guide a mature, progressive search for all the benefits of human solidarity. Humanity must collectively adopt a different set of standards, and it gradually is. In the 1990s alone, global conferences addressed universal education, food and nutrition, the wellbeing of children, the environment, human rights, population growth, the condition of women, and sustainable development. “We have undergone a complete transformation since Queen Victoria’s jubilee. The 20th century allowed us to see the essential oneness of humanity,” Jochumsdottir concluded. This is why the century of light was a turning point in the fortunes of the human race. Bahá’u’lláh predicted a century and a half ago that “True peace and tranquillity will only be realized when every soul will have become the well-wisher of all mankind.”

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