If ever there were a concept alien to modern Western life, it is sacrifice. Compared to all former times, we scarcely know what it is. Today’s middle class lives in more comfort than the royalty of old. In a few more decades, explaining sacrifice to the modern human may be akin to explaining snow to a 16th century Indonesian, or palm trees to an 17th century Eskimo. At this rate, we might not even have a word for it.
While our men and women in uniform are still all too familiar with the concept, even they are fewer in number than the millions who sacrificed their lives, willingly or unwillingly, in the warfare of yesteryear.
We typically sacrifice little in daily life. When we have a tight financial month, credit card companies are only too happy to facilitate a creature comfort rather than having us sacrifice it.
Of course, the Founders of faith — both ours and every other authentic faith — were intimately familiar with the concept, so much so that they longed for the opportunity to sacrifice in the path of God and Their enemies were all too eager to provide the opportunity.
In The Bab, as in some twenty-thousand of His followers, we are given the example of one who made “the ultimate sacrifice.” He gave His very life to the Cause of God, as other Manifestations before Him. In many ways, The Bab’s sacrifice, while absolute, was perhaps more merciful than that of the other Central Figures in that His earthly suffering was cut short by what Shoghi Effendi called the worst crime in history. In the life of Baha’u'llah as well as Abdu’l-Baha, we have the example of a sort of living martyrdom, decade after decade of deprivation, hunger, thirst, disease, and worst of all, having to endure the treachery of family and supposed followers.
Baha’u'llah and His dutiful Son Abdu’l-Baha sacrificed every earthly comfort, starting with the life of nobility that Baha’u'llah eschewed even before the start of His ministry and including any security for Themselves or Their families, and any possessions, all of which were plundered by state-sanctioned mobs as soon as He was thrown into the Siyah Chal. They sacrificed any real rest. Fresh water. Good food. Any greenery. By the end of Baha’u'llah’s life God had taken matters into His own hands and seen to many of Baha’u'llah’s earthly needs by a seemingly miraculous series of events which placed Him in a mansion, but not before a lifetime of hardships the likes of which few if any others would have survived.
For the sake of unity, Baha’u'llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi, all in turn, made the heart-breaking sacrifice of estrangement from family members.
During this centennial celebration of Abdu’l-Baha’s travels through North America, we’re reminded, in an endearing and very human account, of how the Master’s entourage longed to see the sights, like Niagara Falls, but were denied by their leader, Who was urgently spreading the Cause and determined to keep them on task. They sacrificed for the Cause of Unity.
In the Faith we are enjoined to sacrifice. Among other things, the Fast, it seems, could have been ordained in order to exercise our sacrifice muscles — to keep the concept of sacrifice alive, even in times of plenty and in cultures blessed with ease and leisure.
Holding all these sacrifices in mind — and the history of our Faith is really just one long story of sacrifice — we can now ask ourselves, “What am I willing to sacrifice for world unity?”
Am I willing to sacrifice part of my income? Even a part of it that really feels like a sacrifice?
Am I willing to sacrifice cultural insularity? Am I willing to reach out to people who may not speak my first language in order to promote unity?
Am I willing to reach out and befriend someone with much less materially than I have and risk self-conscious discomfort?
Am I willing to gladly listen to someone else’s preferred style of music during a devotion for the sake of unity? Or to endure a difficult personality for the sake of the harmony of the community?
Am I willing to sacrifice some convenience — to pass 200 churches on my way to my local Baha’i center? To meet for Feast on a Monday night when the world is pressing in all around me, instead of on a Sunday morning, when society has carved out the time?
Am I willing to sacrifice alcohol with all of the social implications that it carries in my culture?
Am I willing to sacrifice a habitual and culturally celebrated involvement in partisan politics — to hold my tongue, and my keyboard, when tempted to make a divisive statement? Can I sacrifice this habit for the cause of unity?
When any person seeks to live a Baha’i life, be they a lifelong believer or a recent Baha’i, they all bring their own set of items, ideas, and habits they must place upon a spiritual altar and set ablaze. We do this for the cause of unity. It is well worth it. And once those things go up in smoke, we rarely miss them, and we find that lo and behold, life is better, more meaningful, indeed even more enjoyable than it was when we clung to them in the dark.