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The key to turn a problem into a solution

04 January 2011

Compassion is the glue that religions can offer to the world, argues Karen Armstrong.

IN NOVEMBER 2007, I heard that I had won a prize. Each year, TED (the acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design), a private non-profit organisation best known for its superb conferences on “ideas worth spreading”, gives awards to people who it thinks have made a difference, but who with its help could make even more of an impact. The recipient is given $100,000, but, more importantly, is granted a wish for a better world, which TED will do its best to make happen.

I knew immediately what I wanted. One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a large contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality, and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao.

Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule: “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you” — or, in its positive form: “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group: you must have concern for everybody — even your enemies.

It is hard to think of a time when the compassionate voice of religion has been so sorely needed. Our world is dangerously polar­ised. There is a worrying imbalance of power and wealth, and, as a result, a growing rage, malaise, alienation, and humiliation that have erupted in terrorist atrocities that endanger us all. We are engaged in wars that we seem unable either to end or to win.

Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy”, and, once they have been sacralised, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. At the same time, we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media.

Suffering and want are no longer confined to distant, disadvantaged parts of the globe. When stocks plummet in one country, there is a domino effect in markets all round the world. What happens today in Gaza or Afghanistan is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in London or New York. We all face the terrifying possibility of environmental catastrophe.

In a world in which small groups will in­creas­ingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.

So, at the award ceremony in February 2008, I asked TED to help me create, launch, and propagate a Charter for Compassion that would be written by leading thinkers from a variety of the main faiths, and would restore compassion to the heart of religious and moral life.

The charter would counter the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred. At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that, despite our significant differences, on this we are all in agreement, and that it is indeed possible for the religious to reach across the divide and work together for justice and peace.

Thousands of people from all over the world contributed to a draft charter on a multilingual website in Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, Spanish, and English; their comments were presented to the Council of Conscience, a group of notable individuals from six faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), who met in Switzerland in February 2009 to compose the final version:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual tradi­tions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow crea­tures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, with­out exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.

It is also necessary, in both public and private life, to refrain consistently and em­pathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit, or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity.

We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

• To restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion

• To return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred, or disdain is illegitimate

• To ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions, and cultures

• To encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity

• To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings — even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarised world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, com­passion can break down political, dog­matic, ideological, and religious boundaries.

Born of our deep interdependence, compas­sion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

The charter was launched on 12 November 2009, in 60 different locations throughout the world; it was enshrined in synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches, as well as in such secular institutions as the Karachi Press Club and the Sydney Opera House. But the work is only just beginning. At the time of writing, we have more than 150 partners working together throughout the globe to translate the charter into practical, realistic action.

People often ask: “How do we start?” The demands of compassion seem so daunting that it is difficult to know where to begin: hence this 12-step programme. It will immediately bring to mind the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. We are addicted to our egotism. We cannot think how we would manage without our pet hatreds and prejudices that give us such a buzz of righteousness; like an addict, we come to depend on the instant rush of energy and delight we feel when we display our cleverness by making an unkind remark, and the spurt of triumph when we vanquish an annoying colleague. Thus do we assert ourselves, and tell the world who we are. It is difficult to break a habit on which we depend for our sense of self. As in AA, the disciplines learned at each step in this programme have to become a part of your life.

I am a religious historian, and it is my study of the spiritualities of the past which has taught me all I know about compassion. I think that in this respect the faith traditions still have a great deal to teach us. But it is important to say that the 12-step programme does not depend on supernatural or credal convictions.

I am in agreement with HH the Dalai Lama that “whether a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.” At their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical tra­di­tions are based on the principle of compassion.

© Karen Armstrong 2011, an extract from Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (The Bodley Head, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-847-92158-1).

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