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We Need a Charter of Compassion

Karen Armstrong and 
Archbishop Desmond Tutu / 23 October 2009

On September 27 at the Vancouver Peace Summit, amongst some of the world’s most well-known peacemakers, including Nobel Prize winners and internationally-acclaimed authors, we had the opportunity to invite people everywhere to rediscover the Golden Rule.

The Charter of Compassion was composed by leading thinkers from many different faiths. It is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the centre of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems. Why is this so important?

One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. Religion, which should be making a major contribution to this endeavour, is often seen as part of the problem. All too often, the voices of extremism drown out those of kindness, forbearance and mutual respect. Yet the founders of each of the great religious traditions rejected the violence of their time and sought to replace it with an ethic of compassion.

They argued that a truly compassionate ethic, embodied by the Golden Rule, served people’s best interests and made good practical sense. When the Bible commanded that we “love the foreigner,” it was not speaking of emotional tenderness. When asked by a pagan to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg, Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.” That is the Torah—and everything else is only commentary. The Dalai Lama put it even more succinctly when he said: “My religion is kindness.”

These traditions have also pointed out that we must not confine our benevolence to those we find congenial or to our own ethnic, national or ideological group. We must have what one of the Chinese sages called jian ai, or concern for everybody. If practiced assiduously, all day and every day, as Confucius enjoined, we begin to appreciate our profound interdependence and become fully human.

Today, our world has become dangerously polarised and many of our policies—political, economic, financial and environmental—are no longer sustainable. We are all bound together—socially, economically and politically—as never before. Our financial markets are inextricably connected: when one falls, there is a ripple effect worldwide. What happens in Afghanistan or Iraq today may well have repercussions in New York or London tomorrow.

The Charter for Compassion will be launched on 12 November. It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time. In addition to participating in one of the many launch events, we invite each individual to adopt the charter as their own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion.

We cannot afford to be paralysed by global suffering. We have the power to work together energetically for the wellbeing of humanity, and counter the despairing extremism of our time. Many of us have experienced the power of compassion in our own lives; we know how a single act of kindness and empathy can turn a life around. History also shows that the action of just a few individuals can make a difference. In a world that seems to be spinning out of control, we need such action now.

Karen Armstrong is winner of the TED Prize in 2008 and the 2009 Common Ground Award for Compassion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service

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