Monday, September 5, 2011

“Charter for Compassion”

Karen Armstrong, an Englishwoman who was once a Roman Catholic nun, first rose to prominence in 1993 with her book, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, an international best seller. She has written several widely-read books since then.
In 2008 Armstrong (b. 1944) received the $100,000 TED Prize. She used that windfall to call for the creation of a Charter for Compassion, which was unveiled the following year. (TED, Technology Entertainment and Design, is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.”)
The Charter for Compassion was created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. In November 2009 it was signed by a thousand religious and secular leaders—and now by over 75,000 more people, including me. The charter has been translated into more than thirty languages.

 The Charter’s first (of four) paragraph states:
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 honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
That statement, and the paragraphs that follow it, express noble sentiments, indeed. (You can read the whole charter by clicking on this link.)
Armstrong’s most recent book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010). On the first page of the Preface, she declares, “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.” I certainly agree.
But I also wonder why no mention is made of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, about which I posted last time. (Did she need to “re-invent the wheel”?)
Unfortunately, some in our society don’t seem to be much in favor of compassion, including some political leaders. Gov. Perry, for example, criticizes liberals who seek to advance “a radical secular agenda in the name of compassion” (Fed Up! p. 13). Later in the same book he strongly criticizes President Bush’s (W’s) “Compassionate Conservatism” (p. 143).
Ayn Rand, the darling of some prominent politicians today, was no supporter of compassion. And back in 2004, the president of the Ayn Rand Center of Individual Rights, railed against the Bush Administration's war in Iraq for embracing compassion (You can read the article here.)
Armstrong, though, contends that “to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness” is “the supreme test of compassion” (p. 185). Loving one’s enemies as one loves oneself sounds like something I have heard somewhere else.
Do those words not apply to nations or to politicians?

Note: For you in the D.C. area, Dr. Armstrong will lead a forum on compassion at Washington National Cathedral on the morning of September 11. For you who live in the (north) Kansas City area, the Vital Conversations book discussion group will be discussing the last half of Dr. Armstrong’s book at their regular monthly meeting (at the Mid-Continent Public Library in Gladstone), from 1:00 to 2:30 on Wednesday, September 14.


  1. Today's comment from my faithful Thinking Friend, and correspondent, in Kentucky:

    "Thanks for calling attention to the 'Charter for Compassion,' Leroy. Everyone should applaud."

  2. Let me share what a local Thinking Friend, and avowed Republican, wrote (by e-mail), and then I will make some response in the following comment. He said,

    “I recall one of your blogs late last year when you recommended that your readers make a donation to Hillcrest Ministries instead of In-As-Much (Salvation Army) because the latter provides handouts without teaching responsibility and life skills like the former. In that blog I think you even mentioned the well known analogy of 'teaching a man to fish.'

    "I can't speak for Rick Perry because you didn't give enough of his quote but I can infer that he believes, like you, in a compassion that includes or demands responsibility and the promotion of life skills, not just handouts.

    "What concerns me most about your blog, however, is that you have once again proven yourself partisan by launching into partisan finger pointing and my suspicion is that your motivation is to influence the vote of your little band of blog disciples without telling the whole story.”

  3. My response to the previous comments:

    Yes, I do believe that it is better to teach responsibility and life skills than to just provide handouts. And I think it is better to “teach a man to fish” than to give him a fish (or several fish). Gov. Perry would agree with this viewpoint, I assume.

    But there are immediate needs also. Sometimes there is hunger now; there is not enough time to learn responsibility and life skills, not enough time to learn to fish. So, it seems to me that the government, including the federal government, has the responsibility to show compassion by helping people with immediate needs to the extent they can. That will include “handouts.”

    Gov. Perry doesn’t seem to see compassion as a responsibility of the federal government. He seems to want to do away with the New Deal and what some of us would see as advances promoted in reaching toward the Great Society. Gov. Perry seems to want to do away with Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. That doesn’t mean he is completely without compassion. He just seems to want states to help people, at least to some extent. And he wants individuals, churches, civic groups to help people. But not the federal government, at least to the extent it is try to help people now.

    (Gov. Perry’s book is "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington," 2010. Most of what I have read of it I read before he announced he was going to run for President. I encourage those who read this to peruse Perry’s book for “the whole story.”)

    My views may be partisan: after all, I am sharing “the view from this Seat.” But my political views are based on my religious/ethical beliefs, not the other way around. I “pointed a finger” at Gov. Perry not because of his political party but because I do not agree with his ethical stance, in this case on the matter of showing compassion to the needy.

    And I am not vain enough to think that my blog is likely to change many minds when it comes to voting. I am quite sure that my Thinking Friends, and others who might read my blog postings, are going to decide who to vote for on the basis of what they think, not because of what I think.

  4. Well, I guess I'm "partisan," too; here's a quotation from my latest newspaper column:

    In so far as we let our neighbors who have worked hard and are willing to work hard in the future lose their homes, their transportation, their health care, and their dignity through no fault of their own, we have failed to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper; we have failed to love our neighbor as ourselves; and we have betrayed the people who have contributed to the good life most of us enjoy in this society.
    Most of the time we like to pretend we’re not dependent on one another, but that pretension cannot be sustained in the face of social analysis. We like to pretend our taxes are so high we’re being impoverished by them, but that pretension won’t hold up in light of the luxurious life of most Americans. We like to pretend we’re not our brother’s and sister’s keeper, but that pretension can’t pass the test of religious or humanist morality.

  5. About ten minutes ago I received the following comments in an e-mail from another local Thinking Friend, who is obviously not a Republican:

    “'Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you will have a Republican claiming that you are 'enabling him' and he should buy his fish from the corporate chains like everyone else.'

    "Isn’t a Republican with Compassion an oxymoron?"

  6. Amazing how much vile flows in politics from all sides. Except for the truly polar extreme, I think most still favor compassion and charity at heart, but approach it very differently. American politics from left to right naturally forces people to get it wrong. Instead, we the people should look for those who get it right, and have them take a sabbatical to go represent us as neither Democrat or Republican, but as statesmen.

    Preferably, I would like to see the Church return to its roots and do what it was called to do - not this belt-notch conversion stuff and magic words - real religion.