British scholar Karen Armstrong says the Charter for Compassion is a grassroots movement
British scholar Karen Armstrong says the Charter for Compassion is a grassroots movement

Two decades of studying the world's major religions and writing more than 20 books about them led British scholar Karen Armstrong to conclude that compassion is the core value that all religions share.

Defining compassion

"People seem to think it means to be sorry for people or to feel pity," Armstrong says. "In fact, it means to experience with, to feel with the other, to put yourself in the position of another person. And it's summed up well in the golden rule; do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you," she says.

To be compassionate, she says, requires introspection.  "That requires you to look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anybody else."

Compassion is deemed an idea worth spreading

Last year, Armstrong got the chance to turn a desire to encourage people to practice compassion, into reality. She was one of the winners of a TED prize. The non-profit group presenting the award seeks out what it calls 'ideas worth spreading.' It grants winners one world-changing wish, then arranges for the resources and support to help make it come true.

"I dreamed up the idea of a charter that would restore compassion to the center of religious life.  So I wrote a draft charter. We put the charter online. We invited the world to contribute online, on a multi-lingual website. And hundreds and thousands of people from all over the world put [in] their ideas. So it's a grassroots movement," Armstrong says.

She says the input received is part of a final charter that was written at a meeting in Switzerland with help from some 20 leading thinkers and activists representing six religious faiths.  She says the purpose of the document is to unify, inspire and bring compassion back into the heart of societies around the world.

People of many faiths helped write the charter

The Charter for Compassion was unveiled Nov. 12. Visitors to the website can support the charter and share their own stories of acts of compassion. There's also a video in which dozens of people take turns reading the charter.

One passage reads, "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."

Armstrong says, "It's a short document, 300 words long. It is, first of all, a call to work actively and energetically for the benefit of the whole of humanity, and this is a religious duty. We should be concerned about the environment, world hunger, world poverty, poverty in our own societies, sickness (and) health problems. All these are religious issues. Secondly, we must also refrain from inflicting harm. That includes violence of any kind, and also unkind speech in public or private life."

Events promote the compassion movement

To celebrate the launch of the charter more than two dozen organizations held events and activities.

"There was an essay competition, for example, for young people in Australia," Armstrong says. "There's going to be an art exhibition in New York on the theme of compassion. In Kuala Lumpur, they set up a wall for compassion right in the middle of the city. And the Muslim communities in several countries in Europe are holding public debates and discussions to propagate the notion of compassion. And that's important because there is so much trouble in Europe with the Muslim immigrant communities who are having a very rough time at the moment," she says.

Compassion in religious teachings

Armstrong also wants compassion to shape the way religion is taught to youngsters.

"We must also decide what we're going to do with those violent texts that are in all our scriptures," she says. "How are we going to deal with them when they're often used for such harm. And I like to see a sort of cooperative effort. This is certainly happening, I know for fact, in Jerusalem. Right at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you have a movement where Imams and Rabbis are studying their scriptures together for precisely this purpose. It can be done. So if you're bringing up children bring them up to be compassionate, to respect others, to respect differences and not see it as a threat," she says.

Raising the profile of the compassionate point of view

The charter has been endorsed by religious and public figures including Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, as well as by cultural icons including fashion designer Kenneth Cole, record producer Quincy Jones and author Isabel Allende.  And Armstrong has more ideas to add momentum to her movement.

"One of the things that I'm thinking of is setting up a rapid response team worldwide, she says."If a crisis blows up that needs a compassionate voice, we are poised to go speak on the media, to write an [editorial] in the newspaper, go on television, organize a an event or something to bring a compassionate voice because we're hearing so much hatred on the media. We need another voice out there. I want to empower people," she says.

Armstrong says the Charter for Compassion can give a voice to the silent majority of all faith traditions and provide a tool for building a better global society where people can live together in peace and harmony.