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The Charter for Compassion, July 14, 2017

The Charter for Compassion

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

About 8 years ago, the Charter for Compassion was unveiled to the world. I’ve written about it before, but thought it was worth revisiting this important movement.

The Charter for Compassion was the dream of Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun from Britain who left the convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. Since then she has written more than 20 books about religion. Her general focus in her books is to discover the common themes found in the world’s great religions. As she writes, “religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”

Armstrong was one of the winners of the TED Prize in 2008. TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”, and brings together people from three areas of human enterprise: Technology, Entertainment, Design — TED.

Every year, TED awards a prize to three winners. Each winner receives $100,000 and “One Wish to Change the World”. TED works with the winners, finding other partners, to make their wish a reality.

Armstrong’s wish was to “create, launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect.” Her wish came into existence when the Charter for Compassion was unveiled in 2009. People from all cultures and religions, as well as atheists, spent a year working on it.

The process began online. Ordinary people from all around the world were invited to post their views about compassion. Over 150,000 comments were received from people in over 100 countries. It was an amazing success.

A group of 18 religious leaders, the Council of Conscience, met to draft the Charter. The Council includes prominent leaders from the world’s major religions — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Confucians. It includes artists, scholars, bishops, rabbis and activists. Some names we will recognize; others will be new to us.

The Charter for Compassion is intended to inspire the world to live more compassionately. The goal is to help us learn to stand in the others’ shoes, to seek empathy and learn to live and work together for the welfare of all people and all creation.

As of this writing, the Charter has been affirmed by an estimated 2 million people, including the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Queen Noor of Jordan, Deepak Chopra, musicians like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, actors like Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn, religious leaders and ordinary people like me … and, I hope, like you. You can affirm it here.

Learning compassion is an urgent need. Our world is dangerously polarized, and it seems as if the polarization is becoming deeper. Religious extremists, for example, are prepared to do anything to fight for their cause. The Taliban and ISIS are prominent examples. So are suicide bombers, who take texts from the Q’uran dangerously out of context.

The same thing is happening in the realm of politics. Politicians are increasingly unable to work with each other, and spend much of their time pandering to the worst impulses in their constituencies.

But it’s not just in religion and politics. It’s happening all around us. We divide people into “us” and “them” much too easily. People on the left can’t seem to speak with people on the right. School bullies act with impunity. People attack others who are “different” on subways and buses, in playgrounds and ball fields. Ugly bumper stickers are more common, and there are increased instance of people spraying hateful slogans on buildings and public spaces.

There are all kinds of examples of this hatred: the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester; a van plowing into pedestrians in London; a rainbow crosswalk vandalized in Fernie; US Senators shot at a baseball game; an attack on the Parliament Buildings, and threats at the Canada 150 celebrations; a shooting at the gay nightclub in Orlando. It’s scary stuff out there.

We live in a dangerously polarized world. We are losing the ability to talk to each other in respectful ways. Too many people think that only their point of view is correct, and they are willing to do whatever they need to do to eradicate other ways of looking at life. So they spew their hatred against Muslims … or Christians … or members of the LGBTQ community … or indigenous peoples or any people of colour … or medical clinics which allow women who choose to do so to have an abortion … or women … the list, which is seemingly endless, goes on and on.

We need to learn the language and the ways of compassion in this world. Karen Armstrong’s dream is desperately needed in this world. I encourage you to read the Charter and all the ways in which it is affecting our world.