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Charter for Compassion Contents, July 21, 2017

What’s in the Charter for Compassion?

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I wrote about the Charter for Compassion which was unveiled in 2009. So what is to be found in this Charter?

At the heart of the Charter is the recognition that all the major religions in the world has a version of what Christians call “the Golden Rule”. Scholars call it the “principal of ethical reciprocity”. However you name it, this ethical teaching is shared universally.

The Christian version is found in words of Jesus:In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7: 12).

Buddhists say, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana–Varga 5:18)

Hindus teach, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)

A Muslim saying says, “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Number 13 of Imam “Al–Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”)

The Jewish Torah says in words familiar to Christians, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux leader who died in 1950, said “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.”

Even non–religious folk believe it: “Humanists acknowledge human interdependence, the need for mutual respect and the kinship of all humanity.” (British Humanist Society)

A delightful story is told about Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, two influential Jewish leaders from the time of Jesus. A stranger came to Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his strictness, and asked the rabbi to teach him the whole Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) while standing on one foot. Shammai got angry at the man’s impudence and chased him away.

The man then went to Hillel and asked the same question. Hillel stood on one foot and replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

It is a universal belief: we are to be compassionate people. This is what it means to be human. We are called to exercise our moral imagination, putting ourselves in others’ shoes. We are called to act towards others as we want them to act towards us. At the very least, we should refuse, under any circumstances, to carry out actions which would cause them harm. At our best, we act to heal others, to make the life of creation more whole, to actively seek reconciliation among all the world’s peoples, and all the world’s creatures. Even our enemies.

All the world’s religions share this belief.

The key, however, is not what we believe. The key is how we act. Karen Armstrong reminds us, “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.”

The Charter for Compassion invites us to become more compassionate, to exercise our moral imaginations, to fight any ideology which breeds bigotry or hatred, to work tirelessly to alleviate the sufferings of our fellow creatures.

As I wrote last week, we live in a dangerously polarized world. There are all kinds of groups out there ready to tear the world apart because you believe differently … because you think differently … because you behave differently … because you’re gay or straight or conservative or liberal.

In such a world, we have a choice to make. Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama remind us that we can “choose to be aggressive and exclusive, as has happened in practically all religious and secular traditions … or we can cultivate an ethic that speaks of compassion, empathy, respect and what Confucianism calls jian ai — ‘concern for everybody’.”

It seems to me that the more creative approach would be to work together “to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world”.