Religion scholar Karen Armstrong is asking the world to write a Charter for Compassion, based on her premise that compassion is central to all religions. Do you agree? If so, what has gone wrong?
A lot of people say that the deeper you go, the more all religions are the same. Based on my study and experience, that statement strikes me as potentially quite misleading. I think there are profound differences among religions at many levels. And not only that, there are equally profound differences within religions too! Just think, within Christianity, of televangelist John Hagee, and then of Desmond Tutu … or of Pat Robertson and then of Jim Wallis … or of Mother Teresa and then of … well, you get the idea. It’s hard to believe that these vastly different voices could all be speaking from within the same religion. So if within religions there are such striking differences, we shouldn’t minimize the differences between religions.
But when it comes to ethics, there’s a lot of truth to Karen Armstrong’s premise about compassion. The golden rule or something like it is inherent to the ethical vision of all major faiths. But sadly, many religious communities become preoccupied with something other than their core theological mission and ethical values. They get caught up in other narratives … narratives of revenge, domination, victimization, accumulation, isolation, scapegoating, and so on. That’s why I think Karen Armstrong is wise and right to call us all to compassion.
The word itself suggests “to feel or suffer with the other.” As a follower of Christ, I see how compassion is evoked by Jesus’ words, “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me,” or “love your neighbor as yourself”. And I see how compassion is evoked by the apostle Paul’s words as well … “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice,” or “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” or “If you have any … compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Similarly, the apostle James evokes compassion through words like these: “Faith without works is dead,” and the apostle John, through words like these: “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. … If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no compassion on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
And my Muslim friends could bring similar quotes from the Qur’an, and my Jewish friends from the Hebrew Scriptures, and my Buddhist and Hindu and Native American friends from their traditions as well. So I want to uphold the freedom of each religion to be unique and true to its own story, and simultaneously I want to uphold each religion’s responsibility to be faithful to its own internal call to compassion. Thank God for voices like Karen Armstrong’s, reminding us of that beautiful shared value of compassion.