A global online push for compassion

The project to promote the golden rule has attracted 100,000 visitors from 181 nations in its first week.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Prize winner: Karen Armstrong, winner of the $100,000 TED prize, is pushing global compassion.
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The world needs more compassion.

That is the premise for charterforcompassion.com, a new website that's inviting people all over the globe to draft an online charter aimed at putting the golden rule at the center of daily life. Participants are encouraged to share their own stories of compassion, define the idea, and propose specific steps that societies can take to engender it.

In the first week since its Nov. 14 launch, more than 100,000 unique visitors from 181 countries participated. Over the next three weeks, the project aims to gather as many ideas as it can and synthesize them in February through a multifaith "council of sages," which will craft a final document.

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"Wherever I go, whether in the East or the West, I find people hungry for a more compassionate world and a more compassionate expression of their own faith," says author Karen Armstrong, the guiding force behind the project, in a phone interview from Britain.

The project has attracted influential thinkers. Among Ms. Armstrong's council of sages are Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford; and the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell of the Chautauqua Institution. She herself is the winner of the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) prize, which gave her $100,000 and "one wish to change the world" with the collaboration of leading thinkers from TED. Her wish was to create the charter, as a grass-roots manifesto.

"The idea is to empower ordinary members of the communities to demand a more compassionate voice from their leaders, better guidance, and interfaith action," Armstrong says.

But can a manifesto really change the world? Some have: Martin Luther's 95 theses, the Declaration of Independence, the Communist Manifesto, among others. There are also, however, a long line of charters now gathering dust.

The appeal to compassion is "too amorphous" and won't do the job, writes Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, in a Beliefnet column. What's really needed is to teach those in every religious community "about the sacredness of modesty, humility, questioning.... When people experience that posture as rooted in the depths of the tradition they love,... fewer people around the world will die in the names of those traditions."

One difference with this charter is its online, bottom-up approach.

"This is groundbreaking technology because it allows everyone's voice to be heard," says Nicole Greenbaum, a spokeswoman for the Kluster technology team that's supporting charterforcompassion.com. Kluster is a decisionmaking platform that lets users contribute ideas and rate the other ideas submitted based on a set of criteria. The best ideas are identified and fine-tuned using the criteria.

"It's not a competition but a collaboration, and it harnesses the power of the whole group in order to reach consensus," Ms. Greenbaum says. This is the first time the technology is being used globally, with contributions translated into Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and English.

The golden rule is at the core of every major religion since Confucius 5,000 years ago, Armstrong says, yet that isn't what predominates today.

In presenting her charter idea to the TED annual conference, Armstrong said religion as a set of beliefs or doctrines is a relatively recent phenomenon; historically it has been about "behaving in a way that changes you." People want to reclaim their faith from divisiveness and violence to become "a force for harmony in the world," she said.

Initially, she proposed that the charter involve just Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who "have developed massive problems with each other that need to get sorted out." But the "TEDsters" urged that it be opened to everyone, including secularists, who also value compassion.

Formerly a nun who left the convent and religion altogether for a while, Armstrong began researching the monotheistic faiths for the BBC. She became a provocative thinker on the role of religion and has penned widely read books such as "The History of God," "The Battle for God" (on fundamentalism), biographies of Buddha and Muhammad, and "The Great Transformation." Since 9/11, she's become a sought-after speaker globally.

Some may view the charter as ignoring the truth claims of some faiths in favor of homogenized religion. But Armstrong, engaged in writing her latest book, sees it as a natural, democratic next step in an increasingly tech-savvy, connected world.

"Unless we manage to create a global community where people can live together in harmony and mutual respect, we have very little chance of having a viable world to hand on to the next generation," she says.

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