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Karen Armstrong argues for practical compassion

The historian has helped world religions unite behind the idea of a worldwide charter for compassion. Can it become more than just a nice idea?

By Heidi BruceYES! Magazine / April 17, 2012

British historian and theologian Karen Armstrong (here speaking during an interview in Islamabad, Pakistan) says Pakistan is integrating an international Charter for Compassion into its civic life. During Ramadan, people in Pakistan run a web competition where participants are invited to post a compassionate action every day during the holy month.

Mian Khursheed/Reuters/File

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In 2008, religious historian Karen Armstrong was granted a wish. She had recently won the TED Prize, which comes with $100,000 and support in making a single “wish to change the world” come true.

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Armstrong had already identified a fundamental principle that she believed united the spiritual traditions she studied: compassion. She made a wish to work with leaders and adherents the world over to create a Charter for Compassion, an overarching statement of human morality that could unite us all.

Through a web-based platform, thousands of people from more than 100 countries contributed to the writing of the charter; a multifaith, multinational council of thinkers and leaders edited and signed off on the final document. The charter has now been affirmed by more than 85,00 individuals. City governments, civic organizations, schools, and universities throughout the world are seeking creative ways to put its words into action.

But what can the charter really accomplish in a world where religion drives us into rancorous divides at least as often as it unites us? I recently spoke to Karen Armstrong about the politics and practicalities of compassion.

Heidi Bruce: One of the things that YES! Magazine covers is how to better bridge divides between seemingly opposed groups. What role can media play in helping people with very different beliefs engage one another in a productive manner?

Karen Armstrong: I think the media has a huge role to play – and has to take quite a responsibility for some of the more divisive aspects in our culture. I’ve just written a piece in the Globe and Mail about Islamaphobia in Canada, and the hostile comments that came in were ugly and disturbing – sort of fascist-style comments. Very often, the media has portrayed certain sectors of the community through endless reporting on terrorism, ignoring the wider picture. So, there’s a real challenge here to turn that around.

Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories. I don’t want this charter, for example, to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done. If we want to create a viable, peaceful world, we’ve got to integrate compassion into the gritty realities of 21st century life.

Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories. Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren’t engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. We need to encourage full storytelling – unless people also talk about the bad things that happen, this is just going to be some superficial feel-good exercise.

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