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Change Agent

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?

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Armstrong: The Compassionate Cities campaign is an important development in this regard. What it’s doing is taking this ideal, which could sound New Age-like and perhaps even self-indulgent, and inserting it into the gritty reality of city life. It’s no good just sitting in a glade being compassionate to somebody – it’s got to go into the cities. There are about 80 cities going through the process, as well as universities and schools. Part of where we may have to go – to be quite realistic – is to shame governments into it. If they find other cities being compassionate, saying, “Why aren’t you doing this?” they might be persuaded to begin making changes.

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Bruce: Once cities affirm the charter, what concrete steps would you like to see them take in order to implement positive social change?

Armstrong: In cities, it’s got to be something that the city really needs. That will be very different in Pakistan, where people are getting blown up every day, than here in Seattle where we’re much safer at the moment. I think you need a core team of committed activists who can form a sort of “shadow city council” that shadows the work of government segments in charge of homelessness, health care, race relations, housing, or supporting the elderly – keep a weather eye on what they’re doing and hold them accountable.

One of my dreams is to create twin cities. For example, have a city in the Middle East twinned with a city in the United States. People can exchange news and form electronic friendships. Schools and universities can communicate so that some of the apprehensions and distorted views that we have of one another can be eroded. A network of compassionate cities could be a powerful force.

Bruce: In the field of conflict transformation, there’s the notion that, as a precursor to reconciliation between divided societies, a formal apology can be an important first step. What are your thoughts on apologies as necessary steps toward creating more compassionate cultures?

Armstrong: There is a real need for acknowledgement – an apology that acknowledges and demonstrates guilt. I think that is a good idea, but it has to be followed up with consistent action. In the Middle East, we British went in and transformed their societies forever – put in rulers that had no legitimacy among the people and then extracted all their resources. The terrorism we are seeing is largely a result of that massive disruption and dispossession – of people being shunted out of their homes in India, Pakistan, Israel, and Palestine. The point is that the damage has been done and an apology alone won’t set it right; one also has to recognize the irrevocability of what we’ve done.

Bruce: In your personal life, what challenges you most in striving to live more compassionately?

Armstrong: For me, the most challenging part is to constantly be talking to people.

Heidi: My apologies!

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