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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?

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Armstrong: [Laughs]. I’m solitary by nature. I live alone and I’m a sort of hermit. Normally, I write, but that’s had to go to a large extent. I seem to be able to speak easily when I get on a platform; I feel like a weary old circus horse that hears the music, smells the sawdust, and starts prancing around and recovers its energy. But it is challenging not to get cross and snap at people when I travel around so much. That is hard. Also, I get quite a lot of abuse – some very ugly since September 11th. That’s when I have to remind myself of the Golden Rule and what it’s like for people who are continuously exposed to this kind of defamation. 

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Bruce: What are some of the sources of abuse that you just mentioned?

Armstrong: It’s from people who don’t like Muslims. I was speaking to someone in the US State Department whose mandate is to look at anti-Semitism around the world; yet what worries her most is rising Islamaphobia. We’re seeing exactly the same mechanism of mythology that was used against Jews. This is very ugly and worrying for our societies because it’s corrosive; it’s a gift to the extremists because it plays right into their hands. It also corrodes our spirit because it goes against everything we’re supposed to stand for in terms of tolerance.

Bruce: When people talk about the negative impacts of globalization, themes that often emerge are scale and pace. Do you feel that the tenets of the charter are more challenging to implement now than they were perhaps a hundred years ago?

Armstrong: Certainly great harm has been done in the past 100 years; two major world wars, nuclear weapons, massive displacement of peoples – it was a terrible century. But on the other hand we’ve got new ways to communicate, including social media, which is really how the charter’s operating a lot of the time. This string draws us together in a way that we weren’t all together before. We’ve created a global market where we are all connected, whether we like it or not. Poverty over there will redound on our own economies. We’re all involved.

But we can’t expect quick results; otherwise they’re going to be superficial. People in the west are not good with tha – we want things turned around fast. It will be hard work. Compassion is hard work.

• Heidi Bruce wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonproifit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Heidi is a YES! Intern.

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

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