Karen Armstrong began her recent talk at the New York Public Library by illustrating the centrality of the Golden Rule in the Abrahamic faiths with a traditional story of Rabbi Hillel.
When asked by a Gentile to explain the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot, the rabbi readily assented and gave the response, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is just commentary. Now go and learn."
With a new book, 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong continues her efforts to work toward a world that honors this great idea.
Nearly three years ago, in February of 2008, Karen Armstrong was awarded the TED Prize for her comprehensive scholarship of world religions and her groundbreaking work in interfaith understanding. Granted the opportunity to fulfill one wish, Armstrong asked the organization to help her, "Create, launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion, crafted by a group of leading inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect."
While Armstrong did not know exactly what this charter would say, she knew her study of the world's religious traditions had revealed a common thread that emphasized selflessness, empathy and community. Literally every single religion supported a core value that was commonly known as the Golden Rule: treat others in the way you would like to be treated. In a single word: compassion. All too frequently, this was and is a thread that has ceased to become the focus of religion. A circumstance is created in which religious believers often act in opposition to the core message of their faiths and nonbelievers vilify religion as the source of many of the world's problems.
A year and a half later, November of 2009, the Charter for Compassion was revealed. The creation process included the contributions of more than 150,000 people around the world who submitted their thoughts online. The ideas were then refined into a final draft by a panel of leading religious thinkers.
Yet the completion of the Charter was just another beginning for Armstrong, who stated in her original TED talk that she wished to "create a movement."
Fast-forward another year to the beginning of 2011. The Charter for Compassion has been affirmed online by more than 64,000 signatories. Seattle has become the first member of the Charter's cities program with several other cities around the world set to join in official support of the Charter's ideals.
A 12-Step Program
Armstrong continues to work dilligently in support of the Charter, traveling the world in order to work with religious institutions, local governments, educational programs and business leaders along with her frequent public speaking engagements. By writing 12 Steps to A Compassionate Life, she has articulated her vision of how the movement toward compassion can be manifest in the daily lives and interpersonal relations of individuals.
On Jan. 11, Armstrong appeared at the New York Public Library in conjunction with their Three Faiths exhibition to talk about this latest work and its role in her vision of a more compassionate world. (A complete video of her talk is now available here.)
The concept behind the book and the usage of the "12 Step" format is an intentional nod to the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous program for recovery from addiction, she told the crowd. This is because, in many ways, acting selfishly and with prejudice is an addiction. By affirming one's own beliefs, choices or status and degrading the "other," we get a buzz of sorts -- a buzz that is in direct contradiction with the spirit of the Golden Rule.
12 Steps to A Compassionate Life proceeds to break down the barriers to living compassionately in a way that forces readers into a brutally honest self-examination. In the introduction, Armstrong warns readers that the process will not be easy and reorienting oneself to living compassionately is not like a television makeover show in which a subject is radically transformed in a matter of a few days.
She made a key clarification to the audience at the library when she explained that our modern understanding and usage of the word "compassion" is frequently watered down to merely mean feeling pity and sadness at the suffering of others. In fact, the Latin etymology of the word, com pati, means "to suffer with": to actively participate and share in the suffering of others.
Reiterating an idea that she touched on in her acceptance of the TED Prize, Armstrong stated that compassion, living according to the Golden Rule, requires "removing oneself from the center of existence and placing others in that spot."
Of course, one of the major challenges for Armstrong is convincing people who have religious ideas that are vastly different on the surface that their core beliefs are actually quite similar. Despite the ever-shrinking nature of the world, there is widespread hatred that is based purely on misinformation and fear of those who are different. 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life is packed with scriptural examples from every major tradition to reinforce Armstrong's major premise; that the Golden Rule is universal.
Even with an expansive knowledge of world religions, Armstrong recognizes that there will always be people and things that cannot be understood. Thus, a major component of the "12 Steps" is to recognize and accept the limits of one's own ideas and knowledge. Individual steps with names like "Look at Your Own World," "Mindfulness," "How Little We Know" and "Knowledge" hammer home the importance of accepting the fact that no individual possesses absolute wisdom.
This issue is only exacerbated by our current mode of "dialogue," which consists of, as Armstrong says, "bludgeoning" our opponents into submitting to our position. This represents a stark contrast with the Socratic understanding of the method that placed an emphasis on inquiry and exploration in order to further understanding for all parties.
In some ways, the seeking of knowledge can be a religious pursuit unto itself. Asked by a questioner at the event about the current standing of her own religious beliefs, Armstrong replied that she now finds the greatest meaning in her own scholarly quest to explore and understand the world's faith traditions.
Carrying the Charter Forward, Into Pakistan
When I called Armstrong a few days later to talk further about her appearance and discuss the future of the Charter for Compassion, she spoke enthusiastically about three areas in which she and her allies hope to focus their efforts in the coming year: Youth, developing a curriculum for interfaith relations to be used in schools, colleges and places of worship and the expansion of the cities program to garner the support of municipalities around the world.
Her immediate plans include an upcoming trip to Pakistan, a nation to which she has previously visited and possesses great optimism for the implementation of the Charter's tenets.
"What a wonderful thing it would be, to have this message of compassion coming out of a country that is absolutely on the front line of some of our major problems," she told me.
With so much focus on the War on Terror, the conflict with India and the recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the Western media paints a picture of Pakistan as a religiously polarized and hopelessly divided country. According to Armstrong this is far from the case -- a product of poor reporting and a fascination with the rise of fundamentalist Islam by the rest of the world. When Armstrong goes there next month, she will work closely with allies, primarily in the world of business, who are helping to establish mechanisms that will support the central ideas of the Charter, not only within Pakistan but also across the Pakistan-India border.
"Businessmen want peace, whereas politicians, frankly I don't hold that much hope for them," she said. "Businessmen are working as leaders of civil society in the cause of peace between these two countries."
She also spoke at length about the many youth measures that the Charter is now focusing on. The Charter organization is working to develop curriculums to help schools and universities in Pakistan and elsewhere to broach the topic of religion in a fair and respectful way.
To aid in her efforts, Armstrong has adapted 12 Steps and created a specifically Islamic commentary called A Letter to Pakistan. The letter is going to be printed and sold at the lowest cost possible by Oxford University Press to enable widespread distribution and, keeping in line with her own assertion that a dialogue must be an exploration rather than a lecture, includes responses from Pakistani imams.
She described this work by saying, "The conversation is beginning. It's not that I am dictating 'here is what you must say.' This is something just to start the ball rolling."
By far the most amazing takeaway from 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, and by extension Karen Armstrong, is the enduring optimism of the message. Here is someone who knows more about the history of the world's religions than just about anyone else on the planet, and she is working tirelessly to emphasize the innate goodness of those traditions. In the face of governments and countries that are plagued by a seemingly hopeless cycle of conflict and intolerance, Armstrong reminds us that religion is a deeply individual pursuit. A pursuit that, regardless of tradition or beliefs, can include dedicating oneself to the core value of religion -- the lesson of Rabbi Hillel.