Far-Reaching Implications of the Charter for Compassion

“The Charter for Compassion is a summons to action, not just a feel-good thing,” British scholar Karen Armstrong stated at a press conference on November 12, 2009.

The charter she was referring to is a short but powerful 312-word document crafted by people from all nationalities, beliefs, and backgrounds with the intent to bring compassion back into the heart of society.{loadposition bottom}

A year and a half earlier, Armstrong, author of A History of God and Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World and The Case for God, had won the TED* prize. She used her acceptance speech to launch the notion of a charter for compassion and to elicit help to create it.

Her ideal is for “compassion” to become “a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt ~ be it religious or secular ~ has failed the test of our time,” the charter states.

To get things moving, Armstrong convened a ‘Council of Conscience,’ composed of religious scholars and leaders. This group initially drew mostly from representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Later the council was expanded to represent other religions and leading figures from humanitarian groups, and is now called the Global Compassion Council.

The council constructed a web site with some preliminary ideas for the charter and invited people from around the world to leave comments on what the final charter should include. The council received thousands of comments that it used in the final draft.

Since the official release of the charter, the web site now asks individuals and organizations to register and then to affirm the charter. In less than a month, 30,000 affirmations were registered. Affirmers of the charter come from all over the world; the web site supports seven different languages.

Among the luminaries that affirmed the Charter for Compassion are Archbishop Desmond Tutu; HH the Dalai Lama; Queen Noor of Jordan; Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt; Candido Mendes, Brazilian peace scholar; Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams; Deepak Chopra; Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, actor Meg Ryan, South African singer Vusi Mahlasela; and Salman Ahmad, Pakistani singer, actor, and AIDS activist.

The Charter for Compassion web site also invites other organizations to join as “partners.” These partners promise to support the charter and link to it on their web sites (as does CompassionatePolitics.org), and the charter site lists their names. Already 123 organizational partners from all over the world have been approved.

The charter’s ability to inspire many disparate groups and individuals so quickly may be that it emphasizes what we all have in common-the Golden Rule: “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves…[I]n our divided world, compassion can build common ground.”

When first read, the Charter for Compassion can seem like simply one long definition of compassion. But with careful reading, 15 distinct statements emerge as imperatives for a life lived with compassion.

At the heart of the Charter for Compassions stands the Golden Rule, which may be why it has inspired so many disparate groups and individuals so quickly. “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves…[I]n our divided world, compassion can build common ground.”

Alleviating suffering is the principal goal of compassion. That priority comes through loud and clear in this sentence: “Work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures.” This obligation acknowledges that generosity with one’s time and effort is an essential part of compassion.

Empathy generally is considered a core component of compassion. Two requirements in the Charter explicitly call for empathic action: First, “Refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain;” and second, “Cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.” The latter requirement is a call to forgive one’s enemies and those doing harm.

The word “selflessness” does not appear in the charter, but the concept is a major component of compassion. In the charter, it is emphasized by two words: “Transcend selfishness.” The same idea is captured in the imperative to: “Dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.”

The following principle from the Charter for Compassion makes humanitarianism a major component of compassionate action: “Honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being. Treat everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” Notice that justice, equity, and respect were given great prominence. While “responsibility” was not mentioned, most of the imperatives seem to depend upon social responsibility as the rationale underlying the charter.

Nonviolence and peacefulness. At least two of the imperatives suggest that intentional violence is totally unacceptable. This is how they are stated in the Charter for Compassion. “Avoid acting or speaking violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest…Return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred, or disdain is illegitimate.”

Responsibility and human rights. The following imperative: “Avoid exploiting or denying basic rights to anybody,” explicitly addresses human rights. While not explicit, social responsibility seems to provide the ethical foundation for this imperative to honor human rights.

Kindness. One of the charter’s imperatives addresses the implications of kindness: “Avoid inciting hatred by denigrating others.” Again, the implicit rationale for kindness seems to be social responsibility.

Wisdom is sometimes considered a component of compassion because it is integral to making compassion-related decisions. The following two imperatives support that notion: “Ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions, and cultures,” and “Encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity.”

Call to Action. Underlying the final three imperatives appears to be a plea for treating compassion as a way of life. The following requirement: “Acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately,” implies that compassion is a matter of morality and integrity. The next imperative in this category explicitly argues for making compassion more central in both morality and religion: “Restore compassion to the center of morality and religion.” Finally, compassion is offered as human activity that would humanize and otherwise improve relationships across the globe: “Make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.”

These imperatives commit those who seek to be compassionate to a long list of actions including not only the Golden Rule, but pacts to alleviate suffering, cultivate empathy, transcend selfishness, become a humanitarian, adopt a personal policy of non-violence, shoulder responsibility, pursue kindness rather than denigrating others, develop wisdom to guide all decisions, and finally, to help make compassion a powerful force around the world.

We probably will never know what aspects of compassion were discussed but left out. I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on generosity, responsibility, forgiveness, integrity, and self-compassion.

Generosity, responsibility, and forgiveness are hidden between the lines of the charter’s text, but for those of us living in a culture of self-centered consumption, they are easy to ignore. Without integrity, it is impossible stay on the path of authentic compassion. And the compassion for others cannot last long without self-compassion.

While these are important aspects of compassionate living, we should assume that their omission is mostly a consequence of the desire to reach consensus and keep the charter brief. Most importantly, the Charter for Compassion gives prominence to a call to action for people around the world. It is ambitious, but deserves all the support that we can give.

* TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It’s an annual conference which brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes). TED.com offers the best talks and performances for free to the public. The TED Prize is designed to leverage the TED community’s exceptional array of talent and resources and is awarded annually to three exceptional individuals who each receive $100,000 and, more importantly, the opportunity to introduce their “One Wish to Change the World.”
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