Charter For Compassion – let’s pass the can around
The Kimberley is spectacular and spiritual. However, it’s not a place to get a flat tyre or have any other mechanical failure. I know, I had a flat there in July. Believe me, finding a working jack, an inflated spare and the manual can take on real meaning.
In the course of the next hour, four cars came down this rutted and dusty road. Despite being covered in red dust, oil, blackened by the tyre remains and wielding a large tyre lever, not one of those drivers assumed I was Ivan Milat or Bradley Murdoch. Each pulled up to offer assistance. All courageously took the risk to make sure I was safe. I wondered if we would do this closer to home?
A good friend once told me the story of running out of petrol and being given a full can of petrol by a stranger, whose only request was “refill the can, keep it in your boot and pass it on to someone else.”
A petrol chain letter if you wish.
A mere week later I found myself early for an event in the temple of Evolution at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in England, standing with one of the world’s great religious writers and advocates for compassion, Karen Armstrong. Karen, to my great delight, had also arrived unfashionable early. Karen has written some of the most accessible and insightful works on religion and religious figures including A Short History of Islam, Muhammad, Budda, and A History of the Bible.
It was here, in this temple back in June 1860, where Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement, debated evolution. The good bishop had supported the building of the museum as a place to study “the wonders of God’s creations”. The debate in this magnificent cloistered square under a glass roof, supported by cast iron pillars, was trumpeted as the place the evolutionists fought and won their first battle.
Amongst the bones of dinosaurs and the dodo, I talked to Karen briefly about her work and her project: “Charter for Compassion”.
Like many scientists, I suspect she shares a suspicion of dogma and an insatiable thirst for exploring the unknown.
In her latest book The Case For God she states “one of the conditions of enlightenment has always been to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we never dreamed of. We may have to unlearn a great deal about religion before we can move on to a new understanding.”
She could be a physicist talking about string theory or a neuroscientist taking on Darwin. She has said “that religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”
Her body of work has led her to reflect on compassion, remember me with the flat tyre in the Kimberley, which she says is most clearly expressed in the golden rule, a rule which is common to all the major world faiths. She expresses it as “do not treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself” or more classically “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
She believes it’s time to focus on that unity of faith and on compassion.
That led her to make her wish when she won the TED prize in 2008 that focused on living a life of compassion:
“…the creation, launch and propagation of 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.”
That wish comes true early Friday morning our time when Karen and many other religious leaders unveil the Charter for Compassion to the world at the National Press Club in Washington DC.
The Charter for Compassion is a single document, endorsed by HH the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu among others. It was crafted by people from all walks of life, nationalities, beliefs and backgrounds with the intent to unify, inspire and bring compassion back into the hearts of society. It is meant to remind people to live by the Golden Rule; act toward others as we would want them to act toward us - a tenet that forms the basis of all major religions.
It gives us all (religious or not) pause to reflect on what really compassion means. Is it more than a matter of heart, a mindful commitment to engage one’s whole self in the alleviation of suffering? Does it require us to be more courageous in our lives?
Perhaps we all have to think of compassion in this dynamic and practical way as Karen says: “religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.”
Karen Armstrong is practical and engaging, and I am sure if she was driving in the Kimberley, she would have a spare tyre and can of petrol ready. One thing I do know, on an isolated road in the Kimberley, compassion is alive and well.
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