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Practical Compassion: An Interview with Karen Armstrong

The historian has helped world religions unite behind a single principle. But can a worldwide charter for compassion become more than just a nice idea?
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heart girl by Adriel O. Socrates

In 2008, religious historian Karen Armstrong was granted a wish. She had recently won the TED Prize, which comes with $100,000 and support in making a single “wish to change the world” come true. Armstrong had already identified a fundamental principle that she believed united the spiritual traditions she studied: compassion. She made a wish to work with leaders and adherents the world over to create a Charter for Compassion, an overarching statement of human morality that could unite us all.

Through a web-based platform, thousands of people from over 100 countries contributed to the writing of the charter; a multi-faith, multinational council of thinkers and leaders edited and signed off on the final document. The charter has now been affirmed by more than 85,00 individuals; city governments, civic organizations, schools, and universities throughout the world are seeking creative ways to put its words into action.

But what can the charter really accomplish in a world where religion drives us into rancorous divides at least as often as it unites us? I recently spoke to Karen Armstrong about the politics and practicalities of compassion.


Heidi Bruce: One of the things that YES! Magazine covers is how to better bridge divides between seemingly opposed groups. What role can media play in helping people with very different beliefs engage one another in a productive manner?

Karen Armstrong: I think the media has a huge role to play—and has to take quite a responsibility for some of the more divisive aspects in our culture. I’ve just written a piece in the Globe and Mail about Islamaphobia in Canada, and the hostile comments that came in were ugly and disturbing—sort of fascist-style comments. Very often, the media has portrayed certain sectors of the community through endless reporting on terrorism, ignoring the wider picture. So, there’s a real challenge here to turn that around.

Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories. I don’t want this charter, for example, to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done. If we want to create a viable, peaceful world, we’ve got to integrate compassion into the gritty realities of 21st century life.

I don’t want this charter to degenerate into a sort of club where people exchange compassionate and inspiring stories, because there’s just too much work to be done.

Let’s use our stories to encourage listening to one another and to hear not just the good news, but also the pain that lies at the back of a lot of people’s stories and histories. Pain is something that’s common to human life. When we ignore it, we aren’t engaging in the whole reality, and the pain begins to fester. We need to encourage full storytelling—unless people also talk about the bad things that happen, this is just going to be some superficial feel-good exercise

Bruce: What are some of the more recent practical applications of the charter that have been most inspiring to you?

Armstrong: Pakistan is taking a leadership role in integrating the charter into civic life. This a country right on the edge of the main conflicts that could fill our world—the whole world could implode because of what happens in Pakistan. It’s got Afghanistan and Iran next door, it’s a nuclear power, and it’s had conflict with India since its inception. This is a really explosive situation. And yet the enthusiasm for the charter has been astonishing. I was there in 2011 for the launching of the charter; speaking three times a day, with thousands of people showing up each time. They’re concentrating on education. They’ve created a compassionate character for [the Pakistani version of] Sesame Street; this guy is really cool—not just some simp hanging out with flowers. He’s a positive role model for pre-school children.

On the other side of the Gulf is Jordan, also explosive with Iraq on one side and Israel/Palestine on the other. During Ramadan, people in Jordan and Pakistan ran a web competition where participants were invited to post a compassionate action every day during the holy month. They were only expecting to have a few takers the first year—perhaps ten thousand—but forty thousand people did it every day.

During Ramadan, people in Jordan and Pakistan ran a web competition where participants were invited to post a compassionate action every day during the holy month... forty thousand people did it every day.

I think another interesting fact is that many of the people who have come forward to help me have been businessmen. In Pakistan, for example, a leading business consultant has adapted my book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, as a course for compassionate business. Google is way up in front on this—they recognize that if they treat their employees more compassionately, they get better results. They’ve looked into the abyss of 2008, when selfishness was allowed to run riot and proved disastrous for the economy. This is a very interesting development, a key one, because politicians are not going to be deflected from their course by somebody like me; they listen to business.

Bruce: They certainly do in this country.

Armstrong: They do everywhere now, because the market runs modern society. So that is the way we have to go. Next year in Seattle, for example, we’re going to have a conference on business and compassion.

karen armstrong by Seamus Rainheart

Karen Armstrong at the Compassionate Seattle event April 2010.

Bruce: Are there examples of governments that have officially shown support of the charter?

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.

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 towards 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!

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.

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.

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

Celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden, photo by Andrew BossiI’m Looking for Justice, Not Vengeance
A 9/11 widow on working for peace when the world expects you to want revenge.

Armstrong: It’s from people who don’t like Muslims. I was speaking to someone in the U.S. 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 that—we want things turned around fast. It will be hard work. Compassion is hard work.


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

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