By Eric Stetson — December 30, 2008
(Note: In 2008, interfaith religious scholar Karen Armstrong launched a project to create a document called the The Charter for Compassion. People from around the world were invited to submit their own suggested text on specific topics. The text below was submitted by Eric Stetson, and is published here for the first time.)
In a time of turmoil for the world and its peoples; in a time of unprecedented challenges facing both humanity and the planet on which we live; in a time when the very survival of the human race may be at stake — now is the time for people of all faiths to look within the heart of their respective religious traditions to find the common spirit of compassion that animates the soul of that unique creature who has been brought forth upon this earth in the very image and likeness of the Divine: that billions may come together as one, celebrating our common origin in the Source of All Being and seeing one another as brothers and sisters, all children of that Heavenly Parent who has created us to love, serve, respect, and strive to understand one another, not do battle against one another. It is for this noble and necessary purpose that we, both despite and because of our great diversity of religious faith, national origin, ethnic background, and so many other distinguishing features that throughout history have far too often divided human beings one from another, at this urgent time seek unity in the understanding that the power of compassion is greater than the power of fear and hate; that the power to build a world based on compassion rests in the hands of every person; that it is our responsibility to act accordingly — and do issue this Charter of Compassion to signal the dawn of a new vision for human civilization.
Compassion as Empathy Not Pity
The true meaning of compassion and its power derives from the hidden truth that the distinction between Self and Other is an illusory one, that All are One as seen from the ultimate perspective of the Ancient and Everlasting Eye of Reality. Though we may perceive ourselves as separated beings whose individual wellbeing depends only on one’s own isolated happiness, this is the Great Lie that stands ever in opposition to Divine Truth. The challenge of life on earth is to become liberated from the limitations, delusions, and terrible suffering that arises from the false assumption of our separation and division from one another; and to grow into the heavenly understanding of our inherent connection, interdependence, and responsibility toward one another, which enables us to secure our own happiness as we strive to create happiness for others, and thus to rise into the station of reunion with our innermost spiritual nature and potential. Compassion is not a grudging or condescending pity for those who do not conform to our own individual standards, norms, beliefs and assumptions, or those of our particular religious faith, about the “correct” way to think, feel, live and be; rather it is the ability to empathize with others, to put ourselves in each other’s shoes as the Divine Spirit walks in the lives of us all: the recognition that all others are worthy of love, care, respect and freedom as we are ourselves.
Compassion as Concrete Action
Inasmuch as the Divine Being is the greatest Actor on the stage of reality, and human beings are created in the divine image to manifest the divine attributes, each and every one of us is called to act, not just think, feel or believe. We are called to act according to our true spiritual nature: the nature of the One whose Love overflowed so powerfully that It could not be contained within Itself, but found Itself expressing Itself and reflecting Itself and revealing Itself and experiencing Itself in the overwhelming beauty of a myriad of forms of life and in the hearts of humankind. The love of God for all creation cannot be fully comprehended; but we can glimpse and know a tiny portion of its magnitude whenever we act out of love for fellow beings whose journey intersects with our own. True compassion is to act as the All-Merciful would act, in whatever spheres of life we have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world — to love and be loved, forgive and be forgiven, offer a helping hand to those in need and be willing to accept help from others whenever and in whatever way each one of us needs it.
Compassion as a Lens for Scripture
It is possible to interpret religious texts in nearly any way we desire: either to emphasize fear and division and the narrow gate of salvation, or unconditional love and acceptance of others regardless of where they are on the path of life and faith. In every holy book, we can find verses that have rained forth from the Clouds of Heavenly Bounty and bubbled up from the Wellspring of the Spirit within the prophetic heart — timeless, wondrous verses which empower us to broaden our vision beyond the confines of self and apologetic disputation; — and we can also find verses that have troubled millions of sincere souls, which have been made an excuse for swords to be swung, guns to be fired and bombs to be detonated in the name of a god of cold and unforgiving doctrine. Let us choose to focus on the golden thread of compassion that runs through the heart of all the divine scriptures; let us choose to downplay our religious differences to the extent possible, or at least to respect each other’s right to believe according to individual conscience, acknowledging the uncertainty we all share about the unknowable totality of truth. Let our scriptures not be shackles and chains to bind us in hatred and division against each other, but keys to unlock the doors of compassion, as we view the words we hold sacred through the lens of God’s universal love and compassion and the Golden Rule of compassionate behavior among human beings which is found in every great scriptural tradition.
Compassion’s Role as a Spiritual Tool and Its Relation to Belief
Sages of all faiths have taught that if we have not love and mercy, we are nothing — that even should we know all divine truth, what matters infinitely more is that we practice its most essential principle: compassion for other creatures God has created. Many religious adherents throughout history and in the present day tragically have clung too tightly to doctrinal beliefs and not embraced their fellow human beings tightly enough. If we seek to ascend to the highest level of spirituality, we must value people over beliefs; and we must be willing to show true compassion even to those who disagree with us — yes, even to those who hate us! — for it is precisely by doing this that we may transform hardened hearts and thus transform the world. The fine instrument of compassion is a much more powerful tool than the blunt force of doctrinal argumentation, because even the most well-articulated beliefs mean nothing in the absence of love.
Compassion as Fundamental to All Faiths
The foundation of all the great faiths is the belief in a Divine Being or Spiritual Reality that values and encourages our wellbeing. The Source is not remote, uncaring and tyrannical, but an Abiding Presence in our lives and our world that shall reward the just and is inclined to show mercy to those who go astray. Though the differences of belief and practice between the various religions are many and cannot be ignored, we must recognize that our religions are about compassion at the core: the compassion of God or the Heavenly Realm for a fallen or suffering humanity, and the commandment that humans show compassion to each other as the way to alleviate suffering and rise to a higher, more humane and more divine state of being. All other aspects of religion are secondary to this central and universal truth.
Compassion as an Urgent Global Need
The most urgent and important choice humanity faces today is whether to allow the voices of faith-based hatred and divisiveness to dominate our world, or whether to put aside our differences and unite in the universal understanding that compassion for all trumps a proud religious “victory” for some. Life is not a zero sum game: when we all love one another for our common humanity and treat each other with compassion, the whole world wins; but when we hate and fight against one another for religious reasons, the whole world loses. This is especially true in this uniquely dangerous age of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction — a time when the world seems smaller than ever before even as our problems are the largest they have ever been. Our world cannot endure another century reaping the whirlwind of angry religious exclusivism without seeing the field of our lives and our planet thoroughly destroyed in the process; but if we unite in true spiritual compassion even though we may disagree on religious doctrine, the 21st century can become a time of unprecedented healing and rebirth for humankind.
Compassion as Concern for Everybody
Let it be affirmed by all: that there is no one who is unworthy of love; that there is no one who is unworthy of care; that there is no one who is unworthy of forgiveness; that there is no one who is unworthy of peace and happiness. Let it be practiced by all: that we shall strive to show love to everyone; that we shall strive to care for everyone; that we shall strive to forgive everyone; that we shall strive to create a world of peace and the pursuit of happiness for everyone. Let us all regard these things as the practical purposes of religion and the spiritual meaning of life itself. If even one person is forgotten, rejected, or left behind, then we all have failed in our sacred duty as human beings — for to extend compassion to the least of our brothers and sisters in the human family is to embody the Most Great Spirit from which we all came into being.
Compassion and the Golden Rule
Even should we amass all the physical gold in the earth, we have gained nothing if we have not acquired and spent the spiritual gold of heaven. The substance of this spiritual currency is compassion: to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. All the great religions have affirmed the value of this Golden Rule, the standard by which all human behavior is measured and accounted in the Divine Book of Life. Let the priceless and eternal riches of this Currency of Compassion abound and multiply in the hearts and lives of everyone; and may it be shared freely, for we purchase our own happiness by giving it to others.
Teachers, professors, and other educators have the power to shape the minds of the future, and thus play a crucial role in determining the course that civilization will take. In order to fulfill their role in a positive and beneficial way, it is the responsibility of educators to:
- Teach their students to respect all human beings and treat all with compassion, as they themselves would wish to be treated.
- Encourage their students to learn about and explore other cultures, traditions, and religions besides their own, with the goal of attaining a mature understanding of the rich diversity of human lifestyles and beliefs.
- Develop and use textbooks and teaching materials that foster the values of inclusiveness and open-mindedness, and discard books and materials that present inaccurate, outdated, biased, or narrow-minded views of other religions, cultures, and peoples.
Scholars of religion, philosophy, history, and many other fields make great contributions to the advancement of knowledge and may influence the way that both public figures and ordinary people think about their subjects of study. This being the case, it is the responsibility of scholars to:
- Do research and write articles and books on the connections between the world’s religions, the universal spiritual values such as love and compassion which transcend boundaries of doctrine and tradition, and the possibilities for meaningful interfaith dialogue and reconciliation.
- Come together in scholarly conferences and other venues where differences of thinking may be respectfully discussed and common ground may be discovered, and encourage religious leaders to participate in or observe such discussions so that this spirit may carry over into their ministries.
- Challenge and rebut the arguments of religious scholars and leaders who promote biased, ill-informed, or hate-filled interpretations of religion and religious scriptures.
Members of religious congregations are the human foundation of all religions. No matter how high and noble the principles of any religion may be, they are worthless if not applied in real life by real people. Therefore, it is the sacred responsibility of congregants of all religious faiths, denominations and traditions to:
- Act upon the teachings of their religious leaders when they urge compassionate, loving and merciful behavior toward fellow human beings.
- Encourage their religious leaders to invite all types of people into the congregation and embrace them with love, even if they do not fit the profile of most of the members and may be difficult for some to accept as an equal.
- Leave or refuse to support religious congregations that are led by intolerant and fanatical preachers, and seek out other congregations to attend and support which are based on the values of mutual respect, understanding, and compassion for all.
Religious leaders of all faiths, all over the world, have the power to influence large numbers of people, for they are seen by many as a source of divine wisdom and inspiration to action. As such, it is the sacred responsibility of the world’s religious leaders to:
- Emphasize the teachings of their respective faiths that lead to peace, love, respect, and compassion for all people, both by upholding them as general principles of true spirituality and also by enunciating and demonstrating specific examples of how individuals may follow and apply these teachings.
- Develop effective strategies and methods to counter the arguments and influence of religious extremists who teach hatred for people who do not share their beliefs.
- Speak out forcefully and courageously against the use of violence and terror in the name of God or religion, not only after such acts are committed but also beforehand, in an attempt to prevent their occurrence.
Journalists, writers, editors, artists, filmmakers, radio and television personalities, and others in the media are the gatekeepers of public discourse and have great power to shape public opinion. As such, it is their responsibility to:
- Report on benevolent and compassionate actions by religious people and institutions, so that everyone will know that religion is serving a positive purpose in the world and is not primarily a source of intolerance, hatred, violence and conflict.
- Give a wider and more potent voice to religious leaders, movements and organizations that are promoting the values of peace, love and compassion for all, interfaith understanding and reconciliation.
- Investigate and expose dangerous religious leaders, movements and organizations that are undermining the wellbeing of society and doing damage to people’s lives by teaching hate and attempting to divide, segregate, and alienate people along doctrinal lines, so that people will know to avoid these individuals and groups.
Young people embody the future of our world. Their ideas, values, and actions will become the basis for the next phase of the human journey on planet earth. This being the case, it is the responsibility of today’s youth to:
- Actively support existing movements and organizations that are promoting peace, love, respect, and compassion for all human beings, including religious congregations, interfaith charities and non-profit groups.
- Create and lead new movements, organizations, and projects to promote these values in ways that will strongly resonate with the younger generation and utilize the unique tools of 21st century information technology.
- Help to educate their elders about the importance of moving beyond old attitudes that have needlessly divided people and alienated people from one another because of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, and other distinguishing features.
There are millions of people around the world who profess no religious faith. Nonreligious people such as atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists are equally capable of compassionate and morally exemplary conduct as are religious adherents. In recognition of this fact, it is the responsibility of nonreligious people to:
- Look with a charitable eye on those who are religious, and be willing to see the potential for good in religious faith.
- Encourage people of faith to focus on universal moral principles such as the Golden Rule, which transcend specific religious beliefs.
- Work together with people of faith to promote the values of peace, love, respect and compassion for all human beings, regardless of their belief or nonbelief in a deity or religious tradition.
People of financial means have tremendous power to affect the world, either for good or for ill, by using their wealth to fund the activities of organizations and individuals. As such, it is the responsibility of wealthy people to:
- Act as generous benefactors to those who are working to spread peace, love, mutual respect and compassion, including charities, humanitarian projects, religious leaders and organizations, and other people and groups that espouse and practice these universal, world-healing values.
- Tell wealthy friends, relations and associates about such worthy individuals, projects and organizations, and encourage them to contribute financial support.
- Deny funding to any person or group that is teaching hatred, causing fruitless division, or in any other way acting contrary to the spirit of compassion and universal love.
Governments and Corporations
Major institutions such as governments and corporations create the fabric of our social order and set the tone for people’s behavior through their laws, regulations, policies and activities. These essential and extremely powerful institutions may encourage universal respect and compassion, or may cause people to see each other as adversaries, polarized groups, and objects for exploitation. Therefore, it is the responsibility of governmental and corporate entities to:
- Affirm, uphold and protect the inherent worth and dignity of every human being and everyone’s basic human rights and freedoms.
- Exist for the purpose of securing a peaceful life and a better standard of living for all, not for the special benefit of leaders, the wealthy and the powerful.
- Foster the development of a social contract based on compassion, caring, and the promotion of the general good.
We, the undersigned, present this Charter for Compassion to the world and all its people as a bold call to action. Let all who sign this document and all who read it have the courage, conviction, and discipline to act in its spirit and in furtherance of its goals. Many inspirational words have been written throughout history, but not all have abounded in fruitful results. May the words of this Charter inspire us to live according to our highest calling: to love one another, come together and work together as one to create a better world for ourselves and for posterity — that the fruit of the tree of the oneness of humanity may be tasted by all and enjoyed by all forever and always. Amen.