- guardian.co.uk, Friday November 14 2008 14.30 GMT
The practice of compassion is central to every one of the major world religions – but sometimes you would never know it. Instead, religion is associated with violence, intolerance and seems more preoccupied by dogmatic or sexual orthodoxy.
People don’t even seem to know what compassion is; they imagine that it means to feel pity for somebody, whereas the root meaning of this Greco-Latin world is “to feel with” the other, realising at a profound level that we share the same human predicament. This is crucial at a time when we are bound together – politically, economically, and electronically – as never before but have rarely been more perilously divided.
This is why we have launched a Charter for Compassion. During the next few days, millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims worldwide will be invited to comment, stage by stage, on a draft Charter on a multilingual website. Later, a council of inspirational thinkers representing the different faiths will examine their findings and write the final version. Finally, there will be a large signing ceremony.
The charter will not just be a statement of intent, but will call for practical action: asking preachers, for example, to emphasise the importance of good interfaith relations; calling upon scholars to examine the difficult passages of their scriptures, and asking educators to find ways of presenting compassion to the young as a dynamic, attractive ideal.
Why is this important? Because the religions should be making a major contribution to what must be the chief task of our day: to build a global community where all peoples can live together in mutual respect and where the powerful do not treat other nations as they would not wish to be treated themselves. If we do not achieve this, it is unlikely that we will have a viable world to hand on to the next generation. Any ideology – religious or secular – that breeds hatred and disdain for others is failing the test of our time.
The first person to formulate what has become known as the Golden Rule was Confucius: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” It was, he said, the central thread that ran through all his teaching and should be practised “all day and every day”.
It requires us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain and refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Every single one of the major faiths has developed its own version of the Golden Rule and has insisted that it is the prime religious duty.
“My religion is kindness,” says the Dalai Lama; faith that moves mountains is worthless without charity, said St Paul; the Golden Rule was the essence of Torah, said Rabbi Hillel: everything else was “only commentary”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is not a doctrine but a summons to build a just and decent society where there is a fair distribution of wealth and vulnerable people are treated with absolute respect.
The religions also insist that it is not sufficient to confine your compassion to your own group. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called jian ai, “concern for everybody” – honouring the stranger and loving your enemies.
Why, then, do we hear so little about compassion from the religious? Because whether they are religious or secular, people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Certainly the religious traditions have a deeply intransigent strain. But we have a choice. We can either emphasise this intolerance, as extremists and fundamentalists do, or we can make a concerted effort to make the compassionate voice of religion audible in our troubled world.
Do we need God and/or religion to be compassionate? Of course not. That is why we hope that atheists and agnostics, instead of berating religion (a policy that, as history shows, tends to make religious movements more extreme), will also sign up to the charter, working alongside the religious for a more compassionate world.