The theme of the season was on offer two nights ago, December 7, with a lecture on “The Core of Religion” by Karen Armstrong at the annual Sir Francis Younghusband Lecture of the World Congress of Faiths. Speaking at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood, London, the former nun and author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and A History of God, as well as many other books, spoke on compassion and the Golden Rule as being at the core of religion and how nothing will change in the world until people truly integrate these ideas into their lives.
Upon winning the TED Prize in 2008, Armstrong used her prize “wish” to form the Charter for Compassion. The Charter is a document that has now been signed by thousands of people around the world and is designed to “transcend religious, ideological, and national differences.” The goal is to build a more compassionate world through activating the Golden Rule throughout the world, encouraging people to learn more about compassion in their own traditions and to apply it to their interactions with others and to themselves.
Armstrong suggested that religion has been mistaken for creed throughout the world. Instead of simply adhering to a set of particular rules, religion should be a transformative experience. It is easy she said, to do one good deed a day. But that is not enough. Every day, all day, the Golden Rule requires that we live toward a deeper truth; every moment is an opportunity to practice compassion. Compassion does not mean ‘pity.’ Compassion should not be understood, she said, as a feeling, but rather as a behavior that is meant to make a better world. This is the essence of the Golden Rule, however you phrase it: ‘Do unto others that which you would have done unto you’ (Jesus) or ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to another’ (Hillel).
Discussing some points from her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong said the title refers to the “twelve step” process used to treat addiction, because we are addicted to our own hatreds. We hold onto prejudice and bitterness globally, and therefore the world cannot move beyond war and suffering.
Nor do we really listen to each other. We demand, she said, complexity in 10 words or less, which means we know very little of how other people think, what their motivations are. We hold forth about the motivations of others without truly understanding anything about them. Socrates, she said, knew he was wise when he realized he knew nothing at all. Armstrong believes that the lack of dialogue means people are too often forced into corners. Instead we should give our views gently, and wait for the other to take it in and respond. Quoting St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, she said “Charity is patient, kind, never pumped up. It takes no delight in the wrong-doing of others.”
Examples of compassion are difficult to find in today’s world of terror and war. Perhaps most difficult to relate to is not the idea found in the book of Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself” but the more radical demand of Jesus in the book of Matthew: “Love your enemy.” Armstrong cautioned that this statement is not an excuse for inaction or excusing the crimes of others. Rather it is a way to move beyond disputes; to find a way to see in others their own humanity.
As an example, she referred again to Greek civilization, describing the play The Persians by the great tragedian Aeschylus. One of the core ideas in this play is the love of enemies. The Persians, although eventually defeated by the Greeks, had ransacked Athens, destroying many temples. The Greek public (who were required to attend) would have seen this play staged on the festival of Dionysus, the god of transformation.
On stage the Greeks would not have seen the pain of their own people reenacted, but rather the pain of their enemies, the Persians. In fact, the chorus directs the audience to weep for the Persians as well as for their own failings and for characters who in real life they might find truly odious. In so doing, the people were able to see that they were not alone in experiencing pain. It was not a play gloating over victory or another person’s misfortune. It was a play which demanded seeing the beauty in another, in this case the culture of the Persians, their enemy. We are, Armstrong said, most Human when we see the pain of our enemies.
The talk by Armstrong was attended by representatives of many faiths. Many religious and secular leaders are speaking on this issue today and there are many opportunities for people to learn about compassion. The main message I took away for myself is that if we seek a transformed world, it is necessary to transform oneself. This is a process that begins, paradoxically, with looking outside oneself and seeing the humanity in others. In the season of light, I pray that you find the ‘light’ in others, and that it causes your own light to burn stronger. JL