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Wishing for compassion

WHAT would you do if you were granted one wish to change the world?

Many of us associate wishes with the imaginary world of fairy tales or fiction.

For religious scholar Karen Armstrong, her wish stems from a relentless imagination for a less violent and more compassionate world. With the help of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), something is being done to make her wish come true.

TED screencap, Karen Armstrong
Armstrong is also one of the TED speakers

Armstrong’s wish is to invite people from all walks of life, faiths, and ideologies to get online and be part of a global effort to craft a Charter for Compassion. The goal of this project, kicked off on 14 Nov 2008, is to encourage the recognition that despite their differences, all faiths and humanity in general share something in common. And that is the principle of compassion, reflected in what is traditionally known as the Golden Rule to some. Or, if you are more secularly inclined, the ethic of reciprocity.

Found in probably over 20 different belief systems, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism, it basically exhorts you to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Or, do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.

In the introduction video on the Charter for Compassion website, Armstrong explains why she and her colleagues initiated the project. “A militant kind of aggressive religiosity, sometimes called fundamentalism, has grown out of every single one of the major world traditions, as a rebellion against the imbalanced world, a rebellion against humiliation, powerlessness … There’s a sense of rage expressed in religious terms,” she says.

U2′s lead singer Bono wanted to inspire activism for Africa
Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who has written prolifically about Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and their effects on world socio-political events. She argues that there is a need to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat other nations and peoples as we would want to be treated ourselves.

“I want people to hear the compassionate voice of religion but I want to change the conversation and bring compassion to the forefront of people’s attention,” she says.

According to the website, the charter aims “to show that the voice of negativity and violence so often associated with religion is the minority and that the voice of compassion is the majority”.

Thoughts on compassion, and Sarah Palin

The online project allows grassroots participation from all over the world.

“The world will be invited to make their own contributions, make their own comments, tell their own stories about compassion or the lack of it,” Armstrong says.

The website is open for contributions over the next months. Excerpts of some of the views sent in so far:

“As a humane educator, I have come to see that compassion is the ability to feel empathy for self and others … and the capacity to act in ways that recognise others’ pain, without necessarily feeling compelled to take it away from them … This transcends religion and faith. That means that each person must be willing to take responsibility for their own self-knowledge and to have compassion for their limitations.” (Bonnie Hale, 16 Nov 2008)

“The basis for compassion is the acknowledgment that all people are of equal value, that we are brothers and sisters.” (Maureen Perron, 17 Nov 2008)

“I agree with one person’s idea written on this page as it was very close to what I wanted to share. I believe that to be compassionate is a choice [emphasis mine] and not an obligation, or a commandment, or a responsibility, or any other form of compulsion that can be imposed on man.” (John Filler, 17 Nov 2008)

Occasionally, someone would stray off topic. “I think Sarah Palin is hot! A cute face and a cute butt! Plus she can kill a dear at 400 yards.” (Max Rommel, 16 Nov 2008)

Clockwise from top left: Chittister,
Campbell, Tariq, Soetendorp, Neuberger,
Ali, Chandra, Tutu

A Council of Sages has been appointed to go through these contributions and put together the final version of the charter, which is expected to be endorsed by religious leaders at a launch event later.

The council currently comprises eight religious thinkers and leaders from different faiths and nations. President of the International Movement for a Just World, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, from Malaysia, is on the council.

His colleagues include: Ali S Asani, professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture at Harvard University; the Reverend Dr Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion at the Chautauqua Institution; Reverend Dr Joan Chittister, co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a United Nations partner organisation; Baroness Julia Neuberger, who became a rabbi and served the South London Liberal Synagogue for 12 years and is the author of several books on Judaism, women and healthcare ethics; Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford and a visiting professor at Erasmus University in the Netherlands; Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, rabbi of the Reform Jewish Community of The Hague and the Union of Dutch Reform Jewish Communities; and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Technology, Entertainment, Design

Armstrong is getting her wish thanks to TED, an organisation which began as a conference in 1984 bringing together people who worked with technology, entertainment, or design. The conference has since become an annual affair, drawing the likes of Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Isabel Allende, as speakers.

The annual TED Prize is given out to three individuals, who receive US$100,000 and are granted one wish each to change the world. TED helps to make the wish come true, usually by collaborating with other partners. Besides Armstrong, who won the prize in 2008, some past recipients include photojournalist James Nachtwey and musician Bono.

Nachtwey screencap
Nachtwey’s photographs on the impact of XDRTB, an extremely drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (source:

Nachtwey, a recipient in 2007, wished to share his photographs in a campaign to stop the spread of XDR-TB, a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis. Bono, who received the prize in 2005, wished to build a social movement of more than a million American activists for Africa.

It’s not easy to measure or quantify just how successful or effective such efforts are. But perhaps the more important thing is, at least something is being done to try to raise awareness or provide solutions. It’s better than not doing anything at all.

Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.

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