Karen Armstrong is a scholar of comparative religion whose study of the world's sacred traditions has led her to identify the Golden Rule--do unto others as you would have them do to you--as the essential message of all scripture. This philosophy, first articulated by Confucius centuries before Jesus, is at the heart of what Armstrong calls the ideal of compassion, and as such, humanity's search for the divine. In 2008, Armstrong established the Charter for Compassion, a declaration of "absolute justice, equality, and respect" prepared by a council of multi-faith religious thinkers and leaders. (A Charter for Compassion button is in the sidebar of this page.) She was interviewed by Bill Moyers, on the much-missed "Bill Moyer's Journal," on March 13, 2009.
Bill Moyers: What is it that evokes the empathy--and the commitment, which you’re calling for--[in] people to put themselves in other’s shoes. What is it that evokes that in people?
Karen Armstrong: Basically, a sense of urgent need. If we don’t manage to do better than this, both in our own communities, our own nations, and as regards other nations far away, then I think we are in for a very troublesome ride. We’re not doing well at the moment.
Let us remember the primal duty of compassion.
The words com-passio mean "to feel with the other," "to experience with the other"— do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you. . . . As Confucius said, who was the first to propound the Golden Rule five hundred years before Christ, "You seek to establish yourself? Then seek to establish others" . . . seek to practice the Golden Rule "all day and every day." You constantly have to dethrone your ideas from the center of your world and put another there, and realize that even in the most unlikely person there is a trace of the divine.”
The human race has never embraced compassion. Why did we create this compassionate ideal, when all the world’s great religions were created? Because societies had reached a point of violence and the religious people said – people like the Buddha, Confucius, the sages of the Upanishads, the prophets of Israel, Socrates – they all said, this aggression, even in a good cause, is not the way to go. And people found that when they did it, all day and every day, it worked, because when you get rid of ego, it does bring you a sense of enlightenment. But it’s not just a question of holding hands in church, or embracing when you make the peace . . . it is a discipline you have to practice all day and every day.
I used, you know, to be a really spiteful human being. I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors and also from my teachers at Oxford. People used to say to me, "I’d really hate to be your enemy," because I had a really sharp tongue and I knew how to use it. I’d get in there first before someone put me down, that sort of thing. I found that in my studies, I had to practice what I found called in a footnote "the science of compassion." It was a phrase coined by a great Islamist Louis Massignon. Science not in the sense of physics or chemistry, but science in the sense of knowledge, sceintia, the Latin word for knowledge. The knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other; putting yourself in the position of the other.
This footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post-Enlightenment rationalism. You mustn’t look on this in a superior way, and look at the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century text, as "poor soul." You had to recreate in a scholarly way all the circumstances that had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching, and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself . . . feeling the same. So when I wrote about Mohammed, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of 7th-century Arabia who sincerely believed he had been touched by God. Unless I did that I would miss Mohammed. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford-educated Karen, on the back burner, and go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn’t any longer be quite as vicious as I was, or dismissive as I was, in clever conversation.