Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Not Exactly The Manhattan Manifesto

The Manhattan Manifesto certainly has it's adherents, but there is another, kinder, gentler manifesto making it's way around the globe:

The Charter For Compassion---A call to bring the world together

(Compassion is not just a sloppy emotional bonhomie; it requires a serious intellectual effort to learn about one another, even if it’s unflattering to ourselves.)

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.


The Charter for Compassion is the brain child of religious author Karen Armstrong. Religion Dispatches has an extensive interview with Armstrong in which she explains the reasoning which birthed the charter. Although it is a product of her own experience, it also speaks to the experience of a lot of religious and ethical people around the globe. The following is an excerpt from the RD interview in which Karen explains some of the concepts and her hopes for it's implementation.

In the Charter for Compassion, you’ve started a movement via the internet in which we restore compassion to the center of our everyday practices. In addition, people pledge to give accurate and respectful information about each other’s traditions. This movement is impressive in that it seems to combine the best of education about religion with the best of a commitment to a different kind of spiritual practice that both embraces and transcends particular traditions. How has it been working so far?

This is going to be a very long process. I do not expect people to turn themselves around immediately! And in many ways, compassion is counterintuitive to our Western culture, which is very quick, in the media and politics particularly, to point a finger at others’ failings without taking the time to check out the details and form an accurate assessment. There is a lot of education around the issue of compassion still to be done and we will be addressing this need in our Web site in the New Year. Each week there will be more issues to discuss, refinements and questions answered, and I hope to write a piece weekly about such topics as the compassionate interpretation of scripture, the importance of acquiring accurate information about other people, and what it means to “love” our enemies.

There has been a lot of interest in the Charter. One of the things that made me want to undertake this project was the fact that wherever I went in the world, East or West, I found that people were hungry for a more compassionate form of religion, are unhappy that their faith has been hijacked by extremism, dogmatism, or intolerance, and want to make a difference in the world. But so far not as many people as we hoped have actually signed on to affirm the Charter. This is just a first step. We hope to send the Charter, with all the signatures, to five world leaders whose nations are currently embroiled in conflict. We want to make this a grassroots movement that will compel our political and religious leaders to take notice.

As you write in The Great Transformation, you are interested in the Axial Age religious leaders because you find their more practical ethos of compassion a way of healing the contemporary world. My guess is that this intellectual commitment also led to your idea of a Charter for Compassion. And yet compassion during the Axial age was primarily a local, village, or kingdom-based affair. How might we re-think the question of compassion in a global digital age?

What we call the Axial Age occurred in four different regions—India, China, Greece, and the Middle East—from about 900 to 200 BCE, during which time all the major world faith traditions which have continued to nourish humanity—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, philosophical rationalism, and monotheism, for example—either came into being or had their roots. Each tradition is wonderfully different; each has its own genius, and each its particular flaws or failings. But they do bear a strong family resemblance.
And each one puts compassion—the principled determination to put oneself in the shoes of another—and the Golden Rule (“Do not treat others as you would not wish to be treated yourself”) at the heart of the faith. This is the litmus test of true spirituality; it is what brings us into relation with what we call God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao. And this intellectual commitment certainly drove me to the project of creating a Charter for Compassion, written by leading thinkers in all the major faiths, in order to make this ethos a dynamic force in our polarized world. The fact that this principle was formulated independently by the great sages of all these faiths (the rishis of the Upanishads, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Prophets and Priests of Israel, Socrates, Aeschylus) indicates that this is the way human nature works; people have found that by living compassionately—“all day and every day,” to quote Confucius—they have activated aspects of their humanity that normally lie dormant, escape the prism of selfishness, and gain enhanced capacities of mind and heart.

I can not begin to over emphasize the importance of that last sentence. Every single spiritual or psychic teacher I have ever worked with has made this same statement. Love expressed through compassion is the key to activating dormant talent and enhancing the capacities of mind and heart. One can not intellectualize their way into mystical experiences, but one can certainly rationalize and intellectualize their way out of them, prevent them from ever happening, and there by keep God at a safe distance.

I have had two very instrumental mentors make this point to me over and over again. The first was my theology advisor who we all called "Fr. Love." Everything for him came down to love and compassion and how we acted out those concepts. I can remember in one class when he asked the question about how we should respond if we knew he was driving drunk to say Mass at a small parish one hundred miles from campus. This was not an idle question because he did that every Sunday--drive the hundred miles to say Mass.

One very pious girl said she would pray the rosary with the intention that he arrive safely. He looked at her and ruefully said, "wrong answer". Needless to say that shocked us all. How could praying the rosary be the wrong answer? One confused seminarian then suggested one of us could drive him. "That's a better answer." he said. One wag then said "We should take your funnel away from you Saturday night." The class cracked up. He did too and then told us that was the correct answer. That if we cared for him with real love and compassion we would intervene before his drinking became an impediment to his ministry. We would act on our compassion, not pray out of compassion. Obviously, that was a lesson I've never forgotten, even if I've failed too frequently to act on it.

Fast forward twenty some years and I'm working with a very gifted Native American medicine woman. As she got to know me better she told me that every time I intellectualized an experience she was going to poke me in my chest to remind to get out of my head. The issue was to do from the heart not think from the head. It got to the point where I put some one else's chest between me and her before I finally surrendered to her point. Believe me it was a surrender.

My capacity to intellectualize everything was my best weapon against dealing with my emotions. I intellectually understood one needs to deal with and credit the truth of their heart in order to progress on the spiritual path, but true to form, I wouldn't let myself feel it's truth. I waged quite the battle and I got quite the bruise to show as a battle scar. I'm surprised my mentor doesn't have a deformed finger.

Surrendering is so much a part of the spiritual path and one I don't think gets emphasized enough. It's way too easy to obey another than it is to really surrender to what they are trying to teach. Especially if that teaching involves personal defense mechanisms designed to protect the ego. In the West we seem to be trained to intellectualize as our first strategy. The Manhattan Manifesto appeals to that aspect of the Western mind, the Charter for Compassion is calling for something else. The Charter is calling for an educated heart. It's calling for surrender, not dominance. The challenge is do we each have the heart to sign it and act on it?
(Should you go to the site and sign the Charter, be sure to check out the video--especially if you are from Maine or California. I cracked up because one other lesson I've learned is compassion comes with another heart attribute--humor.)


  1. "We should take your funnel away from you Saturday night." The class cracked up. He did too and then told us that was the correct answer. That if we cared for him with real love and compassion we would intervene before his drinking became an impediment to his ministry."

    In Al Anon, for families of alcoholics, we are not to intervene in certain ways as such actions can become destructive for us and make us ill. We wind up becoming enablers when we cover the back for the alcoholic and making ourselves sick with worry about what the alcoholic may or may not do. The best course of compassionate & loving intervention for the alcoholic is for a group of loved ones, family members, friends to gather together with the alcoholic when they are sober in what is called an Intervention and with someone from AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, who is specially trained to handle such situations. The idea would be to encourage them to want change for themselves, to listen to each family member of how they are negatively affected by the alcoholic in a loving and compassionate way and to encourage the alcoholic to start going to AA meetings or to a rehabilitation center. Taking the funnel away from Fr Love is not the right answer, but one maybe he thought was right at the time. Alcoholism is a disease. The answer is for Fr Love to make the decision of love and compassion for himself and not expect others to do what he should be doing for himself: taking the funnel away from himself and getting the help he needs. Dragging others into his disease and making others responsible for his disease is not the right answer.

    I love The Charter For Compassion. It is wonderful!!

  2. I was afraid someone was going to take the anecdote down the AA path and almost didn't post it. It isn't an anecdote about how to deal with alcoholics or addicts but one about situational active compassion.

  3. Could you develop that a little further by what you mean by "situational active compassion?" In this context I am having difficulty with understanding you, perhaps due to my familiarity with alcoholics and what Al Anon has taught me. Al Anon does teach us to be compassionate toward the alcoholic, not to shame them.

  4. Colleen, wonderful material. Though I've read some of Karen Armstrong's work about compassion, I didn't know about the website or her project.

    I'm struck by her statement that we have a lot of work to do to educate around compassion. That sounds deeply right to me.

    And I love your two life-story illustrations of how Fr. Love and the native American mentor have taught you to understand and internalize compassionate insights.