Karen Armstrong’s invitation to the world to begin writing today, a Charter for Compassion, strikes me as well-intentioned silliness at best. At worst it is a more benign form of the same religious arrogance which she decries and which lies at the root of the violence and hatred which religious faith can and does inspire in people of every faith.
Perhaps that response lacks compassion for Ms. Armstrong. But the stakes are simply too high to allow ourselves a Kum-ba-yah moment when what we need is something far more sophisticated and powerful. In a world filled with faith-driven hate and violence, simply appealing to something as amorphous as compassion will not do the job.

Ms. Armstrong’s assumption that there is only one definition of compassion and that it is hers is just wrong. I have never met anyone who is opposed to compassion in theory, including people of virtually every faith who are engaged in violence against those who do not share their faith. Such individuals believe in compassion as much as you and I. But they also believe that their faith provides exceptions and exemptions, and therein lays the rub.
I know, because I was once one of those warriors for God. I carried a gun in one hand and a holy book in the other as I set about fulfilling the world of God in the land of Israel. I also considered myself a very compassionate person, but that compassion did not keep me from doing things about which I am anything but proud.

The people, against whom the faithful are at war, do not “deserve” compassion according to the tradition, as understood by these warriors for God. So getting them to commit to compassion is not likely to change anything. The real work involves how each group deals with those who they believe have run afoul of the faith – of those who have offended the faithful.

And so, what we really need is not a charter about how we ought to feel about others, to which all will attach their names and then begin making exceptions. What we need is an agreement about how we understand our own belief, how to practice the kind of modesty which assures that we not seek the destruction of those with whom we have genuine difference.
Before we start engaging people in grand declarations about how they ought to feel, I would settle for a year of teaching the faithful in every community about the sacredness of modesty, humility questioning, and even doubt as expressions of real faith. When people experience that posture as rooted in the depths of the tradition they love, be it a faith, philosophy or politics, fewer people around the world will die in the names of those traditions. That would be more than enough for most of us, I think, at least for now.
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