Karen Armstrong interviewed by Bill Moyers about the necessity of compassion





BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. Karen Armstrong's life, as you will soon learn, was turned around by of all things, a footnote. When this former nun fled the convent and became a scholar of literature at Oxford, she thought she'd put all things theological well behind her. But, as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him, or Her, your plans.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: So can I ask you what you think about the Pope?

BILL MOYERS: Next thing you know, Armstrong was creating documentaries about religion and making comments like this:

KAREN ARMSTRONG: The Pope is the world's last, great, absolute monarch. He not only controls doctrinal and spiritual affairs, but also the political, social and economic fortunes of his church. And because he's believed to be directly guided by God, his decisions have the ring of absolute truth, which is strangely out of kilter with the democratic tenor of today's world.

BILL MOYERS: While working on a film in Jerusalem, the ancient city where Islam, Judaism and Christianity converge, the connections among that trio of faiths rekindled Armstrong's imagination and led to another new career.

She became one of the foremost, and most original, thinkers on religion in our modern world. Her many popular books include studies of Muhammad and Islam, the crusades, the ambitiously titled A HISTORY OF GOD and her latest, THE BIBLE.

A self-proclaimed "freelance monotheist," Karen Armstrong is now on a mission to bring compassion, the heart of religion, as she sees it, back into modern life.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well this is such an honor.

BILL MOYERS: Last year, at an annual gathering of the leaders in technology, entertainment and design, she received their highly prestigious TED Prize, a $100,000 cash award that, like the genie in the lamp, also grants the recipient a wish.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion -- crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule.

BILL MOYERS: The Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you." That universal principle of empathy and respect is at the core of all major religions.

Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion was launched last year with an interactive website, charterforcompassion.org. There, people of all faiths can submit their ideas about what the Charter should say.

Recently, she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, and gathered with a group of international religious leaders to draft the guiding principles of her charter for compassion. Karen Armstrong, it's good to see you again.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: It's great to be back. Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: So tell us what you're up to with this movement.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Well, my work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find that the heart of it is the idea of feeling with the other, experiencing with the other, compassion. And every single one of the major world religions has developed its own version of the Golden Rule. Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

You see, the Greeks too, they may have been not religious in our sense, but they understood about compassion. The institution of tragedy put suffering on stage. And the leader of the chorus would ask the audience to weep for people, even like Heracles, who had been driven mad by a goddess and slew his own wife and children.

And the Greeks did weep. They didn't just, like modern western men, wipe a tear from the corner of their eye and gulp hard. They cried aloud because they felt that weeping together created a bond between human beings. And that the idea is you were learning to put yourself in the position of another and reach out, not only to acceptable people, people in your own group, but to your enemies, to people that you wouldn't normally have any deep truck with at all.

BILL MOYERS: So this is not just another call for another round of interfaith dialogue?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, it's nothing to do with interfaith dialogue. Look, I'm not expecting the whole world to fall into a daze of compassion.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, I don't think you have to worry about that.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: But this is the beginning of something. We're writing a charter which we hope will be sort of like the charter of human rights, two pages only. Saying that compassion is far more important than belief. That it is the essence of religion. All the traditions teach that it is the practice of compassion and honoring the sacred in the other that brings us into the presence of what we call God, Nirvana, Raman, or Tao. And people are remarkably uneducated about compassion these days. So we want to bring it back to the center of attention. But then, it's got to be incarnated into practical action....



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