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Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong, photo by Robin Holland
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March 13, 2009

Karen Armstrong has dedicated her life to the study of religion — both from inside the walls of a convent during her seven years as a Catholic nun — and as a author of books on the world's faiths from Islam to Buddhism and a best-selling HISTORY OF GOD. Her examination of the commonalities of the world's faiths has brought Karen Armstrong to her current project: the Charter for Compassion.

My work has continually brought me back to the notion of compassion. Whichever religious tradition I study, I find at 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.

....We've got to do better than this. Compassion doesn't mean feeling sorry for people. It doesn't mean pity. It means putting yourself in the position of the other, learning about the other. Learning what's motivating the other, learning about their grievances.

The Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion is Karen Armstrong's effort to promote the principles of the Golden Rule across the religious and global spectrum. The group effort to build an interfaith 'charter of compassion' is guided by the Council of Sages, a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders. The council will guide the writing of the final charter, but the process is open to submissions from anyone, anywhere who has an interest in the founding guildlines laid out below:

The Charter does NOT assume:

  • all religions are the same
  • compassion is the only thing that matters in religion
  • religious people have a monopoly on compassion
The Charter DOES affirm that:
  • compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions
  • the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group
  • therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground
Last year Karen Armstrong received the $100,000 TED prize, presented at this international conference of experts in the fields of technology, entertainment and design for her efforts on behalf of the Charter for Compassion. You can find out more about the Council of Sages and offer your own thoughts at the Charter for Compassion web site. You can revisit Bill Moyers' previous conversations with Karen Armstrong, and two of the Council of Sages, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Joan Chittister below.

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a prominent scholar of religion and society. Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. In 1982 she wrote a book about her seven years in the convent, THROUGH THE NARROW GATE, that angered and challenged Catholics worldwide; her recent book THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE discusses her subsequent spiritual awakening after leaving the convent, when she began to develop her iconoclastic take on the great monotheistic religions.

She has written more than 20 books around the ideas of what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common, and around their effect on world events, including the magisterial A HISTORY OF GOD and HOLY WAR: THE CRUSADES AND THEIR IMPACT ON TODAY'S WORLD. Her latest book is THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY. Her meditations on personal faith and religion (she calls herself a freelance monotheist) spark discussion. Since September 11, 2001, she has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and throughout the media on both sides of the Atlantic on the subject of Islam and fundamentalism, which she sees in a historical context, as an outgrowth of modern culture.

Armstrong is also the author of three television documentaries and took part in Bill Moyers television series GENESIS: A LIVING CONVERSATION. In 1999 she was awarded the Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award.

Photo by Robin Holland

Related Media:
Karen Armstrong on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS (2002)
Bill Moyers in conversation with religious scholar Karen Armstrong, author of a short history of Islam and a biography of Muhammad, about religion in a post-9/11 world. Moyers explores Armstrong's view of whether strong religious faith is compatible with religious freedom.

Karen Armstrong on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS (2004)
Bill Moyers talks with Karen Armstrong THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE: MY CLIMB OUT OF DARKNESS, a memoir.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999)
Bill Moyers sat down with Archbishop Tutu in 1999 discussing his chairmanship of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sister Joan Chittister (2004)
Bill Moyers talks to Sister Joan Chittister, member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, a social psychologist with a doctorate from Penn State University, regular columnist for NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, and the author of more than 30 books. The conversation focuses on the media's moral responsibility to report accurately on the social, economic and political injustices plaguing society.

Leading with Kindness
Businessmen and professors William F. Baker and Michael O'Malley have travelled across the country seeking the kindest companies and leaders. They found that the better employees were treated, the most successful companies were. The rule applied both to big companies like Google and small family businesses where kindness is part of the owner's culture. Now they have put all their experiences into LEADING WITH KINDNESS: HOW GOOD PEOPLE GET CONSISTENTLY BETTER RESULTS.

References and Reading:
The Charter for Compassion
At the Charter Web site you can view Karen Armstrong's statement on the impetus behind the charter movement and learn more about the Council of the Sages. Continue the conversation by sharing your own story of compassion and nominate religious leaders to sign the Charter.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader and offers three yearly prizes to "a leader in his/her chosen field of work, with an unconventional viewpoint and a vision to transform the world." The TED annual conference now brings together the world's most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives. You can view them all on the Web site.

More from Karen Armstrong

Also This Week:

With economic, political, and social strife across the globe, prominent religious scholar Karen Armstrong discusses our human commonalities and her work on an international charter for compassion. The renowned author of THE BATTLE FOR GOD and THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY, Armstrong is a 2008 recipient of the coveted TED Prize.


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