Charter puts a new face on the Golden Rule

by Karen Armstrong and Archbishop Desmond Tutu
20 October 2009
Cape Town/London - On 27 September at the Vancouver Peace Summit, amongst some of the world’s most well-known peace-makers–including Nobel Prize winners and internationally-acclaimed authors–we had the opportunity to invite people everywhere to rediscover the Golden Rule.

The Charter of Compassion was composed by leading thinkers from many different faiths. It is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the centre of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems.

Why is this so important?

One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. Religion, which should be making a major contribution to this endeavour, is often seen as part of the problem. All too often, the voices of extremism drown out those of kindness, forbearance and mutual respect. Yet the founders of each of the great religious traditions rejected the violence of their time and sought to replace it with an ethic of compassion.

They argued that a truly compassionate ethic, embodied by the Golden Rule, served people’s best interests and made good practical sense. When the Bible commanded that we “love” the foreigner, it was not speaking of emotional tenderness. In Leviticus, love was a legal term: It was used in international treaties, when two kings would promise to give each other practical support, help and loyalty, and look out for each other's best interests.

In our globalised world, everybody has become our neighbour, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.

When asked by a pagan to sum up the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg, Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, replied: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the Torah–and everything else is only commentary.”

The Dalai Lama put it even more succinctly when he said: “My religion is kindness.”

These traditions have also pointed out that we must not confine our benevolence to those we find congenial or to our own ethnic, national or ideological group. We must have what one of the Chinese sages called jian ai, or concern for everybody. If practiced assiduously–“all day and every day” as Confucius enjoined–we begin to appreciate our profound interdependence and become fully human.

Today, our world has become dangerously polarised and many of our policies–political, economic, financial and environmental–are no longer sustainable. We are all bound together–socially, economically and politically–as never before. Our financial markets are inextricably connected: when one falls, there is a ripple effect worldwide. What happens in Afghanistan or Iraq today may well have repercussions in New York or London tomorrow.

But we have a choice. We can either choose the aggressive and exclusive tendencies that have developed in many religious and secular traditions or we can cultivate those that speak of compassion, empathy, respect and a “concern for everybody”.

The Charter for Compassion will be launched on 12 November. It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time.

In addition to participating in one of the many launch events, we invite each individual to adopt the charter as their own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion.

We cannot afford to be paralysed by global suffering. We have the power to work together energetically for the wellbeing of humanity, and counter the despairing extremism of our time. Many of us have experienced the power of compassion in our own lives; we know how a single act of kindness and empathy can turn a life around. History also shows that the action of just a few individuals can make a difference.

In a world that seems to be spinning out of control, we need such action now.


* Karen Armstrong is a former nun turned historian and author, and winner of the TED Prize in 2008 and the 2009 Common Ground Award for Compassion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a South African cleric, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, as well as the 2002 recipient of Search for Common Ground's Lifetime of Peacebuilding Award. Find out how you and your community can participate in the ongoing effort to build a fair, just and compassionate world at This article first appeared in the Herald Times and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 October 2009,
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