How the Golden Rule shaped her faith, and a vision for humanity

Karen Armstrong was born in England to an Irish family and became a Catholic nun at 18. She left the convent in 1969, later writing a memoir about the physical and psychological abuse she endured during her seven years there, and eventually became a broadcaster and noted religious historian. In 2008 Armstrong won a $100,000 TED Prize to launch the Charter for Compassion, an international call to follow the Golden Rule.

Leading scholars and thinkers from the world’s major religions collaborated on its pledge after 150,000 people in 180 countries offered suggestions. The charter was unveiled in 2009. More than 400 cities in 50 countries have signed on, as have almost 1,600 partner organizations (including Unity) in 10 sectors, such as art, business, education, environment, health care, religion/spiritual/interfaith communities, and more. Armstrong recently spoke with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about why compassion is more crucial than ever.

Karen Armstrong

Katy Koontz: What gave you the idea to start the Charter for Compassion?

Karen Armstrong: It was a cumulative process. My experience of religion as a young woman had not been compassionate—it was actually rather rebarbative. I went away from religion for a long time and then came back to it after a series of career disasters. To my surprise, I found that whatever I was writing about—a history of God, Jerusalem, or the axial age when all the great world religions came into being at the same time—the subject matter pushed me to compassion. It was the one thing on which all the faith traditions were in absolute agreement.

They all insisted compassion was the criterion of true spirituality, and they all formulated a version of the Golden Rule: Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. That made an impression on me.

KK: That’s intriguing, and it certainly makes sense.

KA: Yet when religious leaders come together now they’re too often firmly stating doctrine instead of talking about being more compassionate. It struck me forcibly that what the world needs at the moment is not more doctrines but the Golden Rule.

You must have what one Chinese sage called jian ai, “concern for everybody,” and you must love your enemy, as Jesus said. Reach out to all tribes and nations, says the Quran. In the Chinese traditions, in your meditation and your thinking, you start with practicing compassion in the family, and then you extend that to your city, then to your country, and finally to the whole world. With our world so dangerously polarized at the moment, that is what we need.

We also need to understand what compassion is really about because the word is often used to mean “pity,” but it’s really about equality. The Latin compassio means to suffer or endure with somebody else. To be compassionate is not to look down on people with sympathy from a superior position but as Confucius said, to use your own feelings as a guide in how you treat all others.

KK: How have religious leaders responded, especially given your experience as a nun?

KA: The Catholics look at me rather warily as someone who jumped over the wall and then had the temerity to write about it, washing their dirty linen in public. I haven’t heard much from them. Interestingly, the people who came forward to help me the most have not been religious leaders, with one or two exceptions (Muslim religious leaders being one). They’ve been business people.

KK: But the Dalai Lama signed the charter, yes?

KA: Oh, they all signed it, but that’s about as far as it goes. The religious leaders frankly haven’t been very helpful, and one or two have been downright unhelpful.

You know, Jesus didn’t teach Christian doctrine. He never heard of the trinity, the incarnation, or the infallibility of the Pope. He taught people to be compassionate, to work with what we refer to now as the Golden Rule. He said to bring people in off the streets and share what you have, even when you have nothing. The prophet Muhammad said, “Not one of you can be a believer who can sleep when he knows that someone is hungry.”

But you don’t hear that so much in the churches today. Instead, religious people are very quick to condemn things—certain sexual practices, for example, or certain beliefs. We must get back to the compassionate core of religion.

When religious leaders come together now they’re too often firmly stating doctrine instead of talking about being more compassionate. It struck me forcibly that what the world needs at the moment are not more doctrines but the Golden Rule.

KK: How have business people responded to the Charter?

KA: People at places like Harvard are now studying the importance of compassion in business. Seattle was the first to declare itself a compassionate city. The first time I went there, I met the head of Starbucks, who said, “Look, don’t give me all this rubbish.” But the next time, he told me his father was a green grocer and as a boy helping out in the store, he’d sometimes see his father slip some extra bananas or strawberries into somebody’s basket. When he asked his father why he did that, he said, “I know these people, and I know they like bananas and strawberries, and if they’re not buying them, it means something’s wrong. If we help them, they will come back here to shop.” He saw that compassion is good for business.

People say, “Well, they’re just doing it for material gain.” I don’t care. Our motivations are always intrinsically mixed. You learn compassion by doing it, and I don’t think it matters what starts you.

KK: What’s been your biggest challenge with the charter?

KA: I haven’t been able to persuade the charter people to think globally. People want their own city to be compassionate, but they’re not willing to reach out to some of the other compassionate cities.

My dream was that we’d twin some of these cities so that a city in the Middle East could team up with a city in the United States and the young people could have a sort of electronic friendship—exchange visits, exchange news so that some of the misconceptions we have about each other in our very dangerous world could be eroded. But I’ve never been able to persuade any of these cities to do it. In the Middle East they’re ready to do it more than they are in the United States.

KK: I love that idea.

KA: I put this idea to one of our leading mayors in the compassion movement, and he just looked at me and said, “I don’t see the return.” He’s a businessman, and he sees a return for himself if his city is compassionate, but as for making friends with Amman, for example, he doesn’t want to do that.

When I suggest this at a trustees meeting, everyone puts on their resigned faces and smiles politely and then continues as if I hadn’t spoken. I feel like some kind of broken record grinding on about this, but to me it seems essential. In a sense it’s what’s wrong with our world that we just want our own little enclave to be compassionate.

KK: I have found that people fear what they don’t understand.

KA: Yes, and there’s a lot of that in our world today, a withdrawal into tight little ethnic and national ghettos. That’s reflected in the Brexit vote, for example—a complete denial of the fact that we are now a global society living in a global world. We are profoundly interdependent, whether we like it or not. Our economies are entirely bound up with one another. What happens in Syria today can have repercussions in London tomorrow. The nation state is looking increasingly old-fashioned. Its days are finished. Unless we get along with one another better, we have no hope of surviving.

KK: So are we becoming less compassionate?

KA: No, but we are swimming upstream. For example, when newscasters warn viewers that what they’re about to see might be distressing so they have a chance to turn off the television or avert their eyes, this is a bad sign. God forbid a terrible picture from Syria should disturb our cocooned consciousness.

This is the result of the secularization of society. Yet if we did allow these things to disturb us, then our discomfort can become a spiritual opportunity to reach out to those in need. Compassion can be like the grain of sand in an oyster that eventually produces a pearl.

I’m all for the separation of church and state because in one respect it stops religious people aligning themselves with the injustice and inequity of the state and its violence. But should we therefore say our prayers nicely while letting the rest of the world go hang? Jesus would have had a fit. Muhammad wouldn’t have wanted this either. The prophets of Israel would have been turning in their graves. They had no time for people who came to temple but neglected the plight of the poor and the oppressed.

Even yoga has become a mere physical exercise. It was designed to eradicate the ego and raise consciousness. Originally, before you began to study you had to undergo a moral training in which you behaved with absolute equity and respect to everybody, even the most annoying monk. Until your guru was clear that you had mastered this compassionate attitude, you were not even allowed to sit in the yogate position.

Compassion can be like the grain of sand in an oyster that eventually produces a pearl.

KK: Compassion certainly doesn’t seem to be popular with politicians at the moment.

KA: No, yet those with real moral charisma—like Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi—have made a huge difference in the past, even though they weren’t saints. They did great things even though they were not perfect, so don’t think you have to be perfect before you become compassionate. As the Chinese scriptures say, any one of us can become a sage.

I don’t think we’re ambitious enough about our spirituality. There’s such a lot of hatred currently taking place. Look at all the school shootings you have, for example, and the Islamophobia, which is especially lethal in France.

No state has achieved equity, even with all our fine talk about how equal we’re going to be in our constitutions. There’s massive inequity between rich and poor everywhere on the planet. London is one of the richest cities in the world, but an unacceptably high number of people living there sleep on the streets. This is something that the churches should be anxious about. You’ve heard about the Grenfell Tower fire, haven’t you?

KK: Yes, the public housing project in London that burned down a year or so ago.

KA: Seventy-two people died, simply because the borough council provided inadequate and dangerous cladding for the building; it went up in flames just like that. The residents were all poor people, immigrants, many of them Muslim.

The local people came forward to help them, but not the council. One local priest opened his church to the homeless, and people gave food and clothing, but I didn’t see the other church leaders responding.

That’s why individual people should reach out instead. I always wonder if there will be enough of that to save the day. I’m not convinced there will be, but that’s my greatest hope.

KK: Even Darwin noted that compassion and collaboration are built into evolution—we’re programmed to want to work together.

KA: Yes, and for the longest phase of human history—thousands of years—we were hunter-gatherers. In those societies, everybody was equal because everybody had to share the same inadequate resources. That’s all lost once you have huge divisions between rich and poor. But that sense of fairness and justice that we all have in our hearts, we probably inherited that from our hunter-gatherer past.

KK: That reminds me of something you said in your TED talk—that the reason compassion is so important is simply because it works.

KA: Yes, because if cultivated properly, compassion creates a spirit of equality. Flagrant inequality is at the heart of most of our problems today, including terrorism. There’s massive inequity with the immigrants trying to come over to Europe because their countries are in such disarray and we won’t have them.

Compassion demands that you strike down such superiority and put yourself on the same level. That’s when things open up and develop, not when you’re being pitying, merciful, or—God forbid—tolerant. Tolerant is a word we should expunge from our vocabulary. “To tolerate” means to put up with something. It’s the language of the victor. Compassion is better because it puts you on the same level as others. The truth is we simply can’t live without each other.

The Charter For Compassion

To sign the charter, visit Charter for Compassion.

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 center of our world and put another there, and to honor 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 center 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 indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

Karen Armstrong, ambassador for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, is the author of more than two dozen books, including the New York Times best-seller A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Ballantine, 1993). She lives in London and travels internationally speaking on world religions and the importance of creating a compassionate society. Visit

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Katy Koontz is the editor in chief of Unity Magazine.


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