Karen Armstrong – A Charter for Compassion Grows

Karen Armstrong - Charter for Compassion

“Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who left the convent to study literature, becoming one of the most provocative and original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world, and a leading international authority on faiths, religious fundamentalism and monotheism.

Her poignant and captivating talks have sparked worldwide debate and healthy discussion. Her bestselling books, including Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and A History of God, examine the differences and the profound similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and their impact on world events.

In 2008, she was awarded the TED Prize in recognition and support of her call for a council of religious and spiritual leaders to draw up a “Charter for Compassion” that applies shared moral priorities to foster greater global understanding based on the principles of justice and respect. The project has grown to a considerable international following, and a network of Compassionate Cities is emerging that endorse the Charter and find ways to implement it practically, realistically and creatively.

As a speaker and writer, she asserts that all major religions embrace the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule, and also emphasizes that many of today’s religions bear similar strains of fundamentalism borne of frustration with contemporary life and current events.”     ( –  Official Biography of Karen Armstrong.)

On our tiny island, a group recently finished its study of Karen’s book, “Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life”.  The same group seized an opportunity, on March 22, to share a live video of Ms. Armstrong accepting a prestigious award from the Simon  Fraser University in Vancouver.  In recognition of her exceptional work with Compassion, Vancouver dedicated 12 days in which to dialogue about compassion, in a variety of ways, throughout the city.

The Charter for Compassion begins:

“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 centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

(The complete Charter is available here.)


Karen Armstrong - Simon Fraser University - March 22, 2012


Those of us who watched Ms. Armstrong’s acceptance of the SFU award, discussed, at its completion, how we envisioned enhancing compassion in our community.   Though time may provide a more profound conclusion, most of us agreed that Compassion is an inner condition through which each of us may filter our actions and exchanges throughout the community.  In support of this commitment, the local book club, one of 500 worldwide, will again offer a study of Karen’s 12 steps to compassion.

Our group may have been influenced by the Rev. Alisdair Smith, Deacon and Business Chaplain for Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.  As he introduced Karen, he shared a phenomenal story about a dear friend – a woman who suffers from severe bouts of depression.  She gave Alisdair permission to share her story with us.

In my words:

The depression became severe enough that the woman knew she had to go to the hospital.  With all the courage, will and determination she could muster, she called an ambulance.

A male attendant rode quietly beside her in the back of the ambulance.  As the vehicle wound its way through traffic, the man remained silent, but dutifully attended to any concern for comfort or safety.

After some time, he turned to face her.  He held her hand and looked into her eyes.  He said, “We are almost at the hospital. I want to tell you that while I have been in your presence, I have discerned that you are a very creative, kind  and intelligent woman.

Therefore, when we arrive, I will step out of this ambulance and wait for you to take my hand so you may step down on your own.  We will walk together to Emergency and you will hold your head high with the dignity that is yours to claim.  There is no reason or need to be or feel embarrassed.

Are you willing?”

The woman did exactly as he suggested.  Her life was transformed.

Though she is still plagued with depression, it only takes a moment to reflect on this incredible act of compassion, performed by a stranger, that dispelled and diminished the degree of debilitating power that depression would otherwise demand.

I watched Karen Armstrong’s Ted Talk in 2008.  I became a member of the Charter for Compassion in 2009.  I committed to being a compassionate person.

Big deal, I thought.  That’s not doing much for the Charter.

I found out it is.

Especially if we each do our best with every opportunity that inevitably comes our way.

I keep forgetting about the hummingbird and the forest fire.


51 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong – A Charter for Compassion Grows

  1. Beautiful post. I read. It gave me chills. And hope. And willingness to adopt compassion. May we all change and thus change the world. Thanks for posting this.

    • As you are the intrepid traveler at the moment, you have a great opportunity to see how compassion is played out in different cultures. In Pakistan, they’ve added a character to their Sesame Street program that represents compassion.

      I’m loving your travel post, Lidi!

  2. Great post, Amy. (I just tweeted it…trying to learn how to use that ridiculous social media tool…)

    “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions…”
    Compassion may lie at the heart of all religions, but unfortunately, that compassion has been hijacked repeatedly in the interest of power-hungary individuals who cloak their desires behind religion. It is an admirable endeavor to put compassion back into religion…and into every day life.

    • Linda, it’s a challenge for me to feel compassion for a blindly patriarchal environment supposedly using Christ as a mentor and example. Thanks for the Tweet. Twitter is still a mystery to me, too! I suspect because I’m on the fringes, its value eludes me.

      • Well me, too…Twitter. But the talking fingers keep hyping the marketing power of Twitter. What do I know about marketing? Zilch. Or want to know about marketing? As little as I can get away with and still be useful to my handful of clients.

  3. This is a wonderful post. I came across her and her organization through Ktista Tippet’s program on NPR. I may have joined … in case I did not … I tried many times this AM. But the sign on through FB just would not work. Maybe too many were trying at that time. Anyway a wonderful read. Many thanks.

    • Lorna, it’s fantastic that you feel a shift. That’s great news. It’s like waves to me… When stories of inhumanity come to me, there’s a dip. Then I find a comment like yours…

  4. “Do unto others” is more broadly defined as “Ye reap what ye sow.” When contrasted to the corollary, “Reap all ye can from what others sow” (which basically defines our current socioeconomic paradigm), it is easy to understand why the truism “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime” has largely been replaced by, “Give him a smile with ‘brightened’ teeth and he’ll quickly forget he was hungry.”

    For example, compare the near exponential growth of reliance on stuff “Made in China” with a corresponding reduction in ‘at-home’ productivity. Which underscores the current corporate mantra: “Give a man a fish [or maybe just a brightened smile?], and he’ll follow you over a cliff.”)


    • Those conditions began with an attitude, William – an attitude exemplified and encouraged. It’s up to you and me what attitude we want at play today. We have the power and ignore it. Too many find it easier to become critics instead of practitioners of a higher order. It only takes one tiny gesture to break the deadlock.

  5. I have read portions of the History of God, but had never heard about the one on compassion. Just the retelling of that story with the paramedic is an inspiration to carry us through/into the challenge of becoming compassionate. Lifted my spirit today.

  6. What an inspirational woman, thank you for telling us about her Amy. I feel so fortunate that I’m your blogging buddy because it’s only here on your blog that I learn about people like Karen Armstrong. I’m going to come back and watch the video, and I’m going to read her book.

  7. A very interesting post and Karen Armstrong seems to be a very interesting person. I think there is a lack of compassion many places, simply because most of us are getting too caught up in our own lives to pay attention to others. It might be a reaction to contemporary life and current events, but more than anything I see it as coming out of our economical system that pushes us to become more selfish. And unfortunately I don’t see most religions do much to encourage compassion. If Armstrong and the Charter would be able push all major religions to embrace the core principle of compassion, that would be a great achievement. Thank you for a very inspiring post.

    • It begins with us, Otto. Religions will keep doing what they do until they change themselves. Just like us! I’ve observed church council members be more concerned about their budget and bake sales than they are about supporting their clergy in a loving and compassionate manner. The only thing I could do was make sure I was compassionate. I became disliked by those who found it more satisfactory to criticize and judge.

      • You are so right. It’s very easy – too easy – to criticize (and thinking about myself now), whilst we can do nothing better than starting to change ourselves and become more compassionate. Thanks again.

        • Another welcome confirmation that we are entering the state of existence that is far and beyond what we have previously known. We can let those be who rebel, argue, rebuke and deny. With compassion, no loving response is too small.

    • The story speaks to the respect we can give one another. It does not matter how much of any virtue we see in another, we can acknowledge what is there. It’s not necessary to judge the amount. The importance is in the acknowledging. With that comes compassion.

  8. Hi There Amy….you certainly know a lot of interesting stuff.
    I needed this contrast.
    There was an article on our news this week about a family(from a religious sect) who pulled out a young girl’s intestines…through her privates…then sat and waited for her to wake up…she was a bit withdrawn so they thought she had a demon.
    And they get to vote.

  9. Wonderful post. What an inspirational lady she was. This post was full of hope. I enjoyed that story in your words very much. It was really heart touching.
    The beginning part of the book, Charter for Compassion is so very meaningful. I read some where that, ” A person can’t respect his own religion until & unless he has respect for other’s religion.

    • Openness and willingness to learn about other paths would mean we are capable of mining the gems more readily of our own faith. I believe the greatest block to openness and willingness is thinking there is only one path to God. The greatest fuel is compassion.

  10. I have had the opportunity and good fortune to hear Karen Armstrong a couple of times when she has visited Pakistan Amy…last year she was there as a keynote speaker at the Karachi Literary Festival to promote and initiate the Charter for Compassion…an initiative that is the need of the hour in our world today…the prayer is that it can start with each one of us understanding…acknowledging…accepting and pledging to make it a part of our life behavior and attitude…with an open and compassionate heart and mind…

    • Karen, in her talk that was live-video last week, told us that in Pakistan, you’ve added a character to Sesame Street – one who is compassionate. Well done, Pakistan! That is the type of milestone we can achieve – not a million dollar budget to declare that we must be compassionate!

      I so agree with you…our world needs this all initiatives of virtue. Every single gesture contributes to the all.

  11. I’m so thrilled you encourage people to grow a garden. I think when people stick their hands in soil, there’s a transfer of energy, a connection, a release. It is one of the most healthy things I do for myself, and that’s even before fruit comes from the vine. Even weeding is a mentally, physically good lesson. I love the egg shell starts.

    • I suspect you meant this comment for the Occupy – and yes, hopefully people know they don’t have to have perfect conditions to grow a little something for their consumption. Keeping the fact in our minds is the key, isn’t it, Barb?

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