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Compassion unites the world's faiths

By Karen Armstrong and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Special to CNN
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'Let's revive the Golden Rule'
  • Karen Armstrong's wish upon winning TED prize was for a charter for compassion
  • She and Desmond Tutu say all faiths share belief in compassion
  • Applying "the golden rule" would result in a world of kindness and understanding, they say
  • The "Charter for Compassion" will be unveiled in Washington November 12

Editor's note: Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who has written more than 20 books about common themes in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, including "The Bible: A Biography." She received the 2008 TED Prize. Archbishop Desmond Tutu received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for opposing apartheid in South Africa. Since 1988 Tutu has been chancellor of the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa.

(CNN) -- We have called on the world to sign up to a Charter for Compassion.

Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves into the place of the other and it lies at the heart of all truly religious and ethical systems.

The charter, which will be unveiled Thursday, November 12, has been composed by leading thinkers in many different faiths. Thousands of people have contributed to it online. It is a cooperative effort to restore compassion to the center of religious, moral and political life. 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 endeavor, is often seen as part of the problem. All too often the voices of extremism seem to drown those that speak of kindness, forbearance and mutual respect. Yet the founders of every single one of the great traditions recoiled from the violence of their time and tried to replace it with an ethic of compassion.

The great sages who promoted the Golden Rule were nearly all living during periods of history like our own. They argued that a truly compassionate ethic served people's best interests and made good practical sense.

When the Bible commands 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 global world, everybody has become our neighbor, 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, the older contemporary of Jesus, replied: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah -- and everything else is only commentary." His Holiness the Dalai Lama put it even more succinctly when he said: "My religion is kindness."

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

We come at this issue from different perspectives. I, Karen, was a Roman Catholic nun for seven years, from the age of 17 to 24. After that, I turned away from religion but came back to it after a series of career disasters -- when I was invited to make some TV programs for Channel 4, which was just opening up in the United Kingdom. The more I studied religious traditions that were different from my own, the more I had to revise my views on faith in general.

I started to study Judaism and Islam, and found that these faiths both offered a perspective on religion that was different from the somewhat parochial Catholicism of my childhood but which really resonated with me. I no longer see any of the great faith traditions, eastern and western, as superior to any of the others.

Each has its own particular genius and each its particular flaws. Every single one of the faiths regards compassion and the Golden Rule as the litmus test of true spirituality and sees it as one of the main ways in which we come into relation with the transcendence that we call God, Nirvana, Brahman or Tao.

In 2008, I was honored to receive the TED Prize, which consists of money, but more importantly, a wish for a better world the TED organization will help you to realize. I knew at once what I wanted to do and TED helped refine it. The result was a Charter that would restore compassion to its central place in religious and moral life.

If we wish to create a viable world order, we must try to implement the Golden Rule globally, treating all peoples, even those who seem far removed from us, as we would wish to be treated ourselves. We must strive for a global democracy, in which everybody, not only the rich and powerful, has a voice and which takes everybody's needs and aspirations with the utmost seriousness and respect.

Today we are all bound together, electronically, 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 tomorrow in New York or London.

Our world has become dangerously polarized and many of our policies -- political, economic, financial and environmental -- seem no longer sustainable. We have a choice. We can either choose the aggressive and exclusive tendencies that have developed in practically all religious and secular traditions or we can cultivate those that speak of compassion, empathy, respect and an impartial "concern for everybody."

The Charter for Compassion 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. You can find out how you and your community can participate in the launch and in the ongoing effort to build a fair, just and compassionate world on our Web site:

We cannot afford to be paralyzed by global suffering. We have the power to work together energetically for the well-being 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 all the difference. In a world that seems spinning out of control, we need such action now.

The Charter is a summons to action and includes directives about how to implement the Golden Rule. There can be no detailed directives; everybody will have to see how to do this in his or her particular sphere: in the media, in study, teaching, parenting, business, or politics.

The launch is only the beginning of the journey -- not the end.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Karen Armstrong and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.