Quite unexpectedly, this Fall seems to be the season for issuing charters. The first one that came to my attention is the Charter for Compassion, which the Child and Family Institute celebrated in mid-November with a small event in the Trinity Chapel. The Charter for Compassion is a project launched by Karen Armstrong, the internationally known author of books about all things spiritual and religious. She was able to gather religious leaders from many different traditions and all over the globe to put together the Charter, with input via the internet from anyone who cared to offer a suggestion. The result is a document that calls on the people of the world to do what the name of the Charter suggests: “to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion”, based on a recognition that compassion is a cardinal value of all the world’s major religious and ethical systems. That, of course, involves alleviating the suffering of our fellow creatures and respecting the different traditions from which we all come. I remember reading one of Karen Armstrong’s books a few years back about fundamentalisms in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and at the conclusion of her book, she suggests that while it is very difficult to judge another person’s religion or spirituality, we can perhaps say that if one’s spiritual path does not lead one to greater compassion, then perhaps something needs to be reevaluated. I have placed a permanent link at the top of my blog to the Charter for Compassion, so you can guess that I’m enthusiastic about it. It is a modern commentary, in a sense, and a call to action linked directly (for those of us who are Christians) to that whole pesky “love your neighbor as yourself” teaching of Jesus, not to mention the even more challenging “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you.”
Recently, I became aware of another charter-like document that was also issued in the second half of November, called the Manhattan Declaration. It was signed (in Manhattan) by over 100 leaders from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Christian traditions. This document, according to the group’s website, is meant to “reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good” and calls upon “our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them.” The fundamental truths which the declaration calls upon its affirmers to defend are: (1) the sanctity of human life, (2) “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife” and (3) “the rights of conscience and religious liberty”. The group goes on to say that these truths are “increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture”, and it is because of this powerful assault that the signers of the declaration feel obligated to speak out. They indicate that they make this commitment “not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” They say that they will fully honor these truths no matter what sort of pressure is brought upon them and their institutions to compromise or abandon them.
As I have thought about these two documents, I find that I don’t disagree really with the stated aims of either of them. I am in favor of compassion, of relieving the suffering of others and of respecting one another’s traditions. I also believe that human life is sacred (though I might reach different conclusions about what that means than the authors of the Manhattan Declaration do), I am in favor of the dignity of marriage (though I might like to be more broad in my application of that principle than the Manhattan Declaration wants to be) and I certainly value freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Nevertheless, while I can support the Charter of Compassion, the Manhattan Declaration makes be profoundly uncomfortable.
The Charter for Compassion, it seems to me, represents religion and spirituality at their best. The Charter seeks to focus on a common point of contact among our various traditions, and to call upon people to act on that universal principle of compassion for the sake of all human beings everywhere. It is forward-looking and visionary, and it appeals to the best in our traditions and the best in ourselves. To me, it represents religion as a force for positive change in the world, as a path toward empowering human beings. Our bishop likes to talk about the Beloved Community. The Charter for Compassion is about the Beloved Community, and the responsibility all of us have to one another. Compassion can extend to the issues that touch the lives of people all around the globe: problems of poverty, education, nutrition, environmental degradation, to name a few.
The Manhattan Declaration, on the other hand, represents to me religion and spirituality at their worst. It is, above all, a defensive document. It looks upon a world in which many things are changing and long held attitudes questioned and it reacts with fear. Rather than appealing to the best in us, it appeals to our more fearful instincts. Its tone feels like the authors perceive themselves to be under siege. It spends a great deal of time talking about what must be stopped and avoided, rather than embracing the great diversity of the human community. And, of course, it is written from a militantly Christian perspective, without any regard for the other religious and spiritual traditions of the world. And it defines its areas of concern rather narrowly.
In our world today, it seems to me that we need to focus our energies on bringing the people of the world together, and helping us to find common ground with each other, rather than focusing on the things that divide us. Religion can be a powerful tool for promoting unity, but too often it is used as a tool for highlighting division and separating people into opposing camps — one of the reasons that religious involvement is looked upon so negatively by so many in our culture. One of the perennial religious challenges is to find a way to hold one’s values with integrity, to live one’s faith with commitment, and at the same time be open to those whose values and commitments might be different. The Charter for Compassion seeks to do just that; the Manhattan Declaration represents a retreat into one’s own camp, hoping and praying that in the end, people in the other camps will either switch camps or just go away.
The world today cannot afford to retreat from engagement with one another. Each person, and each group, should stand up for their convictions. What matters most crucially, however, is the way in which we hold our convictions. Do we hold them in a way that invites others to engage with us, and allows us to engage with them? Or do we hold them so tightly that we cannot hear others — and, perhaps, they cannot hear us?