In last Saturday’s Washington Post, Karen Armstrong, a respected expert on comparative theology, reminds us that compassion is the cornerstone of each of the world’s major religions.
All the great religious sages insist that compassion is the chief religious duty. The first person to do so was Confucius, who, five hundred years before Christ, was the first to formulate the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” It was the central “thread” that ran through all his teaching and should be practised “all day and every day.” Every single faith has evolved its own version of the Golden Rule, which requires us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain and refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anybody else.
Such beautiful, simple words to describe an equally poetic approach to life and faith, and yet, so much of contemporary religion has strayed from this most basic of concepts.
Fundamentalists, it all too often seems, are focused not on leading a compassionate life, but on passing judgment on those who don’t conform to their narrow worldview. They seem to forget Jesus Christ’s own admonition against judging others, instead selectively following those tenants that suit their present situation. What’s worse, their “mainstream” brethren, who far outnumber those on the fringes, often stand by while the spirit and intent of Christ’s teachings are warped by those who take some Biblical teachings literally while ignoring others. (Reference the 55-year-old Northern Virginia minister who, shortly after his wife died, stood before his congregation and said that, according to the Bible, he was the high priest who had to take a virgin bride from among his flock. He married a 20-year-old parishioner a week later, yet he told the parents of a 16-year-old to either throw their son out on the street for wanting to leave the church or face being excommunicated themselves.)
There is hope in the progressive elements of modern religion, though they are painfully small in number. Out of 41,800 United Methodist congregations, only 221 have taken the step of saying they believe in the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church – that’s one-half of one percent of all congregations. There are 158,000 Unitarians in American, compared to 16.2 million Southern Baptists; Buddhists like myself number somewhere between 1 million and 4 million.
My guess is that things, on the whole, have changed very little from those days thousands of years ago when Jesus, Buddha and Confucius walked the earth. People judging the behaviors of others gave the great teachers the opportunity to talk about and demonstrate compassion — to put action behind their words for others to see. What has changed since then is that fundamentalists now have the means to have their message carried far and wide, which makes the mainstream toleration all the more frustrating.
And yet, even in this situation, I have to recognize that the Golden Rule comes into play. “Judge not lest yet be judged” works in both directions. As a Buddhist, as a progressive, and as a humanist, I have to feel genuine compassion for those who would seek to marginalize me or discriminate against my community, and I must get into the habit of always responding to those who would condemn (or those who otherwise standby in silence) with heartfelt loving-kindness.
Now — and especially now — is the time for compassion.
I know many of the people who read this blog understand where I am coming from, and I would encourage those people to engage in an international dialogue called the Charter for Compassion. Help make the case in a way that can persuade others to embrace a shared responsibility for fostering mutual respect among all people.