A recent conversation here on this blog about an effort to create a counterpart to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that focuses on compassion as the single unifying factor among the world’s religions got me thinking: What exactly is universal among all mankind?
We are all united at a biological level, that is certain. With that fact in mind, is it possible that humanity shares a common set of morals?
There are any number of institutions in today’s world that are dedicated to the notion that good is, for lack of a better word, good. Churches, courts and social groups promote an agenda of helping; national chapters of the Red Cross or Red Crescent are able to mobilize massive financial aid and other relief services during times of catastrophic disaster, often crossing cultural barriers that have stood for centuries, if not millennia.
So, logic would follow, “good” clearly exists. Or at least some commonly held understanding that when there is suffering, humanity’s common good is served by relieving that suffering.
The question in my mind about the Charter of Compassion arose when someone in that discussion a month ago noted that there are sizeable swaths of people who commit what they believe to be good acts, when in fact, those acts may not be recognized as beneficial by society at large. Putting militants and radicals aside, what of conservative Christians in the United States during the last decade who honestly felt – in their so-called heart of hearts – that the bombing of an abortion clinic could be justified by the fact that the act would allow more embryos to develop into babies?
While abortion is a hot topic in contemporary American society, it seems like a good touchstone for me to try and formulate my thoughts on this question about the existence of a common set of morals, if for no other reason than it cuts straight to the core of people’s deeply held personal, cultural, societal and religious beliefs. Although I rarely discuss the topic of abortion with friends or strangers (who really does?), I can’t ever recall coming across someone who was either ambivalent or blasé about the subject.
(As a side note, when attending a Southern Baptist church as a teenager, the question was frequently posed by youth ministers and Sunday school teachers, presumably to perform an instant litmus test on the spiritual development of the young people.)
My answer when asked in Sunday school is the same answer I would give today: I am opposed to abortion, especially when used purely as a method of birth control. I’m sure my perspective today, as a 37-year-old self-identified progressive liberal, is based in large part on my upbringing in that small conservative Southern town, though even without that influence , I know that starting at a very young age, I have always felt that life, no matter what form it takes, is an incredibly precious thing.
It seems, therefore, that I share a moral point of view with the most ardent of right-wing evangelical Christians, though I wouldn’t necessarily equate the termination of an early-stage pregnancy with a strict definition of murder (and I believe strongly in a woman’s right to choose). And that, to go back to the previous discussion of shared moral values as they relate to the Charter for Compassion, is where shades of gray start to come into play. While on the surface I’d hazard to guess that most people around the globe share the view that human life is something worthy of protection, the exact way that each of us interprets that moral imperative, as individuals and as a range of societal units, varies to such an extent that our original intent is lost. This leads me to believe that the protection of human life isn’t so much a moral imperative as it is a subjective set of decision points that eventually play a role in shaping each person’s world view.
This, of course, is disappointing. In high school, when I read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the first discussion question my English teacher posed on the subsequent essay exam was whether or not we felt, based upon what we read in the book, that human beings are aggressive by nature. I answered an overwhelmingly optimistic “no,” if for none other than the fact that Ralph and Piggy, polar opposites in so many superficial ways, held out until their respective ends, preferring the rational order of an establishment (which promoted the Common Good) to the chaotic nature of an anti-establishment, where the good of the individual is almost always served.
What then is the common thread among the world’s diverse religions and those who follow them? Is there, as the Charter for Compassion proposes, a universal Golden Rule? Or is it simply that in each case, our founding teachers – Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad among them – had a sense of optimism and purity of intent that set them apart from the masses?
I have studied the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus Christ, trying to remove the cultural baggage that colors our 21st century interpretations of their words. And in doing so, I see men whose hearts transcended the shades of gray that we encounter when we ponder “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For Jesus and Buddha, there were no exceptions – the meek, the wicked and the down-trodden were afforded the same comforts. There was no convenient forgetting of genocides happening a world away, or looking the other way as the actions of one group destroyed the fortunes of another. If all of these men had not been operating in a higher, purer mental state, their followers would have vanished shortly after their own deaths.
If I am to live at my fullest spiritual capacity, then I have to call on the true intent of the wise teachers who came before me and recognize the importance of compassion as the one common thread that runs through all the great acts of history and the people behind those acts. The baseline assumptions of the Charter of Compassion, which strike me as the smartest advice one can take into their spiritual life in this confusing world, have never been more important than they are today.
The Charter does NOT assume that all religions are the same; that compassion is the only thing that matters in religion; or that religious people have a monopoly on compassion.
The Charter DOES affirm that compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions; and that the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group.
Therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground.