Karen Armstrong says that compassion is about action.
Compassion is not something like kumbaya and sweetness and feeling warm – I don’t think it has much to do with feeling at all. It’s about doing – putting yourself in the position of the other. We have a saying in England, “well that’s my good deed for the day”, when we’ve done something nice for somebody. The implication is we can then, for the next 23 hours, return to our usual habits of greed and selfishness, all day and every day.
And not only for your own people. In the book of Leviticus: “If a foreigner lives with you in your land, do not molest him. You must treat him as one of your own people and love him as yourself, for you were once strangers in Egypt.” That’s the ethic of the golden rule – look back into your own past, remember what gave you pain when you were a helpless minority in a foreign land, and do not inflict that pain on anybody else. That is a text that we should all, every single one of us in our ethnocentric world, be applying. This is what the religions should be talking about today.
And that word “love” needs decoding. In English the word has got so devalued, you know, “I love ice cream”, “didn’t you love that movie”, or it’s all about sentiment. In Leviticus, “you must love him as yourself”, it was a legal term, chesed. It was used in international treaties, that two kings – former enemies – would promise to love each other. And that didn’t mean they would fall into one another’s arms, but that they would give each other practical support and help. They would come to each other’s aid in times of trouble, and they would look out for one another even if that went against their short-term interest. And Jesus said “love your enemies”. Unless we have that kind of love for our enemies, so-called enemies today, the world is simply not going to be a viable place.
Compassion is not just a nice idea, it’s now in our interconnected world where economies are interdependent, our politics all rebound on one another, we all face the same environmental catastrophe, we’re linked together as never before electronically – compassion in that strict sense of treating one another as you would wish to be treated yourself, that is now an urgent global imperative. And this is what the religions should be about. It should be about the disciplined attempt to put yourself day-by-day, hour by hour in somebody else’s shoes and also see how you, yourself, have contributed to the current mess.