You know how Karen Armstrong, above, likes to say that compassion is at the heart of every great religion? For a year or two around 2009 she seemed to be saying nothing else. She said it in a lecture to the Unitarian Universalist Association for instance:
And yet, each one of the major faiths, I discovered, has at its core the ethic of compassion. Every single one of them has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself, and has said that this is the test of spirituality …
But if that’s really at the core of “the major faiths” then why do we hear so little about it? Is it because it’s at the core in the sense of being at the middle under many layers of other stuff, so that we can never actually see it? Hilariously, Armstrong herself makes the same point, apparently without noticing that she’s done so. At the end of the paragraph I just quoted we get:
And yet, so often you don’t hear about it. Often when religious leaders come together they talk about a particular sexual ethic or an abstruse doctrine, as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of spiritual life.
So very very often, you don’t hear about it.
Take the five pillars of Islam for instance. The Saudi embassy in Washington DC has a nice little guide for us.
Salah, prayer, is the second pillar…
Zakat, almsgiving, is the third pillar. Social responsibility is considered part of one’s service to God; the obligatory act of zakat enshrines this duty…
Sawm, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, is the fourth pillar of Islam. Ordained in the Holy Qur’an, the fast is an act of deep personal worship in which Muslims seek a richer perception of God. Fasting is also an exercise in self-control whereby one’s sensitivity is heightened to the sufferings of the poor…
Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, is the fifth pillar and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity in the world…
God god god – recite words about god, say prayers to god, seek a richer perception of god, go on a trip to god’s own city – what does any of that have to do with compassion? Nothing. One out of five isn’t much. I think Karen Armstrong is bullshitting us about that “core.”
Or take the “Ten Commandments” that people in the US are always trying to get displayed in public buildings. In the short, edited for broadcast version, they go like this:
2. You shall not make idols.
3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet.
They’re not about compassion. Not one of them is really about compassion – you can’t call minimal rules like don’t murder people and don’t take their stuff “compassion.” If I refrain from hitting small children in the face I don’t get a gold star for compassion. And the first four – the first four – are again all about groveling to the overlord. Again the first one is Join My Gang – say god is god and nobody else is god, or else. Don’t make toys from other religions; don’t say god’s name unless you’re groveling; treat one day in the week as god’s day and act accordingly.
It happened on a train in the “deeply spiritual” country of India. It seems fair to assume the woman and man are Muslim, given the woman’s hijab (and the man’s entirely secular clothes) – perhaps they’re even “devoutly” Muslim. Where is his compassion? Where is the compassion of the men around them? Why does it appear to be so commonplace and unremarkable for a man to punch his wife in the head that way?
I could use countless other bits of video or photos to illustrate the question, with far more people and far worse violence to make the point. But this one has haunted me for days – the woman just breaks my heart, trying to recover her dignity, trying not to anger her husband further, trying not to burst into tears, trying to hide, trying to find comfort where there isn’t any. She doesn’t live in a world where compassion is at the core of religion. If she doesn’t, why should we pretend we do?