Karen Armstrong on the Power of Compassion

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In this Moyers Moment from a 2009 episode of Bill Moyers Journal, Bill talks with Karen Armstrong about her discovery of compassion within herself, and her work to understand world religions and global politics through the lens of compassion.


KAREN ARMSTRONG: I learned a vicious form of rhetoric from my religious superiors. And also from my teachers at Oxford. You know? And people used to say to me, "I would really hate to be your enemy," because I have this very sharp tongue that I knew how to use it. And I get in first before someone put me down. That kind of thing.

I found that, in my studies I had to practice, what I found called in a footnote the "science of compassion." There was a phrase coined by great Islamist, Louis Massignon. Science, not in the sense of physics or chemistry but in the sense of knowledge, scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.

And Latin — the knowledge acquired by compassion. Feeling with the other. Putting yourself in the position of the other. And this footnote said that a religious historian, like myself, must not approach the spiritualities of the past from the vantage point of post enlightenment rationalism. You mustn't look on this in a superior way and look at the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century text as, "poor soul." You know?

And you had to recreate in a scholarly fashion, all the circumstances which had resulted in this spirituality or this teaching and not leave it, or certainly not write about it, until you can imagine yourself — putting yourself in that position. Imagine yourself feeling the same. So when I wrote about Muhammad, for example, I had to put myself in the position of a man living in the hell of seventh century Arabia, who sincerely believed he had been touched by God.

And unless I did that, I would miss Muhammad. I had to put clever Karen, edgy Oxford educated Karen, on the back burner. And go out of myself and enter into the mind of the other. And I found, much to my astonishment, it started changing me. I couldn't any longer be quite as vicious as I was or dismissive as I was in the kind of clever conversations —

BILL MOYERS: Why? This is the first time I've heard of a born again experience beginning with a footnote. Was it your imagination that said, "I have to see this world the way Muhammad saw it and experienced it?"

KAREN ARMSTRONG: I said that this footnote is right. If I go on writing, as I had been doing up to this point for saying, "This is all rubbish." You know, I know it all. These poor benighted souls in the past didn't know what they were talking about. I was not fulfilling my job as a historian.

It was my job to go in and recreate it, enter into that spirit. Leave myself behind and enter into the mind and society and outlook of the other. It's a form of what the Greeks called ekstasis. Ecstasy. That doesn't mean you go into a trance or have a vision. It means — ekstasis means standing outside yourself. Putting yourself behind. And it is self, it's ego that hold us back from what we call God.

BILL MOYERS: You speak of the change in you. You're talking about a personal transformation. But take the next step. What would bring about the kind of real change in society and in politics that would be an extrapolation of or a continuation in community of what you're talking about?

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Okay. Not to treat other nations or other — in a way that we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: Unless they've attacked you.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: Even so, I mean, there was a chance after 9/11, you know, when something different would have been done. The religions have generally developed, as the Koran does, a theory of just war. You know? That you can fight only in self-defense. But a lot of the policies that we created helped to, you know, first of all, let's leave America out of this. Look at the British, and their colonial policies.

Many of the problems we face in the Muslim world date back to that colonial period, to British behavior, and arrogance, and the abuse of democracy. For example, in Egypt, between 1922, when Egypt was granted a modicum of independence, and 1952, when you have the Nasser revolution. There were 17 general elections in the country, all of them won hands down by the Wafd party, who wanted to see reduced British influence in Egypt. They were only allowed to rule five times. On every other occasion, the British made them stand down and put more congenial people in power. This made the whole idea of democracy a bad joke. Now, would we wish to be treated like that ourselves?

BILL MOYERS: Now, this is what some people call blow back, in the intelligence world. And some people say, "Are the chickens coming home to roost?" But I want to make sure that people don't misunderstand. After 9/11, we made a mistake of invading a country that had not attacked us.


BILL MOYERS: But what about when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor or when the Germans, the Nazis wanted to come across the channel and destroy Britain? You're not saying they're to treat Germany or Japan the way we would like to be treated.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: No, but you fight in self-defense. And the trouble with war is it has a horrible dynamic of its own. So that, in the end, we all start doing dreadful things that...

BILL MOYERS: That's right.

KAREN ARMSTRONG: ...that violate all our own principles. Like the British bombing of Dresden, for example.

BILL MOYERS: The American bombing of Hiroshima.


BILL MOYERS: Nagasaki. The atrocities of both sides —

KAREN ARMSTRONG: That's what happens when in war. So that's why they say you — the Koran, for example, says you must limit war and you must stop hostilities as soon as the enemy sues for peace. That kind of thing. But instead of seeing the other world as them, or instead of seeing our own fundamentalists as them and enemies, somehow learn to see, perhaps, the pain that lies at the root of a lot of this because they feel attacked by us.

Armstrong is a prominent scholar of religion and society. A former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford, she has written more than 20 books around the ideas of what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common. Her meditations on personal faith and religion (she calls herself a freelance monotheist) spark discussion. Since September 11, 2001, Armstrong has been a frequent contributor to conferences, panels, newspapers, periodicals, and throughout the media on the subject of Islam and fundamentalism, which she sees in a historical context as an outgrowth of modern culture.

Watch Bill’s full conversation with Karen Armstrong.

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