Consider compassion: an evening with author Karen Armstrong

Originally appeared on

“Preaching to the choir is fine,” said the doyenne of religious history, Karen Armstrong, as she spoke to an enthralled audience of 500 at Kehillath Temple in Brookline, Massachusetts, one evening in January. “The trouble is the choir isn’t singing!” A single deed of kindness, she said, could turn the world around.

Her audience had trudged through heavy snow on the coldest night of the year (and paid!) to hear her speak on the need for greater compassion in the world today, which is the subject of her latest book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Armstrong, who lives in London, and is the author of 19 other books, among them the ever-popular A History of God, had chosen to elaborate on her “One Wish to Change the World,” which was granted to her as 2008 winner of the international TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) Prize. Her wish was to create a global community in which people could live with one another in respect and harmony. The world’s religions should be making a substantial contribution, she said. But they’re often part of the problem, even though they virtually all subscribe to a form of the Golden Rule. Sometimes it’s inverted: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Or just labeled “consideration.” Unless we apply that rule globally, said Armstrong, “we’re in for a very rough ride.”

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