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Karen Armstrong is one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs and a best-selling author, whose books have been translated into forty-five languages. Her early work focused on the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but she has since begun to explore the eastern religions.
Since September 11, 2001, Karen Armstrong has become chiefly known for her work on Islam and Fundamentalism, particularly in the United States. She has addressed members of the United States Congress and the Senate on three occasions, has participated in the World Economic Forum in New York and Davos, has spoken at study days at the United Nations and at the NATO Naval Defense College in Rome, and has addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and New York. She has also advised members of the Dutch parliament about Islam and the integration of Muslim communities in Europe.
She is increasingly invited to address audiences in the Muslim world. In 2007 she was awarded a medal for Arts and Sciences by the Egyptian government for her services to Islam, the first foreigner to have been awarded this decoration. In the summer of 2007, she was invited by the Malaysian government to speak in Kuala Lumpur, even though her books are banned there. She also spoke at the Young Presidents’ Organization in Istanbul and later that year she gave the keynote address at an international conference on Islamophobia there. In January 2008, she visited Pakistan, where she gave lectures on Islam in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
In February 2008, she was awarded the TED prize and has been working with TED on a major international project to create, launch and propagate a Charter for Compassion, created online by the general public and crafted by leading thinkers in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Charter was signed in the fall of 2009 by a thousand religious and secular leaders.
In this lecture, Karen Armstrong argues that compassion and the Golden Rule have been central to all the major faiths, explores the reasons for this, and argues that an ideology that does not restore compassion to the center of the spiritual, religious and ethical life fails the test of our time.
REV. PETER MORALES: Well, now it's 2011, and we have another Ware Lecture. We are delighted to welcome Karen Armstrong as our Ware lecturer this evening. She's a world-renowned scholar and author of books on comparative religion. Some of her best known books have focused on the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They've performed a public service to Western readers in a post-9/11 era by providing a window into Islam, a faith that has traditionally been little understood in the West.
She's received numerous awards for her work, including the 2008 TED, T-E-D, Prize of $100,000. TED, which grew out of a conference bringing together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design, is a non-profit devoted to what it calls ideas worth spreading. The TED Prize winner is charged with formulating one wish to change the world. Armstrong's wish was to create the "Charter for Compassion," a document that religious leaders could use to work together for peace.
The "Charter for Compassion" emphasizes the golden rule as a unifying force. It also served as the catalyst for her most recent book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. She will be addressing the subject of compassion in her lecture this evening. And on a personal note, it's a wonderful book. I'm especially appreciative of how she has not only brought in the history of religion, but modern cognitive and evolutionary science into her work.
Karen Armstrong's career path has had some surprising twists and turns. At age 19 she entered a convent in England where she stayed for the next seven years. Her orders went her to Oxford University where she began questioning her faith in God. Ultimately, she left the convent, finding work first as an educator, and then as an independent writer, authoring several books on religion, as well as an autobiography about her years in the convent.
Her life changed, however, when she was sent by British Channel 4 to Israel to do some reporting on the biblical figure Paul. While there, she had what she termed a breakthrough experience in which she was struck by the interconnectedness of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This revelation affected the course of her subsequent work. In 1993 her book, A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam became an international bestseller.
Since then she has written 12 more books on religion, a second volume of autobiography, and numerous essays and articles. She's also much in demand as a speaker. We are, indeed, fortunate to have her with us this evening, and it is my pleasure to welcome Karen Armstrong. Karen?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Thank you. What a welcome. I've always been told that Unitarianism should be my spiritual home.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: Now, you've heard about the TED Prize. It seems extraordinary to me now that when I heard I'd won the TED Prize, I'd never even heard of TED. But now, they've really changed my life. It's been a wonderful experience to work with them. And as you heard, TED give you some money, but more importantly, they give you a wish for a better world which they will try to make true.
I knew almost immediately what I wanted. Because it's long been a source of frustration to me that our religion, which has developed a wonderful ethic of compassion, whether you're talking about the Eastern religions or the Monotheistic religions, is seen as one of the major sources of conflict and problems of our time. I've lost count of all the times I've jumped in to a taxi in London, and when the cabbie asks me what I do for a living, I'm informed quite categorically that religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history. Sometimes I just would like to say that I'm a typist and have done with it.
In fact, the causes of warfare and violence, often hatred and greed and fear, all too often it's true. These self-serving emotions have often been given a religious justification. 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; that it is this which takes us beyond the prism of ego and selfishness and greed, that enables us to enter into our best selves and into the presence of what some have called God, others Nirvana, Brahmin or Dao. 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 abstrused doctrine, as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of spiritual life.
And yet it seems to me, quite clear, that unless we now learn to implement the Golden Rule globally so that we treat all peoples, all nations, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we're not going to have a viable world. This is the task of our time, to build a global community where people of all persuasions can live together in harmony and respect.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: And so when I accepted the TED Prize I asked TED to help me to create, launch and propagate a charter for compassion, which would be written by hundreds and thousands of people online on a multilingual website in Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, English and Spanish. Then actually put together by a group of activists and thinkers representing as many of the world's religions as possible. In fact, at the end we had people, a group of dedicated, wonderful group of people, representing Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. This, above all, was a sign, a kind of demonstration, that at the time when the religions are often assumed to be at loggerheads, this we had in common. On this we could all agree. And we could work together to create a better world. Because this is the religious task of our time.
The charter, I have to say, has taken off beyond our wildest dreams. I think TED thought there would be a nice launch and we'd get the idea out there. But it's been astonishing what is happening. The leader of the charter is Pakistan. I was there for the launch of the charter in February, giving three lectures a day, 1,000 people came every day. This is a country on the brink, that knows the cost of allowing compassion to be relegated to dogmatism and hatred.
They are implementing—and it's largely businessmen that are stepping forward to help me. A young, astonishing young, Pakistani has gathered together a dedicated group of people who are going to put into all the schools in the independent sector. We can't touch the public sector because that's under the control of the government and has a Wahabi syllabus. But at the primary, tertiary and secondary stages, students will study the compassionate ethos of Islam. And my favorite thing is that the company who makes Sesame Street is introducing a compassionate character in Pakistan.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: When I met the company, I said I want this guy to be really cool. I don't want him to be some simple wimp. I want him to be clever, smart, funny, and also to make mistakes sometimes, because compassion isn't easy.
Now, the big thrust of the charter now is our cities campaign. Seattle declared itself the first city of compassion, and is now working to invite other cities to do the same. Now, think of all the cities you represent. We are shortly going to put together a template, a one-page template, which will show you what you have to do if you want to get your city to sign up for this network where you look around carefully to see what needs to be done in your particular community. And then it creates a practical program of action.
In Seattle they were concentrating on business and environmental ethics. But my dream is, we've got about 50 cities now waiting to go through this process, is to create a network of compassionate cities. I want cities to be twins together, so that you have Lahore in Pakistan with Seattle or Chicago, and the young people can form electronic friendships, have exchanges, and gradually break down some of these barriers of misunderstanding and apprehension that—
KAREN ARMSTRONG: When we've got that template, I'm going to send it to you, dear, and you can put it on your website or whatever you have. I urge you—so far businessmen have taken the lead, but why not let the Unitarians come forward and spread compassion throughout the world.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: And above all, the charter was never meant to be just a feel good quality, where we all embrace one another and felt very compassionate at the end of the day. It's primarily a call to action, a call to implement the charter creatively, practically, and realistically, in the difficult circumstances of the 21st century. This is a challenge for us all. This is a challenge for our time.
Well, I want just us to think a little more deeply about compassion. The first person, as far as I know, to enunciate the golden rule was Confucius some 500 years before Christ. His disciples asked him, master, which of your teachings could we put into practice all day and every day? What is the single the thread that pulls all your teachings together? That runs through everything you say? And Confucius said, shu, which is translated likening to oneself. In other words, to look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Never treat others, says Confucius, as you would not like to be treated yourself.
And said to him, master, how do we translate this into political life? And Confucius said, it's quite simple, you seek to establish yourself, then seek to establish others. You want to turn your merits to account, then make certain that other people also have the ability to turn their merits to account. Never treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself. And that, he said, has brought you into the presence of the Dao. I'd like to call your attention to the phrase "all day and every day." In England we have a habit of when we've done something nice for somebody, we often say, well that's my good deed for the day, as though we could then return to the next 23 hours to our usual lives of selfishness and greed and ego. But no, all day and every day putting yourself in the shoes of others.
My favorite Golden Rule story belongs to Hillel, the great Pharisee, who was an older contemporary of Jesus. And it said that a pagan came to Hillel one day and promised to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said that which is hateful to you do not to your fellow man. That is the Torah, and everything else is only commentary. Go and study it.
That's a remarkable statement. I mean no mention of the things that we would assume to be central to Judaism, like the existence of God, there being only one God, the creation of the world in six days, the exodus from Egypt, the 631 commandments of the Torah. All these are simply a gloss, a commentary, on the Golden Rule—a deliberately provocative statement. And then at the end, as always in Jewish exegesis, a miqra, a call to action, go and study it. In your study of scripture, make sure that when you read your scripture you make it a commentary on the Golden Rule instead of just picking out bits of hatred here and exclusion there.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: I can have faith that moves mountains to St. Paul, I can give my body to be burned, I can give everything that I have to the poor, but if I lack charity it will do me no good at all. And this comes through again and again because people found that it works. Not one of you can be a believer, said the prophet Muhammad unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself. But who is our neighbor?
Well, the world religions all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must have another Chinese sage called jian ai, concern for everybody. Otherwise, as Jesus said, if you just like the people who like you, there's no merit in that. This is just group egotism. We cannot confine to people who share our ideology or ideals to everybody without exception. Love the stranger, love the foreign, says Leviticus. Love your enemies, said Jesus. Reach out to all tribes and nations, says the prophet Muhammad.
So, this is the challenge. This is the challenge in our world. And it's tragic that the religions which have this ethic right at the heart of their faith are seen to be the major cause of hatreds and disdain and exclusion.
Now, but what is compassion? I think the word has so fallen out of our lexicon that people are confused about it. In English people often think it means pity or feeling sorry for people. I gave a lecture in Holland a couple of years ago, and even though I specifically said that compassion does not mean feeling sorry for people, in the Dutch translation of my lecture in the newspaper, every time I mentioned compassion it was translated pity. It's sort of engrained in us. Or people think it's a touchy-feely thing, cumbaya. But in fact, it demands, so constantly, that we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world, both on an individual, a communal and a political level and put another there.
Now, compassion, our word comes from a Greek Latin root, com [? patain ?] in Greek, and that means to endure something with another person. That means putting yourself imaginatively in other people's shoes, and not just seeing things from your own blinkered, and often self-interested, perspective. But in other faiths, the word for compassion gives us another kind of insight. In Arabic and in Hebrew, too, it's related to rahmah, which is related etymologically to the word for womb.
So, compassion, [? rhaman ?] and [? rahim ?] in the Basmala, it immediately evokes mother love. Now, the icon of a mother and child is universal, a symbol of us all at our best. But mother love is hard. A mother has to get up every night for her crying child no matter how exhausted she is. She has to be aware of what that child is doing at every moment of the day. She has to put her own frustrations and exhaustion and impatience on the back burner, and that child must be in her mind all day long. And then that cute little baby grows up and can become an awful disappointment. But a mother doesn't give up no matter how dispiriting it might be.
There's a very early Buddhist prayer or poem that's actually attributed to the Buddha himself, which says let us cherish all creatures, all creatures, as a mother her only child no matter how disedifying, how disappointing, how shocking, we have somehow to cherish all creatures. Take, not in an emotional sense, but taking responsibility for the pain of others. That's the idea behind the Buddhist/Hindu Sanskrit, karuna for compassion, which means taking responsibility for the pain of others.
Not saying well, that's nothing to do with me, because now whether we like it or not, we are interconnected as never before. At a time when we're dangerously, perilously polarized, we are connected closely on the world wide web, economically when one market goes down, our stocks plummet throughout the globe. Politically. It's no longer the question that suffering and disorder happens in other disadvantageous parts of the world, because we've seen to our cost that what happens now in Afghanistan or Gaza today is likely to have repercussions tomorrow in New York, London or Madrid.
So here we are, interconnected as never before. We all face the possibility of environmental catastrophe. We cannot live without the other. And my businessmen, who are all stepping up to help with the charter, say that look, compassion is crucial to business. It's crucial to our well-being, it's crucial to everything we do.
Now, as you've heard I've written a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I'm not going to take you through all 12 steps this evening. But you will note, of course, the reference to alcoholics anonymous. This is quite deliberate on my part, because we're addicted to our dislikes and prejudices and pet hates.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: We don't know what—we're dependent upon then for our sense of self—we don't know what we'd do without them. And I sometimes see a sort of worried expressions crossing people's face. Oh, can't I ever sound off again about that annoying colleague, or this depressing sibling, or an ex-wife, or a country with whom I'm at war? When we utter these uncompassionate, dismissive, or unkind or just remarks about one another, we often get a kind of buzz, rather like the first drink of the evening—a sort of glow.
We feel we're great, and it's slightly addictive, but of course, it's poisoning us, and it's poisoning the atmosphere. But because this is an addiction, we can't just give it up here and there. We often define ourselves as an individual and as a community against other people. They are what we are not. And this we can't allow it, we can't afford anymore because the stakes are now too high.
So, I devised this twelve step program to help you day by day understand the implications of compassion, but also to help us all try and wean ourselves step by step away from this addiction by integrating habits of mind and action and thought into our daily practice. It starts quite simply with learning about compassion because we don't hear much about it. Then looking around your own world, your own family, our own workplace, your own nation and seeing what needs to be done and how can I make a difference. And then we go on.
But I'm just going to start way in with step seven. How little we know. Now, this is the age of information, and we tend to be very omniscient in the way we speak about people and things in the news often on the flimsiest of evidence. I mean we're encouraged quite rightly to have views. I mean I don't know how it is in the states, in fact, I think I do know how it is in the states.
But certainly in Britain, I mean our airways are clogged with talk shows, phone-ins in which people inveigh against this and that. And really if you happen to know something about what's being talked about, the amount of reliable information some people have can be comfortably contained on the back of a small postcard. And we're ashamed of saying I don't know. And yet unknowing is built into the human condition.
We thought at the beginning of the 20th century, and indeed, it was announced at a big mathematical conference in Paris, that there were just 15 outstanding problems left in the Newtonian system and then we'd have the whole thing sewed up—we'd know about the cosmos. 20 years later Einstein comes along, and now we are confronting an indeterminate, utterly mysterious universe.
But did this worry Einstein? No. He said, to be in the presence of what is impenetrable to us is the source of the deepest joy, and anyone who does not know this awe and wonder is as good as dead. And, of course, the greatest mystery is the human being. I don't know about you, but I'm often astounded at myself. I think to myself why on Earth did I do that? Where did that come from? And people pay good money to get all this sorted out.
And yet we talk about one another in such an omniscient way. We'll say, oh well, the trouble with her is. Or well, you know, she he's always. As though in a single sentence we could sum up the mystery of another human being. How much do you really know about the person who sits next to you in the office? How much do you know of his or her private pain, his or her own history of sorrow, disappointment? What makes him or her wake up in the night? We talk so glibly about these things. Not only about individuals, but about whole countries or cultures or religions. This is becoming increasingly dangerous.
This is not just a religious matter. Socrates at the beginning of the Western rational tradition insisted on the importance of accepting the limits of human knowledge. People who came to Socrates usually thought that they knew what they were talking about. But after half an hour of Socrates' relentless questioning, they found that they knew nothing at all. At that moment, Socrates said, you've become a philosopher. Because you realize that you love wisdom and yet you don't have it, you become a lover of wisdom and you will see it as ardently as a lover. On the last day of his life as he was facing execution, Socrates said to his friends, according to Plato, I am wise in only one thing only in that I know that I know nothing at all.
I think we need to get back to that, especially with regard to other people. There's no limits of our knowledge. The world religions all insist that what be call God or Brahmin or Dao is not just something distant out there, it is enshrined in every single human being, in every single creature, in fact, and that every single one of us is therefore, a sublime and sacred mystery. When the Hindus meet one another they will bow and join their hands to acknowledge the divinity they are encountering in the other. And yet we still sum up people in this glib way.
There's a passage in Hamlet that's always spoke to me. Hamlet, you'll remember, is causing a great deal of trouble in the Danish court. And the King has sent two of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. It doesn't take Hamlet long to know what's going on.
One night he comes to Guildenstern with a pipe, and he says I pray you, play upon this pipe. My lord, I cannot, says Guildenstern. Oh, says Hamlet, it's as easy as lying. And then here I paraphrase a bit, he says, it's simple you just blow down this tube and wiggle your fingers around and out comes the music. My lord, I have not the skills, says Guildenstern.
Why look you now, says Hamlet. What a poor thing you would make of me. You would play upon me like this pipe. You would pull out all my stops, you would play me to the top of my bent, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery. And how often we do that in our words and thoughts about other people, making them serve our internal agendas, making them feed our ego, or exploiting other people? Using them for our own ends, and other nations, indeed, instead of seeing the sacred mystery of every single human being.
There's a Sufi philosopher, Ibn Arabi, in the 12th, 13th century—great, important Sufi Sheikh. And he says that every single human being that has been born into the world, whatever his or her religion, is a unique and unrepeatable revelation of God to the world. Every single human being is an incarnation of one of God's hidden names.
In a sense, this is an exercise to help you realize the utter indescribability and mystery of God. If you just think of all the people in this room and that each of us expresses one individual aspect of God, you see how impossible it is to sum up God. Our task is to look beneath the frequently unpromising exterior to that sacredness.
Now, of course, you can deface the sacred in yourself and many of us do. But if we do that the world will be deprived of a unique revelation of God. And he said that to fail to recognize the sacredness, the sacred mystery, that unites us all, it's in all of us, is what he called ignorance, not knowing. I found this quotation early in my studies, and after my rather parochial religious upbringing it meant a great deal to me, and I'll share it with you now. It's about not thinking you know it all.
"Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will miss much good. Nay, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresence and omniscience cannot be confined to any one creed. For he says in the Quran, wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature, and in praising it, he praises himself, which you would not do if you were just. But his dislike is based on ignorance."
Right. Now, the eighth follows on from that.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: And the eighth step is how should we speak to one another? Dialogue is one of the big buzz words of our time, and people always seem to assume that if only we could engage in dialogue with everybody, peace would break out. But there's very little actual dialogue going on in the world. Very often what we mean by dialogue is bludgeoning someone else to accept our point of view. And our Western discourse is extremely aggressive. It's not enough for us to seek the truth, we also have to defeat and humiliate our opponents. That's true in politics, in religious affairs, in the media, in academia, in the law courts.
Now, this is not the kind of dialogue that Socrates, who invented the genre in the West, had in mind. For Socrates it's impossible to win a dialogue because a dialogue always ends with everybody realizing they know nothing at all. And Socrates insisted that at every single point, the conversation must be conducted with absolute courtesy. Nobody must be pushed into a place that he doesn't want to go, and everybody should listen to one another. You offer your remarks, beautifully expressed to the other. They let it in to their minds and let it unsettle them, and return and move the thing on to you. That's not how we conduct our dialogues. And really, we have to—there's no point entering into dialogue if you're not prepared to be changed by the encounter.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: You know, when we dialogue now with other peoples, other culture, we want to bring them around to our way of thinking. No. Now, that's not to say that we are supine and silent in the face of injustice or cruelty, dishonesty, corruption. No. We must speak out clearly. But how do we speak? How do we do that? I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that if we speak against injustice with hatred, we will simply enhance, we'd make things worse.
When I was in Pakistan, one of the questions I was always asked, and here this is a very real issue. There's a great deal of intolerance. How, they said, do we speak with compassion to the intolerant? I thought of Gandhi, though I didn't actually mention it was Gandhi, because I didn't think that would go down very well in Pakistan. But certainly they got it.
What Gandhi said was when you're about to make a statement about a wrongdoing, ask yourself, ask yourself, if you're speaking to make the situation better or if you're seeking to injure or damage or punish. Because if you do that, it will be counterproductive. Somehow we need to devise a more dispassionate, clear way of speaking out that doesn't condemn in an egotistic way.
We also ought to know that a lot, say, of the religious intolerance that we have, what we often call fundamentalism, I've made a study of fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and in every single one of those faiths, every single one of these movements is rooted in a profound fear—a fear of annihilation.
Even here in the United States, fundamentalists have often felt threatened by the, to them, alien discourse of Harvard and Yale and Washington. And people feel that they're fighting for survival, and that's when we hit out violently. The trouble is that we threaten, both liberals and fundamentalists, we threaten one another's most sacred values. And we identify with our opinions so closely that we can lash out, like a wounded animal. This is just exacerbating things. Somehow we have to take the pressure down.
I always find St. Paul in his Hymn to Charity in Corinthians gives a useful checklist about how to speak to one another. Charity is patient. Charity is kind. It is not puffed up—that's an old translation, but I do like it. It's better than it's not conceited. It's puffed up, because when people are inveighing about something, you can almost see them swelling before their eyes with delighted self-congratulation. We feel terrific when we're holding on forth about somebody we disapprove of. And, says St. Paul, it takes no delight in the wrongdoing of others.
Often we often positively relish the wrongdoings of others, smacking our lips in delighted self-congratulation. This is not compassionate. It's making a dangerous situation worse, and somehow we have to find ways of dealing with it.
Now, the last step, most difficult of all, is love your enemies. It takes us a lifetime—I want to make clear that this—people say it's a how-to book, my book, but it's different from how-to book in that it never ends. You're not going to come out with a flat stomach and a compassionate heart—
KAREN ARMSTRONG: —after reading this book. This is a lifetime's endeavor. And as for loving our enemies, whether that enemy is a colleague who threatens us, someone who has damaged us in the past, or a culture or a nation that seems inimical to us, this is the task. Now, the word love needs decoding here, because we do abase the word love rather deeply I think. We use it so glibly. I love ice cream, or I'd love a Gin and Tonic. But love is—that's not what Jesus is talking about. Though, I mean Jesus did like a drink.
But here, Jesus is talking about doing a commentary, a bit of—a Rabbinic midrash on Leviticus. Leviticus is a legal text when Leviticus says, love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus is saying, yes, but also love your enemy.
Now, Leviticus is not talking about emotion. In a legal text that would be as out of place as it would be in a Supreme Court ruling. We're not talking about feelings here. Feelings come and go. We all know that. They are extremely ephemeral and unreliable. They're important, they tell us things, but we're not drumming up a whole lot of false feeling here.
The word used in Leviticus, hesed, was used as a legal term, it meant loyalty, commitment. It was used in International treaties. Two kings who may have been enemies before promised to love each other. And that didn't mean that they were going to fall into each other's arms, but that they would look out for one another. They would look out for each other's best interests. They would come to their aid in time of trouble. They would be a loyal ally, giving them practical help and support. And this is the kind of love we have to give to everybody, even the people we regard as enemies. Otherwise, the problems that we are confronting in our world are going to be compounded.
Now, I'm going to end with the Greeks, because even though we don't think of them as a particularly religious or even compassionate people—in many ways they were a fearful people, a war-like people. But at the height of their intellectual renaissance in the 5th century before Christ, the Greeks invented the genre of tragic drama. Every year on the Festival of Dionysus, a religious festival, Dionysus was God of transformation.
The whole citizenry of Athens were obliged to attend plays. This was not a matter of choice, it was a civic duty, and people were let out of prison to attend these plays. It was a drama competition, and the leading dramatist of the day would present trilogies, sets of three plays, usually based on one of the ancient Greek myths, which was re-told, re-cast in such a way as to reflect the particular problems that Athens had been engaged with that year.
What the Greeks were doing was putting suffering on stage. So that the audience came together, and watched a man or a woman in an extremity of agony, faced with an impossible decision, faced with the awful results of actions that they hadn't intended, faced with the utter sorrow of human life. We often want to push pain away from us and say it has nothing to do with us and to put on a cheery smile.
But no, the Greeks, for that one year, for one day in the year, they put suffering on stage. And when they saw this, each person felt that they were not alone. We all suffer. Even those who are most fortunate will die an uncomfortable death. We will all get sick. We all have pain, disappointment, sorrow, and sometimes this sorrow seems trivial compared with the sorrow that we see in the world all around us—the deprivation, the agony, the anguish. And yet, it's not trivial to us.
Sorrow is something that unites human beings. And in the course of the play, the leader of the chorus would turn to the audience and say, now weep, weep for Oedipus, a man who in real life you would probably shun. A man who inadvertently had killed his father and married his mother, two basic taboos. Or Heracles who was driven mad by a goddess, and in his divinely inspired frenzy, slaughtered his wife and children.
Now weep for these people, and the Greeks did weep. They didn't just wipe an embarrassed tear from the corner of their eye, they wept aloud because they believed that weeping together created a bond between human beings. It created a citizenry. It made you realize that you were not alone in your pain—this was something that everybody shared. And if they went into this, like in any great work of art, it takes you beyond yourself, beyond your selfish, limited, petty preconceptions so that you could give your sympathy in a place which you would not have thought possible before you went to that play.
Now, the first of these plays to come down to us was Aeschylus's, The Persians. And it was presented in Athens about seven years after the Athenians had crushed and defeated the Persian army in a landmark often victory. But before that victory was achieved, the Persians had gone through Athens and trashed the city. They'd burned, looted, pillaged, stolen, and then they went up to the sacred hill, the Acropolis, outside the city and smashed and destroyed all the beautiful new temples on the hill.
And now Aeschylus is asking the Athenians to weep for the Persians. There is no triumphalism, no gloating, no chauvinism, no victory. No. The Persians are presented as a people in mourning. The Persians are said to be a sister people of the Greeks. We are brother and sister equal in majesty and nobility. Xerxes, the defeated Persian general comes home and is escorted with great respect and reverence into his palace.
Now, we have to ask ourselves could we, 10 years after 9/11, put on a play or some artistic endeavor, that tries to see the events of the last 10 years from the point of view of our so-called enemies. That's the challenge.
KAREN ARMSTRONG: And this was deep in Greek culture, despite their war-like—and this is the last story I'm going to tell. It comes from the Iliad in the 8th century, Homer's Iliad. Now, you'll know, of course, that the Iliad tells the story of just one small incident in long 10-year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. In this incident, Achilles, the chief warrior on the Greek side, has a quarrel with Agamemnon, his King.
In a fit of egotistic peak, he goes off and sulks in his tent, and more importantly, he withdraws all his troops from the war. This is utterly disastrous for the Greek side. And in the ensuing confusion, Achilles' beloved friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector, one of the Trojan Princes. And Achilles goes mad with grief and guilt and sorrow and rage. He completely loses his humanity. He's usually a tender-hearted man, but even the Gods are appalled by what's going on.
He challenges Hector to a dual. And there, in front of the two armies, and in front of the Trojan royal family, Hector's family, were watching from the Walls of Troy, they fight and Achilles kills Hector, and he mutilates the body. He ties the body to the back of his war chariot and drags it round and round Patroclus's grave. And then he does a terrible thing. He refuses to give the body to the family for burial. That means in the Greek Ethos that Hector's soul will never know rest. It will wander, distressed and discomforted for all eternity.
But then one night Hector's father, old King Priam of Troy, comes into enemy territory into the Greek camp in disguise. He makes his way to Achilles' tent, and he takes off his disguise and everybody, of course, is shocked. The old, old man comes forward and falls at Achilles' feet to plead for the body of his son. He embraces Achilles' knees and he weeps. At this point, Homer calls Achilles man-slaughtering Achilles. Achilles has killed not only Hector, but many of other of Priam's sons. And Achilles looks at the old man and he thinks of his own father, and he, too, begins to weep.
And the two men weep together out to their private pain, but creating that bond between people. Priam weeps for all his sons, and Achilles weeps, Homer says, now for his father, now for Patroclus. And then the weeping stops, and Achilles then goes for Hector's body, and he carries it and lays it very gently and tenderly in the arms of the old man, afraid that this will be too much for the old man to bear. And then the two men look at each other, and each recognizes the other as Divine.
It's when we can go beyond the hatred, the enmity that locks us into so much grief and pain and violence, it's then that we become God-like. That is the end of the religious quest. Thank you.
REV. PETER MORALES: Karen, thank you so much. There are nine more steps. And happily, Karen has agreed to do a book signing upstairs—it was the registration area. I have read the book. It is a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. And so, I encourage you to do that. And once again, thank you so much. What a gift your Ware Lecture has been.
The Ware Lecture is General Assembly 2011 event number 4022.
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Last updated on Tuesday, December 4, 2012.
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