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Charter for Compassion: Interfaith Beyond Kumbaya

As an interfaith child, I tend to avoid "interfaith" conferences. Religious leaders inevitably describe the ideal interfaith encounter as one in which we must gird our religious loins in order to cross a bridge and embrace the "other," without being pulled down into that muddy, syncretic, dangerous space between us, below the bridge. Then, after a respectful hug, both parties return to their respective sides, enlightened but affirming the depth of their own religious convictions.This imagery poses a problem for those of us from interfaith families, especially those of us who are interfaith children. Some of us inconveniently insist on living on the bridge itself, or possibly under it, like trolls. We do not belong on one side, or the other. Or we feel we belong equally on both sides, and insist on traveling from one side to the other, in the space of a lifetime, or in the space of a conversation.

But yesterday, I tried to suspend my suspicions and personal complexities, and to some degree my irony, to go down to the National Press Club in Washington for the unveiling of the "Charter of Compassion." The Charter was created to unify and inspire people from every religion, and no religion, with the idea that we must put compassion at the center of our lives and world.

I was drawn in, principally, by Karen Armstrong, former Catholic nun and a religious writer both notorious and celebrated for thinking outside the box. As she told us today, "I don’t think belief is very important." A radical statement from a religious thinker, but one that works perfectly for me as an interfaith child who has spent a lifetime integrating two religions while being told that they are somehow mutually exclusive.

The Charter came about after Armstrong won the groovy TED Prize last year, and TED granted her wish to create the Charter of Compassion. Religious luminaries signed on to support the project, including everyone from the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Three aspects of the Charter project, besides the leadership of Armstrong, made this more than just another typically sappy interfaith declaration: first, the hipster TED folks convinced Armstrong to let the Charter evolve through a massive online collaborative free-for-all: thousands of people posted ideas about what should go into the Charter. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design). As a blogger, I was intrigued by this techno-savvy commitment to user-generated content, or crowdsourcing, in the world of ideas. At the press conference, Rabbi David Saperstein called this "one of the most collaborative undertakings in religious history," and predicted that it could have a "transformative impact."

Second, Armstrong specifically encouraged atheists and agnostics to be part of the process. The basis of the Charter is the idea that the Golden Rule is a central tenet of all major religions. But the acknowledgement of the importance and contributions of "non-believers," as President Obama affectionately calls them, is novel and daring.

Third, the Charter itself includes some edgy statements. For one, it calls on us to acknowledge that "any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate" and that some of us have "increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion." So very true, but strong stuff that. At the press conference, Armstrong said she was determined not to "try to mask the less than flattering aspects of religion."

The charter also calls on us to "ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures." That is music to the ears of interfaith families who brave the disapproval of religious institutions to educate their children about even two religions

In the last forty-eight hours, the Charter has been unveiled and mounted on the walls of houses of worship, and secular spaces, including the the Sydney Opera House, the Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut, the Ramallah Friends Meeting House, and both the National Cathedral and the Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC. Around the world, today and through the weekend, communities are staging readings of the charter, a sort of benediction and charge to mobilize interfaith love. Suspend your snark-o-meter and read it. I expected platitudes, and instead encountered bracing challenges and frank talk.

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