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Annotated captions of Karen Armstrong makes her TED Prize wish: the Charter for Compassion in English

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Well, this is such an honor. And it's wonderful to be

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in the presence of an organization that is really making a difference in the world.

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And I'm intensely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.

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And I'm also rather surprised, because when I look back on my life

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the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion.

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After I left my convent, I'd finished with religion, frankly.

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I thought that was it.

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And for 13 years I kept clear of it. I wanted to be an English literature professor.

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And I certainly didn't even want to be a writer, particularly.

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But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes,

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one after the other, and finally found myself in television. (Laughter)

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I said that to Bill Moyers, and he said, "Oh, we take anybody." (Laughter)

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And I was doing some rather controversial religious programs.

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This went down very well in the U.K., where religion is extremely unpopular.

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And so, for once, for the only time in my life, I was finally in the mainstream.

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But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity.

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And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions:

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Judaism and Islam, the sister religions of Christianity.

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And while I found I knew nothing about these faiths at all --

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despite my own intensely religious background,

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I'd seen Judaism only as a kind of prelude to Christianity,

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and I knew nothing about Islam at all.

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But in that city, that tortured city,

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where you see the three faiths jostling so uneasily together,

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you also become aware of the profound connection between them.

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And it has been the study of other religious traditions that brought me back

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to a sense of what religion can be, and actually enabled me

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to look at my own faith in a different light.

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And I found some astonishing things in the course of my study

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that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days when I thought I'd had it with religion,

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I just found the whole thing absolutely incredible.

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These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract.

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And to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions,

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I began to realize that belief -- which we make such a fuss about today --

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is only a very recent religious enthusiasm

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that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century.

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The word "belief" itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear.

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In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus,

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for reasons that I'm exploring in a book I'm writing at the moment,

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to include -- to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, a credo.

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"I believe:" it did not mean, "I accept certain creedal articles of faith."

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It meant: "I commit myself. I engage myself."

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Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy.

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In the Quran, religious opinion -- religious orthodoxy -- is dismissed as "zanna:"

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self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other,

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but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. (Laughter)

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So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about?

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What I've found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently.

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Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something.

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You behave in a committed way,

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and then you begin to understand the truths of religion.

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And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action;

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you only understand them when you put them into practice.

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Now, pride of place in this practice is given to compassion.

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And it is an arresting fact that right across the board,

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in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion --

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the ability to feel with the other in the way we've been thinking about this evening --

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is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us

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into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call "God" or the "Divine."

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It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana.

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Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other,

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we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put

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another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we're ready to see the Divine.

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And in particular, every single one of the major world traditions has highlighted -- has said --

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and put at the core of their tradition what's become known as the Golden Rule.

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First propounded by Confucius five centuries before Christ:

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"Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

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That, he said, was the central thread which ran through all his teaching

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and that his disciples should put into practice all day and every day.

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And it was -- the Golden Rule would bring them to the transcendent value that he called "ren,"

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human-heartedness, which was a transcendent experience in itself.

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And this is absolutely crucial to the monotheisms, too.

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There's a famous story about the great rabbi, Hillel, the older contemporary of Jesus.

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A pagan came to him and offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could

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recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg.

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Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you,

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do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary.

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Go and study it." (Laughter)

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And "go and study it" was what he meant.

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He said, "In your exegesis, you must make it clear

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that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule."

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The great Rabbi Meir said that any interpretation of Scripture which

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led to hatred and disdain, or contempt of other people --

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any people whatsoever -- was illegitimate.

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Saint Augustine made exactly the same point.

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Scripture, he says, "teaches nothing but charity, and we must not leave

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an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it."

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And this struggle to find compassion in some of these rather rebarbative texts

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is a good dress rehearsal for doing the same in ordinary life. (Applause)

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But now look at our world. And we are living in a world that is --

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where religion has been hijacked. Where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities.

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Where instead of taking Jesus' words, "Love your enemies.

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Don't judge others," we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people,

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endlessly using Scripture as a way of arguing with other people,

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putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others,

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and this is because of human ego, human greed.

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We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.

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So the traditions also insisted -- and this is an important point, I think --

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that you could not and must not confine your compassion

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to your own group: your own nation, your own co-religionists,

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your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages called "jian ai":

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concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger.

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We formed you, says the Quran, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another.

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And this, again -- this universal outreach -- is getting subdued in the strident use of religion --

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abuse of religion -- for nefarious gains.

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Now, I've lost count of the number of taxi drivers who,

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when I say to them what I do for a living, inform me that religion

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has been the cause of all the major world wars in history. Wrong.

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The causes of our present woes are political.

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But, make no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line,

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and when a conflict gets ingrained in a region, religion can get sucked in

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and become part of the problem. Our modernity has been exceedingly violent.

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Between 1914 and 1945, 70 million people died in Europe alone as a result of armed conflict.

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And so many of our institutions, even football, which used to be a pleasant pastime,

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now causes riots where people even die.

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And it's not surprising that religion, too, has been affected by this violent ethos.

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There's also a great deal, I think, of religious illiteracy around.

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People seem to think, now equate religious faith with believing things.

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As though that -- we call religious people often believers,

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as though that were the main thing that they do. And very often, secondary goals

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get pushed into the first place, in place of compassion and the Golden Rule.

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Because the Golden Rule is difficult. I sometimes -- when I'm speaking to

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congregations about compassion, I sometimes see

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a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces because

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a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate. (Laughter)

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Now -- but that's not the whole story.

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Since September the 11th, when my work on Islam suddenly propelled me

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into public life, in a way that I'd never imagined, I've been able to sort of go all over the world,

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and finding, everywhere I go, a yearning for change.

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I've just come back from Pakistan, where literally thousands of people came to my lectures,

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because they were yearning, first of all, to hear a friendly Western voice.

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And especially the young people were coming. And were asking me --

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the young people were saying, "What can we do? What can we do to change things?"

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And my hosts in Pakistan said, "Look, don't be too polite to us.

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Tell us where we're going wrong. Let's talk together about where religion is failing."

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Because it seems to me that with -- our current situation is so serious

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at the moment that any ideology that doesn't promote a sense of global understanding

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and global appreciation of each other is failing the test of the time.

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And religion, with its wide following ... Here in the United States,

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people may be being religious in a different way, as a report has just shown --

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but they still want to be religious. It's only Western Europe that has retained its secularism,

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which is now beginning to look rather endearingly old-fashioned.

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But people want to be religious, and religion should be made

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to be a force for harmony in the world, which it can and should be --

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because of the Golden Rule.

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"Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you":

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an ethos that should now be applied globally.

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We should not treat other nations as we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

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And these -- whatever our wretched beliefs -- is a religious matter, it's a spiritual matter.

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It's a profound moral matter that engages and should engage us all.

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And as I say, there is a hunger for change out there.

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Here in the United States, I think you see it in this election campaign: a longing for change.

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And people in churches all over and mosques all over this continent after September the 11th,

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coming together locally to create networks of understanding.

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With the mosque, with the synagogue, saying, "We must start to speak to one another."

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I think it's time that we moved beyond the idea of toleration and move toward appreciation of the other.

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I'd -- there's one story I'd just like to mention.

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This comes from "The Iliad." But it tells you what this spirituality should be.

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You know the story of "The Iliad," the 10-year war between Greece and Troy.

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In one incident, Achilles, the famous warrior of Greece, takes his troops out of the war,

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and the whole war effort suffers. And in the course of the ensuing muddle,

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his beloved friend, Patroclus, is killed -- and killed in single combat

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by one of the Trojan princes, Hector. And Achilles goes mad with grief and rage and revenge,

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and he mutilates the body. He kills Hector, he mutilates his body

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and then he refuses to give the body back for burial to the family,

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which means that, in Greek ethos, Hector's soul will wander eternally, lost.

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And then one night, Priam, king of Troy, an old man,

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comes into the Greek camp incognito, makes his way to Achilles' tent

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to ask for the body of his son.

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And everybody is shocked when the old man takes off his head covering and shows himself.

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And Achilles looks at him and thinks of his father. And he starts to weep.

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And Priam looks at the man who has murdered so many of his sons,

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and he, too, starts to weep. And the sound of their weeping filled the house.

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The Greeks believed that weeping together created a bond between people.

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And then Achilles takes the body of Hector, he hands it very tenderly to the father,

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and the two men look at each other, and see each other as divine.

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That is the ethos found, too, in all the religions.

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It's what is meant by overcoming the horror that we feel when we are under threat of our enemies,

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and beginning to appreciate the other.

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It's of great importance that the word for "holy" in Hebrew, applied to God, is "Kadosh": separate, other.

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And it is often, perhaps, the very otherness of our enemies which can

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give us intimations of that utterly mysterious transcendence which is God.

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And now, here's my wish:

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I wish that you would help with the creation,

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launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion,

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crafted by a group of inspirational thinkers from

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the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,

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and based on the fundamental principle of the Golden Rule.

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We need to create a movement among all these people that I meet in my travels --

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you probably meet, too -- who want to join up, in some way,

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and reclaim their faith, which they feel, as I say, has been hijacked.

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We need to empower people to remember the compassionate ethos,

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and to give guidelines. This Charter would not be a massive document.

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I'd like to see it -- to give guidelines as to how to interpret the Scriptures,

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these texts that are being abused. Remember what the rabbis and what Augustine

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said about how Scripture should be governed by the principle of charity.

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Let's get back to that. And the idea, too, of Jews, Christians and Muslims --

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these traditions now so often at loggerheads -- working together to

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create a document which we hope will be signed by a thousand, at least,

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of major religious leaders from all the traditions of the world.

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And you are the people. I'm just a solitary scholar.

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Despite the idea that I love a good time, which I was rather amazed to see coming up on me

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-- I actually spend a great deal of time alone, studying, and I'm not very --

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you're the people with media knowledge to explain to me how we can get this to everybody,

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everybody on the planet. I've had some preliminary talks,

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and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for example,

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is very happy to give his name to this, as is Imam Feisal Rauf, the Imam in New York City.

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Also, I would be working with the Alliance of Civilizations at the United Nations.

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I was part of that United Nations initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations,

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which was asked by Kofi Annan to diagnose the causes of extremism,

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and to give practical guidelines to member states about how to avoid the escalation of further extremism.

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And the Alliance has told me that they are very happy to work with it.

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The importance of this is that this is -- I can see some of you starting to look worried,

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because you think it's a slow and cumbersome body --

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but what the United Nations can do is give us some neutrality,

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so that this isn't seen as a Western or a Christian initiative, but that it's coming,

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as it were, from the United Nations, from the world --

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who would help with the sort of bureaucracy of this.

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And so I do urge you to join me in making -- in this charter --

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to building this charter, launching it and propagating it so that it becomes --

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I'd like to see it in every college, every church, every mosque, every synagogue in the world,

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so that people can look at their tradition, reclaim it, and make religion a source of peace in the world,

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which it can and should be. Thank you very much. (Applause)