The following is an excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion
by Joel Federman

While the twentieth century--and the dawn of the new milennium--have been marked by world wars, ethnic conflict, and the emergence of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, they have also seen an increasing search for a common global identity and universally shared values.

This search has taken several forms. First, there has been an attempt to codify and enshrine those political, economic and social rights that all human beings hold in common, the most prominent expression of which is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December, 1948 (Meyer, 1981: xxxi). As noted in Chapter Five, the movement for the universal realization and respect of human rights has grown exponentially in the last several decades, marked in particular by a proliferation of nongovernmental human rights organizations.

At the same time, there has been an increasing search to identify common understanding across religious faiths and cultural boundaries. During the last century, numerous efforts at direct dialogue between members of different faiths--and between religion and science--have been conducted, aimed both at increasing mutual understanding and the creation of common action based on shared values. (Kung, 1991: passim; Bryant and Flinn, 1991, passim; Bok, 1992: passim) Interfaith dialogues have been organized at every level, from local community gatherings to global events such as the 1986 inter-faith conference in Assisi, Italy, of sixty religious leaders including Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Schance, 1986); the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-sponsored conference on "The Contribution of the Religions to the Culture of Peace," held in 1993 in Barcelona, Spain (Teasdale, 1993: 123); and the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions held in Chicago, Illinois. (Gomez-Ibanez, 1993: 2-3)

More recently, responding to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, Pope John Paul II organized a conclave of world religious leaders to show the world "that religions must never be allowed to become a cause of conflict, hate and violence." (MSNBC, November 18, 2001) The meeting took place on January 24, 2002. (CNN, January 24, 2002)

Such interfaith dialogue efforts have spawned a variety of organizations to promote further dialogue and common action. Links to several major organizations of this kind can be found in the links at the right.

This chapter attempts to contribute to these interfaith efforts by identifying compassion as a common theme in major world religions. This will accomplish two purposes. First, examples from various religious contexts provide a fuller and richer sense of the political implications of universal compassion. Second,, it will provide evidence that suggests that the topic of compassion can be considered a useful launching pad for interfaith dialogues, as it is a theme that is developed in so many religious and ethical traditions.

It should be noted that practitioners of each of the religions covered in this chapter have not always practiced compassion according to the definition developed in previous chapters. Compassion may be said to be a tradition within each tradition. Each major religious tradition has other emphases, and it is unnecessary for present purposes to judge which tradition best or most purely represents compassion in politics.

Compassion is an important theme in every major religious tradition, as well as in most ethical traditions. As William James noted in his study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, "brotherly love" and "saintliness" are psychological features common to many religious sects. (James, 1958: 207-255) James notes that such sentiments are to be found in both theistic and non-theistic religions: "They harmonize with paternal theism beautifully; but they harmonize with all reflection whatever upon the dependence of mankind on general causes; and we must, I think, consider them not subordinate but coordinate parts of that great complex excitement in the study of which we are engaged. Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological wonder, cosmic emotion, are all unifying states of mind, in which the sand and grit of the selfhood incline to disappear, and tenderness to rule. The best thing is to describe the condition integrally as a characteristic affection to which our nature is liable...but not to pretend to explain its parts by deriving them too cleverly from one another....(T)he faith state is a natural psychic complex, and carries charity with it by organic consequence. (James, 1958: 221)

In the monotheistic context, the universal love attitude is often upheld by the belief that all human beings are "God's children." Human beings are held to be deserving of love as part of God's Creation, or as reflections of God's image. In pantheistic or spiritualistic religious traditions, universal love is often based on the belief in the indivisibility of all things, that each being is of one essence with all other beings. In that sense, it is a form of enlightened self interest that one loves all other beings as oneself.

Below is a survey of compassionate political thought within Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (reader's note: future drafts will include Buddhism):

Compassionate Politics in the Jewish Tradition

The idea of compassion in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition can be traced to the Torah, or Old Testament, in which several passages imply or refer directly to it. Primary among these is a passage in Leviticus, in which God is said to include among the Commandments to the people of Israel the injunction to "love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18; Holy Scriptures, 1955: 158) This is arguably the most straightforward statement of the principle of compassion, or universal love, if the meaning of the term "neighbor" can be interpreted to include all human beings, which it was for Jews, generally, by the first century A.D. (Singer, 1984: 292)

Two of the most revered rabbis in Jewish history established early the principle of compassion as paramount and quintessential to Judaism. Perhaps the most famous story in Jewish folklore concerns a young man who approached Rabbi Hillel (circa 60 B.C.- A.D. 9), offering to convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel converted the man by standing as such and replying: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your comrade; this is the whole Torah in its entirety; the rest is commentary: go learn." (cited in Harvey, 1976: 5) Echoing this position, Rabbi Akiva (circa A.D. 50 - A.D. 135) stated that the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself is the "great rule in the Torah." (cited in Harvey, 1976: 6)

A second, equally famous, biblical passage is found in the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet predicts a future time in which "(the nations of the world) shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:2-4; Holy Scriptures, 1955: 534) A social environment in which such activities can be contemplated can be assumed to be predicated on a general ethos of compassion, or concord.

The Torah celebrates such peaceful relationships, as in Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." The Hebrew word "shalom," usually translated as "peace," has meaning well beyond the Latin "pax," or treaty, from which the English word "peace" is derived. Shalom implies a general sense of well-being and security, which flows from righteousness in the form of good will. As Israel Mattuck, author of Jewish Ethics, writes, "(P)eace results from the righteousness that practices justice and love." (Mattuck, 1953: 70)

In an ideal political state, the harmlessness of nonviolence comes into play. In prophesying the time of the Messiah, Isaiah states that "they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah xi, 9; quoted in Mattuck, 1953: 70)

According to the Jewish faith, the Torah, which embodies the word and law of G-d, when studied and internalized, yields the best possible character and the good, or godly, life. The study of the ethics of Torah develops a certain kind of character. The Jewish ideal is the individual who cultivates a gentle, kindly disposition. According to the Ethics of the Fathers, a Talmudic compilation of the sayings of pre-Christian era scholars and rabbis, "There are four kinds of dispositions: Easy to become angry and easy to be pacified, his loss is compensated by his gain; hard to become angry and hard to be pacified, his gain is offset by his loss; hard to become angry and easy to be pacified is godly; easy to become angry and hard to be pacified is wicked." (Birnbaum, 1949: 42) According to this approach, a "good heart" is the "best quality to which a man should cling." (Birnbaum, 1949: 12)

What does it mean politically to have a "good heart?" How are we to act toward those in the larger community, and beyond? In the Jewish context, the answer to these questions is given in certain of the Commandments of Sinai. Many of the Commandments are concerned with interpersonal and inter- and intra-communal relations. Special attention is given to such issues as how one should treat the stranger, the debtor, the neighbor, one's parents, the poor, the widow, the orphan. An example of this approach is found in the biblical commandments regarding "tithing," or setting aside a certain portion of one's wealth, which should be distributed to "the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow," so that they "shall eat, and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy, 14:22-29; Holy Scriptures, 1955: 256-7) A second example of these are the roots of the Jewish idea of justice to which those with "good hearts" are committed.

The political relevance of a "good heart" is also shown in the Commandments regarding war. Here the officers are commanded to ask the people, "What man is there that is fearful and gentle of heart? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart." (Deuteronomy 20:8) In the Jewish mystical tradition, acts of love have the effect of healing the universe, of making God One. The liturgy which introduces the "Shema," considered the central prayer in Judaism, suggests a reciprocal relation between the love of God for humanity, and humanity's love for God: "A great love You have loved us, O Lord our God...You have brought us near unto Your great Name in truth, that we may thank You and unite You in Love." (cited in Harvey, 1976: 17) Another prayer suggests that human beings help fulfill the destiny of the universe by uniting their vision of God together, through love, pointing toward a future time in which "God will be One, and His Name One."

The Mitzvah and the Mensch

This ethical approach, aiming at goodheartedness and kindliness toward all persons, is perhaps best captured in the concept of the Hebrew word, "mitzvah." The word "mitzvah" literally means "commandment." in the most direct meaning of the term, to accomplish a mitzvah is to carry out one of the 613 Commandments that Moses was given by G-d on Sinai. However, early in the development of the religion the notion of a mitzvah came to mean more than its literal interpretation. Any act motivated by spontaneous kindness toward another person is considered as a relative moral equivalent of one of the original Commandments, that is, a mitzvah. Translated this way, mitzvah means "good deed." Rabbi Ben Azzai is cited as saying in the Ethics of the Fathers, "Run to perform even a minor mitzvah, and flee from transgression; for one good deed draws [in its train] another good deed, and one transgression leads to another; for the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the reward of sin is sin [virtue is its own reward, and sin its own penalty]." (Birnbaum, 1949: 28) Thus, we see that by doing good deeds one accumulates in one's character the quality of a person who is kindly and godly.

In the Middle Ages, this quality of kindliness and godliness, when embodied by an individual, was given the Yiddish name, "mensch" (also known as a "tzadick.") A "mensch" is a particular kind of person, one whose character and way of life embodies the qualities of goodness, gentleness and kindness. In short, a mensch is a person who is an accomplished doer of mitzvahs. A proficient mitzvah-doer develops over time a certain matrix of character traits that lend themselves to that proficiency.

The Christian Tradition of Compassion

Christianity modified the idea of compassion, or universal love, it inherited from Judaism, and made it the centerpiece of its religious doctrine. The Gospels report that love was a central theme in the message of Jesus. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the various expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is quoted as saying, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...." (Matthew, 5: 43; Holy Bible, 1952: 760) In his evaluation of the whole of the Judaic tradition, Jesus concluded that, after the love of God, the love of humanity was its most important meaning: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22: 37-40)

The method Jesus prescribed for enacting this love, even in the face of danger or injustice, was to pour it out regardless of consequences. Thus, he counsels, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (Matthew 5:38-41; Holy Bible, 1952: 760) This is unconditional love par excellence.

The proclamations of Jesus concerning the loving attitude included prescriptions and prohibitions for one's thoughts as well as one's actions. For Jesus, the loving attitude required a degree of humility, to the extent that one does not place oneself above others in one's judgments. "Judge not," Matthew records him as saying, "that you not be judged....Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is a log in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:1-4; Holy Bible, 1952: 762) Jesus also preached against anger and for forgiveness, in response to transgressions (Matthew 5:22 and 6:14; Holy Bible, 1952: 761).

Saint Paul, the founder of Christianity as a formal religion, claimed universal love to be the crucial defining attribute of a true Christian. He wrote to the Corinthians, "If I believe in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." (Corinthians 13:1-2; Holy Bible, 1952: 906)

What has come to be known variously as the doctrine of nonresistance or pacifism finds its seed in Jesus' preachings in the Sermon on the Mount. The word "pacifism" itself derives from the Latin translation of Jesus' beatitude, "Beati pacifici," or "Blessed are the peacemakers." (Brock, 1972:4) Though there is scholarly and theological debate concerning whether Jesus consistently was what would today be called a pacifist, there is no doubt that many of his early followers interpreted him as such. (Brock, 1972: 3-8, passim) During the early Christian era, most Christians practiced nonresistance in all their social affairs. For instance, there are no recorded examples of justifications for self-defense murder or imposition of the death penalty by a Christian during that period. (Brock, 1972: 21) Lactantius, writing around the beginning of the fourth century, went so far as to argue that Christians should not accuse anyone of capital offenses, "because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden." (quoted in Brock, l9782: 21)

Important evidence of early Christian pacifism was the refusal of many Christians to serve in the military. The most famous example of such conscientious objection to military service during the period was that of Saint Maximilanus, who was called for military service in the Roman army in A.D. 295 and subsequently executed for his refusal to serve. (Brock, 1972:13) Brought before Dion, the Proconsul of Africa, Maximilianus declared, "I cannot fight, I cannot do evil; I am a Christian." (quoted in Sibley, 1963:17)

One of the foremost church fathers, Tertullian, was explicitly pacifist in his political thought. Tertullian believed that it was wrong for a Christian to participate in the army either in times of war or peace. Referring to many soldiers who had left the army after conversion to Christianity, he wrote, "How will (a Christian) make war--nay, how will he serve as a soldier in (time of) peace without the sword, which the Lord has taken away....Christ, in disarming Peter, ungirt every soldier." (quoted in Brock, l972: 11) For Tertullian, rejection of participation in the military formed part of a broader withdrawal from political life that was characteristic of many early Christians.

Christianity's early pacifist period came largely to an end in A.D. 313, the year that the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. With the identification of church and state in the Roman empire, the tide of Christian opinion concerning war and the military turned away from the pacifist approach and toward what came to be known as the "just war" doctrine. From A.D. 29, the year of Jesus' death, to A.D. 170, it is believed that no Christian served in the military; from A.D. 170-313, there is some evidence that Christians served in the military (Iyer, 1973: 218); Constantine granted tolerance to Christianity in 313; in A.D. 314, a church synod put forth a canon that all who lay down their arms in times of peace will be excluded from communion; Emperor Theodocius incorporated Christianity as the official Roman state religion in A.D. 380; and by A. D. 438, non-Christians were forbidden to serve in the imperial Roman armies. (Brock, l972: 21-24,)

As Christian thought evolved from the end of the early Christian period and through the Middle Ages, its doctrine of love or compassion evolved with it. Early Christian thought concerning action which could be taken in a loving manner hewed close to the standard of "harmlessness" which has been previously noted as an essential attribute of the political dimension of compassion. This standard proscribes actions--and, in some instances, thoughts--which cause or lead to the physical harm of other beings. In early Christianity, as has been indicated, such restraint was taken in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Subsequent to the incorporation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, however, a new Christian attitude toward the meaning of love and its political implications emerged.

The pivotal figure in the emergence of this new attitude was Augustine of Hippo, who was active from the middle of the fourth century through the third decade of the fifth century. Augustine is considered one of the primary "fathers" of Catholicism and was the originator of the Christian doctrine of the "just war," which can be summarized in the phrase, "If one's interior motive is purely directed to a just cause and to love of the enemy, then the use of force is not unjust." (Augustine, quoted in Givey, 1983:54) Augustine's attitude toward love can be understood in the context of his cosmological belief that the universe is divided into two spheres, the "City of God" and the earthly City. Human nature, in this scheme, is also bifurcated into spiritual and fleshly components. As a result, human love is of a two-fold nature: "caritas," an unselfish, spiritual, God-inspired love, and "cupidatas," the love of earthly, material treasures. To love another person in the sense of caritas--Christian love--, is not love of the whole person as he or she stands, but the love of the image of God reflected in them. (Stevenson, 1987: 77-8n) Right love, therefore, is that which moves its object away from the earthly city and toward a full life in the City of God.

As a result of this theological-ethical position, it was possible for Augustine to describe as loving attitudes and actions which would not have been considered loving by many of the early Christians. So long as one loves in the right manner, that is, in the sense of caritas, one cannot do wrong: "Love," he wrote, "and do what you will." (Stevenson, 1987: 99) Warning others that they may be incurring some sort of danger certainly appears to fall within the standard of harmlessness set by the early Christians; executed in the right spirit, such action is often understood as helpful. But, Augustine went further, allowing for corporal punishment, capital punishment, and war as means of conveying one's love for the soul of the other. This does not mean that Augustine was insensitive to human pain; rather he believed that violence in the service of love was an evil, though a necessary one. "(I)f any one either endures or thinks of (wars) without mental pain," he wrote, "(such a person) has lost human feeling." (quoted in Deane, 1963: 157) In addition, Augustine felt that, though war was sometimes necessary, it was better to settle conflicts through peaceful means such as negotiations: ""(I)t is a higher glory (than success in just wars) to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war." (Deane, 1963: 159)

The Protestant Reformation

The Christian politics of love and compassion underwent a major transformation with the advent of Protestantism. It is not necessary for present purposes to outline the entire history of this transformation. Rather, what will be drawn here in the broadest of outlines is the development of the idea of compassion in its various manifestations within the Protestant experience, to provide the intellectual genealogy of current ideas and to present them in light of their full background. Thus, this chapter will make passing reference to certain major pacifist Christian movements, but will not dwell on them in particular unless they add some new dimension to the understanding of the philosophy or politics of compassion.

With few recorded exceptions, the history of the politics of compassion within the Christian tradition, does not begin a new chapter after the end of early Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. Though Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, the principal figures in the Reformation, called for a return to the values and practices of the early church, they each came to make exception for "the permissibility of Christian participation in war at the command of the lawful magistrate." (Brock, 1968: 3)

The Anabaptist movement, which emerged in the early 1520's in Zurich, Switzerland, was the first Reformation movement which found no justification for such an exception. (Brock, l972: 59) Like other Protestant reformers, Anabaptists sought a return to a more primitive Christianity, unencumbered by the dogma and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. However, Anabaptists differed from other Protestant reformers, such as the Lutherans, in that they rejected the doctrine that the measure of a Christian is faith; for them a disciple of Christ is distinguished by two characteristics, namely love and suffering, "love which manifests itself in meekness and humility, patience and peace, mercy and compassion; and a willingness to bear the Master's cross in suffering and even martyrdom." (Brock, l972: 64)

The founder of the Anabaptist movement, Conrad Grebel, stated in no uncertain terms the political implications of the Christian message in the Anabaptist interpretation, as far as violence and military service are concerned: "True Christian believers are sheep among wolves...Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them...." (Brock, l972: 60) Though the Anabaptists believed, with other Christians, that the state was a legitimate instrument ordained by God to maintain order and punish the wicked, they did not hold that Christians should participate in the actions of government, in that the role of the magistrate was to mete out punishments and this was not Christ-like. The Anabaptists chose to make the actions of Jesus their example concerning all political matters. Thus they refused to become either soldiers or police officers, and refused to hold any other government post, and refrained from legal suits and taking oaths. Brock, 1968: 5)

In the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, a group of leading Anabaptists set forth what was "taken as a basic text for all subsequent generations of Anabaptist and Mennonite nonresistants." (Brock, l972: 69) Seemingly in direct answer to Augustine's theology of "right love," the gathering addressed the issue of whether the sword should be used "against the wicked for the defense and protection of the good, or for the sake of love:" (Brock, l972: 69) Their reply: "Christ teaches and commands us to learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly in heart and so shall we find rest to our souls. Also Christ says to the heathenish woman who was taken in adultery, not that one should stone her according to the law of His Father...but in mercy and forgiveness and warning, to sin no more. Such [an attitude] we also ought to take completely according to the rule of the ban." (quoted in Brock, l972: 69-70) Their line of reasoning concerning whether a Christian ought to serve as a magistrate was identical: "They wished to make Christ King, but He fled and did not view it as the arrangement of His Father. Thus shall we do as He did, and follow Him, and so shall we not walk in darkness." (quoted in Brock, l972: 70)

The Quaker Way and Social Reform

Though the Anabaptists were the first of the Protestant sects to return to the early Christian ethos of harmless compassion, they were by no means the last. Most notable among these sects are the Quakers, who emerged near the outset of the Reformation and have, unlike the Anabaptists and others, remained vital to this day. Quaker founder George Fox based his religious conviction on what he considered to be knowledge, rather than mere belief. He came to his convictions "experimentally," that is, through a series of direct experiences, which he called "openings," that confirmed in him their truth. (quoted in Trueblood, 1971: 22,32) The most important...doctrine or recognition of the Inner Light of the truth of Christ which is lit within each human being. The Quaker vocation is to bring the rest of humanity to see that light within and recognize it in others.

Quaker evangelizing action, in dramatic contrast to the Crusades, were called by them a "Lambs's War," a war in which, according to Fox, "our weapons are spiritual and not carnal." (Trueblood, 1971:195) The Quaker renunciation of violence included armed internal revolt against the government. The early Quakers laid out this principle clearly, in response to fears of Quaker participation in such revolts by the government of King Charles. "All bloody principles and practice as we to our own particular do utterly deny," they wrote to the King, "with all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons for any end or under any pretense whatsoever; and this our testimony to the whole world." (Trueblood, 1971: 195) That document became one of the founding planks of the Quaker peace testimony which continues to this day.

Despite the seemingly unequivocal nature of the Quaker's pacifist position, Quakers have not held it as dogma. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the existence of a tradition of Quaker life, which is even more important than pacifism. That tradition is that there be no fixed dogma to which Quakers are beholden. Thus, during World War Two, the majority of Quakers who were drafted entered the armed forces against the Nazis, "many of them doing so after an agonizing period of decision." (Trueblood, 1971: 196)

The Quaker writer Barclay, for example, does not condemn war outright, because it follows from the moral logic of those who are involved in the state, though it is a different logic than his own and he would not participate in it. He tolerated it in others, in that he was understanding of their feeling of the sometime necessity for war and the rational arguments for it, but did not share that logic or feeling of necessity. (Trueblood, 1971: 199) Isaac Penington, who was, according to Trueblood the "leading mystic of early Quakers" (Trueblood, 1971: 199), wrote that only certain people are governed by the law of Christ concerning universal love and thus others should not be expected to conform to it. Only a few have had the Inner Light burning brightly enough to be turned away from violence, and have faith in the Lord. So it is legitimate, and the Lord blesses those governments which punish evildoers within their purview violently or resort to external wars. Only in some future time will nations follow the path that some have found in the present.

The Quaker attitude toward politics marks a pivotal point in the history of the politics of compassion, in that the Quakers turned in part away from the dominant Christian political stance until that time. This dominant political attitude consisted, in very rough summary, of two parts: first, Christians were expected to provide humble, unquestioning, obedience to the ruling authorities, whoever they might be and however they might rule, since these are ordained by God (Romans 13); second, the early Christians and some of the Protestant reformers including the Anabaptists required nonparticipation in certain activities sanctioned by the ruling authorities--such as war or magistracy--in that they conflict with Christian principles. For Quakers, by contrast, participation in political affairs became a good in itself. William Penn summarized this attitude: "True godliness (does not) turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." (quoted in Trueblood, 1971:19)

This predilection to "endeavor to mend" the world became the keystone of Quaker efforts at social reform. What the Quakers added to the Christian politics of compassion was a new attitude toward governance. Prior Christians saw government as a necessary response to the sinful nature of human beings. Quakers did not completely abandon this approach, but they felt that government, when conducted with a fuller recognition of the Inner Light which shines in all people, could be made more gentle and loving. As such, Quakers could be found actively participating in colonial American government. Quakers, for example, were influential in several colonial legislatures, and held governorships in Rhode Island, East Jersey and North Carolina (Trueblood, 1971: 4).

The most well-known Quaker participation in colonial government was the establishment of the state of Pennsylvania as a "holy experiment" in moral governance in 1681 (Nagler, 1982:72). For Quakers, compassion is not merely a sentiment or spiritual understanding. It is a calling to act with kindness toward every human being, and to challenge individuals and institutions that treat human beings unjustly. As the eighteenth century Quaker reformer John Woolman wrote, "To turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives." (quoted in Trueblood, 1971: 264) In confronting "the business" of his life with the attitude of universal love, Woolman took issue with slave-owning, which, for his contemporaries, including Quakers, was commonplace. In this, he went beyond his contemporaries. Quaker founder George Fox had not seen through slavery as contradictory to a recognition of the universal Inner Light within all people, though he was troubled enough by its practice to admonish slaveholders to "cause their overseers to deal mildly and gently with their negroes...and that after certain years of servitude they would make them free." (quoted in Trueblood, 1971: 266). Woolman's conscience went further, and eventually saw the cruelty of the entire institution.

The Quaker willingness to challenge and reform social and governmental institutions marks a second fundamental contribution of the Quakers to the repertoire of the politics of universal love, that of social reform. The notion that the government, or state, was subject to critique and reform in accordance with the higher law of religion, is at least as old in Western civilization as the Old Testament prophets. But, Quaker political action represented far more than the jeremiads and visions of the prophets; it constituted concrete political action in the service of reform, motivated directly by the spirit of universal love.

Compassion and Islam

In her article, "On Human Rights and the Qur'anic Perspective," Riffat Hassan points out that human rights, from the point of view of most Muslims, refers to those rights enumerated or implied by the sacred books of Islam, the Qur'an, the Hadith, and the Sunnah, as well as the study of Islamic history and Islamic law. (Hassan, 1982: 53) Some Islamic scholars believe that the Islamic conception of human rights differs fundamentally from that of the West in that the Western basis of human rights is anthropocentric while the Islamic view is theocentric; that is, Western human rights honors humans qua humans whereas Islam values human rights only insofar as they are commanded by God and his prophets.

According to the Qur'an, the merit of a person is determined by their "righteousness," which involves extending oneself altruistically toward all those in need, as well as keeping faith with God. As the Qur'an states, "(I)t is righteousness-/To believe in God/ And the Last Day,/ And the Angels,/ And the Book,/ And the Messengers;/ To spend of your substance,/ Out of love for Him,/ For your kin,/ For orphans,/ For the needy,/ For the wayfarer,/ For those who ask,/ And for the ransoms of slaves;/ To be steadfast in prayer,/ And practice regular charity..." (Sura 2: 177; Hassan, 1982: 57) The above Sura indicates that the Qur'an calls the righteous person to be both altruistic and to extend that altruism with complete equanimity; its listing of those for whom to "spend of your substance" ends with the most general possible object: "For those who ask."

The Islamic ideal of justice combines two important concepts, "adl" and "ishan." (Hassan, 1982: 56) Adl refers to the essential equality of all human beings; because all human beings are honored equally, preferential treatment for any reason is forbidden under Islamic law. This notion of equality is tempered and deepened by the idea of "ishan," which means "restoring the balance by making up a loss or deficiency." (Hassan, 1982: 57) To understand ishan, a third concept must be employed, that of the "ummah," or ideal community, envisaged by the Qur'an. The word "ummah" has the same root as the Arabic word for "mother." (Hassan, 1982: 57) The ideal community cares for its members as a mother would, making up for the deficiencies of some of its number through charity and other forms of altruism. All are treated equally, but that does not mean that all are treated the same. Those with special needs, such as the poor, the orphan, the slave, the needy, are provided special compensation. One would imagine that a well-developed sense of empathy would be essential to the ideal of ishan in determining the nature of the special requirements of the needy in order to restore balance to the community.

Regarding religious tolerance, there are key passages of the Qur'an that are fundamentally libertarian and parallel to the thought of John Stuart Mill on the subject: "Let there be no compulsion / In religion: Truth stands out / Clear from Error..." (Sura 2: 256; Hassan, 1982: 60). This has generally been interpreted by Muslims to mean that non-Muslims living within Muslim-controlled territories are free to practice their religion as they see fit. Muslims themselves, however, are not traditionally granted such freedom; to leave the faith is punishable by death. (Hassan, 1982: 61)

Perhaps the most widely held misconception about Islam, particularly in the West, is that it glorifies violence. Peacemaking and nonviolence, however, are written into the core of Islam. "If two parties of believers take up arms the one against the other, make peace between them....The believers are a band of brothers. Make peace among your brothers...." says the Prophet. (Sura 49:7-10; Dawood, 1956:274)

One day after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, major Muslim and Arab organizations in the United States issued a joint statement condemning the attacks "in no uncertain terms."

To read that statement, click here.

Beyond making peace among those engaged in armed conflict, the Qu'ran implores believers to be conscious of the harmful effects of verbal assaults, and to refrain from them: "Believers, let no man mock another man, who may perhaps be better than himself. Let no woman mock another woman, who may perhaps be better than herself. Do not defame another, nor call one another by nicknames. It is an evil thing to be called by a bad name after embracing the true faith. Those that do not repent are wrongdoers." (Sura 49:10, Dawood, 1956:274)

Hinduism and Compassion

The theme of compassion in Hinduism reaches as far back as the Vedas, sacred texts composed over a period prior to 1500 B.C. (Unnithan and Singh, 1973: 28) While the early Vedas sometimes glorify war and the worship of the war god, Indra, the later Vedas demonstrate a greater sensitivity to the values of compassion. As in Judaic thought, the ethical element in the Vedas evolved over time, from first including ethics only for one's family and tribe to gradually including all of humanity.

The central concept which is particularly relevant to the attitude of compassion in Hindu thought is "ahimsa." The definition of ahimsa varies by degrees depending on which religious or political tradition in which it is found. Ahimsa is a Sanscrit word which can be translated most directly as "refraining from harmfulness." It is a derivation of "himsa" which means "harmful," or intent to cause harm.

Ahimsa is a crucial concept in Jain and Buddhist thought, as well as in Hinduism. It is also the term Gandhi used to define the core of his political philosophy, which he translated as both "nonviolence" and "love." There is no fully realized doctrine of ahimsa in Hindu teachings. Rather, ahimsa appears in a variety of Hindu texts among a small number of essential self-disciplines (yamas), or virtues. For example, the Gautam-dharma sutra, according to Unnithan and Singh, states that the person who pursues the qualities of "compassion, or love for all beings (daya) , forbearance (ksanti), freedom from envy (anasuya), purity of body, speech and thought and non-injury to sentient beings (ahimsa) (will reach) the world of true Brahma." (Unnithan and Singh, 1973: 46)

Similarly, in another Hindu text, the Mahabhurata, nonviolence is declared to be the supreme ingredient of righteousness, though violence is allowed under certain conditions, such as for the benefit of the village, as a token of loyalty to the master, and for the protection of the poor and helpless. (Unnithan and Singh, 1973: 47-8)

The philosophical foundation of compassion in Hinduism is rooted in the cosmological conception of the Brahman, or Universal Soul, which is said to encompass the entirety of existence. Since all aspects of existence are part of this Universal Soul, there is, for Hindus, a corollary sense of the "identity of all beings emanating from the Universal Soul." (Unnithan and Singh, 1973: 45) Each human being is endowed with a quality called Atman, which is Brahman as it is manifested in the individual being. Thus, the Hindu Upanishads "explained all love for others as 'self-love.'" (Unnithan and Singh, 1973: 70)


It is not possible in the context of this modest survey to examine the political meaning of compassion in the context of each and every religious tradition (reader's note: in the final version, Buddhism will be included in the expanded review above). Instead, this chapter has been an effort to locate and explicate various approaches to compassion in order to understand more fully the variety of ways in which it can be approached, and to provide some background that might be useful for future inter-religious dialogues on this subject.

To be clear, this effort is not meant to suggest that there are not significant theological and cultural differences among the world's religions, or that they should eventually meld into one. To the contrary, those who wish to contribute toward a global politics of universal compassion certainly need not abandon the traditions in which they were raised. Each of these traditions provides a rich and unique contribution to the global heritage of compassion. For those who are seeking greater understanding among religions--and between religion and science--compassion can provide both the common ground to start from and the humility and civility that are a prerequisite for fruitful dialogue.

2002 Joel Federman


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