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My friend and I were talking about things we wish we could do. He wants to go to Israel and I want to go live at a retreat or a monastery for a year and be silent.

Solitude is my strength – After a few days spent on my own I feel peaceful.

And yet everywhere I turn and whatever I read speaks to me about community and about learning to live together and learning to live together well, so I am going to immerse myself in community and shelve my dream of a year long sabbatical into solitude as a reward, in time, for excellent communal living (my lips to Gods ears) …

But this has me thinking. What do we really know about community living?

Consider this story:

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the East, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there. They began saying to each other, ‘let’s make bricks and harden them with fire’. Then they said, ‘come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.’ But God came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building. ‘Look!’ God said. ‘The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.’ In that way, God scattered them all over the world and they stopped building the city. That is why the city was called Babel, because that is where God confused the people with different languages. (Gen 11)

This narrative of why people became scattered is usually used to talk about pride. In Sunday school I was taught that people tried to build a tower up to God and God didn’t want them to be so clever so he scattered them – something to that effect. As I have thought about community and diversity over the last few months, this story has revisited me and revisited me. In some ways I think the story can be quite damaging, it’s as though God wants us to be separate, that scattered communities are God’s intention because in our togetherness we may think we’re invincible. Is that how humanity should look? It’s the way it does look, but should it? I believe in wonderful, dynamic, colourful, diverse communities -yes, conflicted, fearful, separated communities – no.

Time for a new interpretation of an old childhood myth… When we stay focussed on our own small and one dimensional community’s, pride and isolation get the better of us, when we stop understanding and connecting with other communities we lose the ability to build and maintain bridges connecting us to the God who flows through all of humanity. We become more disparate and more suspicious of one another. I believe our purpose is to love and respond to one another even though we are different and yet today’s world is increasingly individualistic and mistrusting of the ‘other’. We really do not understand each other and with lack of understanding comes suspicion and fear.

Karen Armstrong is one of my favourite authors, she’s a historian and world renown authority on the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. She used to be a nun – her autobiography ‘The Spiral Staircase’ is very moving. A few years ago, 2008/9, she started a movement known as the Charter for Compassion. In her work and studies of various religious groups she identified a ‘golden rule’ which unites all the major religions, the ‘do unto others rule.’ This movement is steadily gaining traction amongst prominent political and faith leaders and rather than just be a touchy-feely-warm approach to being human is actually a practical and realistic means of transforming the world for peace. She also wrote ‘12 Steps to a Compassionate Life’ a book well worth reading. 

I read an interview with her on the Charter and its practical implications and I was impressed by her tenacity and clear minded thinking when it came to making this a viable solution to achieving world peace. You can read the article here. One of the suggestions which I found really interesting was her idea of twin cities. In her words: ‘One of my dreams is to create twin cities. For example, have a city in the Middle East twinned with a city in the United Sates. People can exchange news and form electronic friendships. Schools and universities can communicate so that some of the apprehensions and distorted views that we have of one another can be eroded. A network of compassionate cities could be a powerful force.’

Closer to home, the week before Easter break in our Philosophy class we broke up into our ethnic groups: Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa, English, ‘other’ and tried to answer three questions about each of the groups. 1) what do you think you know about their family structures, 2) what do you think you know about their culture, 3) what do you think you know about their faith?

Heavens to Betsy it took all of about 3 minutes before we nearly had a full blown bust up and then there were the gut wrenchingly embarrassing perceptions we have of one another. We are a small, educated and (mostly) intelligent group of people but our misconceptions about each other nearly blew my mind right out of the water. What really got me was how afraid I was to admit to the ‘I don’t really know you’ aspects of the discussion. Pride keeps us from asking ‘what do you mean by this’ and pride prevents us from saying ‘well you may think that about us but that is not really accurate, this is accurate.’ We either blow up in anger or keep quiet in shame or resignation. I was too embarrassed to admit just how ignorant I really am. In our global village with the fast paced exchange of information and facts we are still woefully ignorant about each other and what actually makes us tick. And so there is a plan for us to engage each other here at Seminary on this very topic. ‘Who are you REALLY?’

First off, we need to pray… engaging our perceptions of each other will likely lead to a spot of bother before it leads to peace, but if we are going to get to know each other at all, we need to learn to talk to each other, openly, honestly and humbly. We are going to have to put our pride to one side and say ‘I may have lived side by side with you for most of my life but when it comes to matters of culture, religion and life view I am ashamed to say, I have no idea who you are’. Step no. 7 to a compassionate life is engaging the, ‘How Little We Know – making a place for the other’, getting to know each other without preconceived ideas and prejudices, with open hearted compassion and empathy. Can we not do this in our churches maybe, at our workplaces, with friends, for fun? Facilitating these kinds of discussions will lead to enlightening and life giving conversations.

The Charter for Compassion is designed to ‘counter the voices of extremism, intolerance and hatred. At a time when religions are widely assumed to be at loggerheads, it would also show that despite our significant differences, on this we are all in agreement and that it is indeed possible for the religious to reach across the divide and work together for justice and peace.’ (12 Steps to a Compassionate Life)

So, for us, a first step is to find the courage to really, really talk to one another … get to know one another and learn to hear each other with open hearted, open minded love and compassion.

so go on, lets start a conversation …

The Charter…

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.