The world's great religions offer adherents standards of moral behavior to use as guidelines and sometimes as direct commands. Perhaps the most famous example would be the Ten Commandments, laws God gave to the people of Israel.
But beyond that, different cultures have developed standards for ethical behavior -- standards not necessarily informed by religious thinking. And yet they are standards that often are in harmony with what religions might teach or advocate.
I was thinking about those differences the other day when I read this article by a woman I met a couple of years ago when she was a presenter at an annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, of which I used to be president.
Cole Imperi describes herself as a thanatologist and has worked with death and dying in all kinds of ways over the last 13-plus years. She's founder of the School of American Thanatology.
And in the article she raises the ethical question of whether people who are "deathworkers" should "consume true crime media."
Deathworkers, she says, include "anyone who works with death, dying, grief, loss and/or bereavement. You might be a deathworker if you are a death companion, grief counselor, coroner, funeral director, thanatologist, embalmer, cemetery superintendent, crematory operator, hospice nurse, oncologist, chaplain, member of the clergy or member of your local Chevra Kadisha. If part of your job involves dying, death, grief or bereavement then you are a deathworker. "
And what is "true crime media"? (It's a term that I had to guess at, one with which I was only vaguely familiar.) I immediately thought of the kinds of post-murder reports sometimes found on such TV news/documentary shows as "20-20." You know, the shows where they spend most of an hour recounting an intriguing murder and who committed it.
But Cole mostly focuses on podcasts about such crimes -- podcasts to which, I admit, I've never listened but which seem to have a pretty large audience.
Cole asks this: "As a deathworker, is it ethical for you to consume true crime media? Is it right that you help people ‘have a good death’ while you also consume — as entertainment — stories of terrible deaths? Is it OK to be entertained by a ‘bad death’ only to turn around the next day and help others attain a ‘good death’? As a deathworker, would you disclose to a family recovering from a murder that you really enjoy listening to details about how other people were murdered? And that you might even be in a Facebook group where you talk about all the gory details?"
She makes it clear that she's just asking these questions to get people to think about them and is not directly questioning the motives of anyone.
That's what good ethicists do -- they challenge us to think in some detail about the ethical challenges that inevitably come our way because we live in a world with others. And, as I say, I think good ethicists, such as those who work for the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, do work that runs in parallel with moral teachings of religions even if those ethicists are not personally connected with any religion and may well reject religion altogether.
Both good systems of ethics and well thought out religious moral standards can guide us by requiring us to develop lists of what is important and what, by contrast, is peripheral. Where, for instance, does the preservation of life fall on such a list for you? First? Then what do you do, if you have a chance to influence the decision, when someone with an obviously terminal illness is in such unmitigated pain that he or she wishes to die instead of spending one more day suffering? And what do you do about people who have committed brutal murder but who now want to live even though the state has sentenced them to be executed?
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that good religious principles almost inevitably lead to good ethical principles. Yes, you can get to good ethical principles without rooting them in religion, but I don't think you can have good religious principles without also winding up with good ethical principles -- at least not if you take those religious principles seriously. In some ways this raises the old question of whether you can be good without God. My answer is yes, but the reasons to be good if there is no god are different and have more to do with safety and self-preservation in a system that might otherwise run amok without rules. It's why, for instance, we have stoplights and traffic laws. Without them there might be dangerous chaos.
I personally prefer to root my ethical standards in religious thinking. One reason is that it requires me to think of other people as children of God and not simply collections of cells that I need to deal with.
On a national radio call-in show a few days ago, physicians were taking calls about the Covid vaccines. A man wanted to know why, if he's been vaccinated, he should care about the no-mask fools who don't believe in science and won't get vaccinated. After all, he said, at least he has protected himself.
The doctor who answered acknowledged his point but then suggested that we all should care about the welfare of our fellow humans (a religious idea) because no-vaxxers can infect others about whom we might care. Pretty soon in this discussion, ethics and religious principles were playing bumper cars. I could have listened all morning, but it was time for the news -- about a dangerous president with no ethics or morals at all trying to overturn an election so he could stay in power. Sigh.
(The artwork here today by Cole Imperi is found at the site where Cole's article is found and is used here with her permission.)
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DID THE INSURRECTION REVEAL THE TRUE AMERICA?
For this second item, I want to link to you several stories related to the Trump-encouraged insurrectionist riot in Washington, D.C., this week. This first piece is about faith organizations calling for the president's impeachment and removal from office. In a statement, they said this: “Every moment that he remains in office is a severe danger to our country.” (That's been true for almost four years and remains even more so now.) In this article, Catholic leaders are quoted as condemning the violence on Capitol Hill. They called the attack on the Capitol “sinful” and “appalling,” and declared (against a lot of evidence to the contrary) that “this is not who we are as Americans.” Finally, this article describes a prayer vigil in Tennessee led by state legislators that took place at the same time as the Trump rally in D.C. that preceded the attack on the Capitol building. In it, lawmakers are quoted as repeating the same lies about a fraudulent election that Trump has been spewing since Nov. 3 and that such demagogues as Sen. Josh Hawley (R.-Mo) have been repeating. It's sickening. As for who we are as Americans, Trump has not changed who we are so much as he has revealed who we are. It's a sobering picture, a mixture of heartwarming, generous patriotism and appalling spreaders of delusions and lies that lead to violence. I vote that we chose to be the former. You?
By the way, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City has issued this statement in response to the coup attempt in Washington:
We, the members of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, are saddened by the events that transpired on January 6th, 2021 in our Nation’s capitol. We mourn the loss of human life and deplore the destruction of property. We are dismayed that our president incited and encouraged the seditionists who stormed the halls of Congress with the purpose of overthrowing democracy. In addition, we are alarmed at seeing the pictures of individuals openly wearing slogans desecrating the Holocaust.
We are united in denouncing these acts of domestic terrorism as well as those who support or abate its cause: the troublesome resurgence of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology which we have witnessed in our country since January of 2017. The Neo-Nazis who stormed our US Capitol at the urging of the sitting president are a threat to us as Jews, to the Black and Brown communities, and to all who celebrate the strength of our diversity.
We call the Jewish community and our Nation to be vigilant in our opposition to political violence, and we must do so peacefully. Two-thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel taught: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.”
It is not enough to love peace in our hearts, we must do what we can to bring people together, to make peace happen, to stress our commonality above our differences; to stress our common concerns for the health and safety of our families, and the fair treatment of every human being.
Let us commit once again to be rod’fei shalom, people who pursue peace daily. Loving and actively pursuing peace is how we show that we all want to make this country better. We pray that January 20th will bring about a renewed opportunity for us to move forward as a people who value the Divine image that each of us carries within.
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P.S.: At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, I'll be introducing my new book to a virtual audience through the Kansas City Public Library's YouTube account, which you can find at YouTube.com/kclibrary. The book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. (The link on the book's name will take you to its Amazon page. This link will take you to its page on Rainy Day Books' website.) The book describes the trauma in my extended family because of the murder of my nephew in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then explores how people get drawn into radical thinking that can lead to violence and what we can do about it. I hope you'll join me the 19th by going to the library's YouTube page just before the event starts. And let others know, too, by sharing this, please. Thanks.