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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

As Pocket God Enters Social Gaming on Facebook, What Will It Reveal about Our Moral Character?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Screenshot of Pocket God on Facebook
Screenshot courtesy of Mashable

The popular iPhone gaming app Pocket God, which has sold more than two million units, is making its way to Facebook. What character will this take in a social gaming atmosphere, I can only imagine. But I’m sure my newsfeed pipe will feel the constriction of arterial plaque.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game, Ben Parr of Mashable gives a good summary:

"The game focuses on giving the user god-like powers over islanders known as Pygmies. Since they obey the user’s every whim, players can be benevolent and give the Pygmies food and fire or be vengeful and summon thunderstorms, hurricanes and T-Rexes."

I’ll admit that I’ve played this game once for a very short time. I’ll be curious to see how the player’s social circle of friends on Facebook join in, rebuke, or challenge that said friend when they see him or her be particularly vindictive or “immoral” within the confines of the game. It could be an interesting avenue for conversation about how the player exercises power. Any thoughts from more experienced social gamers?

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On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers

by Krista Tippett, host

I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.

Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.

From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.

SoundSeen: Bioreactors and Building HopeThe newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.

She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.

But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.

From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”

Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.

Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.

Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.

All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.

 

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A Mind for All Seasons

by Kate Moos, managing producer

Reinhold Niebuhr
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr teaches a class at Union Theological Seminary. (photo: Gjon Mili/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Richard Crouter’s elegant, concise book on Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought and legacy is a magnificent introduction to the life and work of this 20th-century theologian and public intellectual. I’ve been an armchair aficionado of this major thinker since the early days of this program when we produced a show and a magnificent (if you can forgive me for saying so) website we entitled "Moral Man and Immoral Society," after one of Niebuhr’s significant works.

I was struck then, and remain transfixed, by Niebuhr’s ability to articulate the moral dilemma of human beings: the necessity of moral action, the certainty that moral action will not only fall short but often result in unanticipated harm. Niebuhr came strongly to mind at the end of this week’s show when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke of his regard for another philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Niebuhr’s thought recommends to us a humility not native to our age.

Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith renders the complexity of Niebuhr’s thought light, and it makes for a wonderfully entertaining read. Crouter’s prose beautifully captures and translates Niebuhr for a casual reader, as in this representative sample:

"As we reflect more on Niebuhr, we discover even more practical reasons why it’s important to have a sense of history. We deepen our experience of history through encounters with ideas and events that reflect our stories, told in other times and places. We do this amid our present surroundings. Coming to grips with history deepens our grasp of present reality, while chastening our specific hopes for the future."

Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian FaithRichard Crouter agreed to take our questions about Niebuhr and his meaning for the 21st century.

Why another book about Niebuhr, and why now? What’s behind the apparent Niebuhr revival, if that’s not too strong a word?
A revival of interest in Niebuhr is real, even if mainly among intellectual elites. An urgency to hear Niebuhr again arose among political commentators amid shock waves unleashed since 9/11: American hubris in launching the Iraq war, the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, and a flattening of the U.S. economy that affects all but the super rich. Because he’s on Barack Obama’s reading list (“one of my favorite philosophers”), the return to Niebuhr deepens our musings regarding presidential policy and leadership. When I began the book, Obama and financial collapse were not on the horizon. In the process of writing, even I was surprised by how often Niebuhr’s views shed light on the ongoing headlines and fears of our day, including the association of religion with violence. As in his lifetime, Niebuhr’s reception among American churches is more nuanced and mixed, for reasons that are examined in the book.

You propose that Niebuhr is concerned with, and particularly insightful about, the topic of “human nature,” and you assert that “He did so in the awareness that Christian teaching about human sinfulness is often despised and little understood, even by Christians who are regular church-goers.” So many modern and post-modern thinkers would reject the idea that thinking about sin could be in any way useful in the 21st century. Other loud voices in our world choose to focus on the perceived sins of others, rather than their own sinfulness, or on sinfulness as a quality that makes us distinctly, tragically human. What makes Niebuhr’s thoughts about sin distinct and useful in our sophisticated, technological age?

We ignore at our peril what Niebuhr means by sinful humanity, even if we choose to describe this reality differently. Self-preoccupation that leads to moral blindness among individuals and groups is undeniable in human affairs. Less obvious is the fact that for Niebuhr the thrust of moral good is ever present among us. That’s why the labels “pessimist” and “optimist” don’t work for him. Though the names and ideologies that shape history change, Niebuhr is a perennialist.

"Taking the Long View of History" (chapter 2) directly opposes being mesmerized by obsessive 24/7 news cycles. Having a large picture of human grandeur and folly puts our aspirations and losses as individuals, families, and nations into fresh perspective. Stated differently: Niebuhr speaks to our era because he never restricted himself to his own era. We gain courage to act and to persevere when we see how his view of human complexity addresses the deepest problems of our own time and place.

In this chapter on sin, you cite Augustine and say he “was aware of the fickleness and fragility of the will, its easy ability to follow a disordered desire.” Disordered desire, arguably, is the engine — or a significant driver — of the consumer economy. Is there room for this sort of insight in our daily lives? How does Niebuhr help make room for it?
It’s natural for us to resist Niebuhr’s insight into our precarious condition. Yet his acerbic wit regarding our pretension and avoidance of self-knowledge is the perfect antidote to the blustering of ideology in our day, whether from the right or from the left. Like the longshoreman-author Eric Hoffer, he knew that “true belief” without any self-doubt leads to fanaticism, both in religion and in politics. Niebuhr’s analysis of human avarice perfectly captures the financial debacle and lust for consumer goods of the 21st century. He didn’t write about ecology. But his insistence upon learning to accept limits fits our need to care for the Earth more radically than at present. His sayings and wry allusions jar us into self-recognition: taking the first step towards hopeful realism is a powerful impulse towards approximations of justice in our diverse and fractious society.

One of the great services your book provides is to be a pocket-sized compendium of some of Niebuhr’s pithiest and most penetrating writing, as well as a lens into how he was viewed in his time by other thinkers and writers. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Connecting with Wit and Words” for the light it shed on his role not as a theologian and pundit and policy thinker so much as a man of letters who knew Auden and Trilling and Archibald McLeish. Auden is another 20th century figure whose once mammoth influence is not much celebrated these days, and you point out he became a thorough Niebuhrian. That put me in mind of the lines in Auden’s poem in memory of Freud: “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion” True of Niebuhr?
In a word, yes. Thinking about Niebuhr as a writer (“Connecting with Wit and Words”) arose from an awareness of the frequency that his sayings and aphorisms appear among pundits, not to mention devotees of Twitter and Facebook. In writing the book, I felt an acute need to bridge the gap between casual acquaintance with Niebuhr’s name and the work of specialists. Auden’s lines, penned in memory of Sigmund Freud, are most apt. Written a year after the psychiatrist’s death, the same insight applies to my effort to bring Niebuhr alive amid the clamor of opinion that surrounds his name. One of the underlying points of the book is that the dead, whether major scientists, composers, psychiatrists, or theologians, are never really gone. Being alert to their legacy is part of what it means to have a sense of history. What Niebuhr really stood for matters, even if his teaching is surrounded by a divergent and contradictory climate of opinion.

Is there one particular story or anecdote about Niebuhr you find most useful or enlightening about the man himself?
One incident remains indelible in my mind and pops up in the book at various points. It’s an image of Niebuhr — the tough-minded critic of U.S. arrogance and of Communism — emerging from retirement to stand in the Social Hall of Union Theological Seminary in 1967 to address students on the folly of the war in Vietnam. He began his criticism of the war by peering into his (mostly) youthful audience and slowly intoning the words, “History always repeats itself, but never in the same way.” At the time I had no idea the underlying thought would become so deeply etched in my mind or provide so much food for thought for me as an interpreter of history. It was his way of wrestling with the perennial problem of continuity and change, the repeated and the novel aspects of our unfolding human story. Looking back I see the Niebuhr book as a meditation on the permanent value of his teaching on politics, religion, and Christian faith, even if Niebuhr’s perspective — true to his adage — asserts itself in diverse and surprising ways.

Richard CrouterRichard Crouter is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book “Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith” was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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Are Babies Moral?

Colleen Scheck, senior producer

"To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.

I’m in the midst of another parenting transition where my son’s development from infant to toddler has me focusing less on basics and more on behavior. Screen Grab for "Can Babies Tell Right from Wrong""Hitting and biting are common during this time" (so true!) is a sentence included in the welcome packet I received recently from his new toddler-room teachers. So this week’s New York Times Magazine story on "The Moral Lives of Babies" caught my eye.

Contrary to historic theories that babies are a moral “blank slate,” the article describes new research out of Yale University that indicates babies may have a “rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.” This five-minute video demonstrates some of the research experiments behind these findings of whether babies can tell right from wrong. It’s a helpful way in to this lengthy article on behavioral testing and our ongoing fascination with the question of nature or nurture and human development.

[updated May 16, 2010: added the embed video]

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My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
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—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his letter to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Goodell handed “Big Ben” a six-game suspension in his most recent action against a player violating the National Football League’s personal conduct policy. Goodell called it "early-intervention."

Is he raising the ethical bar for professional athletes?

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Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. … The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.
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— —Samuel Pisar, from an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times titled "Out of Auschwitz"

Trent Gilliss, online editor

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Ethicality of Profession v. Salary Trent Gilliss, online editor
David McCandless has created this rather provocative infographic for the Guardian's Datablog (click through for larger image). He’s mapped data on public sector salaries in the UK to a 2008 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards of 21 professions in the U.S. (nurses have worn the crown for nine out of the last ten years).
Having lived in Oxford and worked in London for a short while, I’m somewhat suspicious of mapping opinions of what Americans perceive to be the ethicality of professions to the actual professions of UK subjects. But, it’s fun to think about and talk over with your friends and colleagues.
I have to admit my solar plexus is aching a bit when I see that journalists are tightly clumped with bankers, attorneys, plumbers, and real estate agents on the low end of the respectability quadrant. At least stock brokers and savvy politicians make a better living wage for having “similar” moral integrity. Perhaps I should be a fireman or a high school teacher…
And your observations?
Ethicality of Profession v. Salary Trent Gilliss, online editor
David McCandless has created this rather provocative infographic for the Guardian's Datablog (click through for larger image). He’s mapped data on public sector salaries in the UK to a 2008 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards of 21 professions in the U.S. (nurses have worn the crown for nine out of the last ten years).
Having lived in Oxford and worked in London for a short while, I’m somewhat suspicious of mapping opinions of what Americans perceive to be the ethicality of professions to the actual professions of UK subjects. But, it’s fun to think about and talk over with your friends and colleagues.
I have to admit my solar plexus is aching a bit when I see that journalists are tightly clumped with bankers, attorneys, plumbers, and real estate agents on the low end of the respectability quadrant. At least stock brokers and savvy politicians make a better living wage for having “similar” moral integrity. Perhaps I should be a fireman or a high school teacher…
And your observations?

Ethicality of Profession v. Salary
Trent Gilliss, online editor

David McCandless has created this rather provocative infographic for the Guardian's Datablog (click through for larger image). He’s mapped data on public sector salaries in the UK to a 2008 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards of 21 professions in the U.S. (nurses have worn the crown for nine out of the last ten years).

Having lived in Oxford and worked in London for a short while, I’m somewhat suspicious of mapping opinions of what Americans perceive to be the ethicality of professions to the actual professions of UK subjects. But, it’s fun to think about and talk over with your friends and colleagues.

I have to admit my solar plexus is aching a bit when I see that journalists are tightly clumped with bankers, attorneys, plumbers, and real estate agents on the low end of the respectability quadrant. At least stock brokers and savvy politicians make a better living wage for having “similar” moral integrity. Perhaps I should be a fireman or a high school teacher…

And your observations?

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Countdown to Compassion
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Last time we put out our program with Karen Armstrong, one of our producers wrote about Karen Armstrong’s call to build an international "Charter for Compassion." In her speech, Armstrong states that “I think it’s time that we moved beyond the idea of toleration, and moved toward appreciation of the other.”

Now, we are once again replaying "The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong" one week before the Charter for Compassion itself is unveiled. In some ways, the charter’s mission is surprisingly simple — it’s essentially a call for everyone around the world to follow the Golden Rule. Less than a month ago, Armstrong articulated this mission in a letter co-signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

"It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time. In addition to participating in one of the many launch events, we invite each individual to adopt the charter as their own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion."

It seems a little serendipitous to me that the charter is being released on November 12, the same day we’re releasing our program with Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard to podcasters. Ricard is another person very interested in the idea of compassion. In his conversation with Krista, he offers the idea that compassion is a skill that we develop with practice: “You don’t learn to play the piano by playing 20 seconds a week,” he says, and much like we exercise to keep our bodies fit, we should also be practicing compassionate thinking to remain spiritually fit.

While the charter’s mission is to tell the world why we should be compassionate, Ricard is teaching how we can be compassionate.

I’m interested to see what happens after the charter is officially revealed. How will it be received? On what terms will it put forth its mission? Will anyone notice?

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Cleanliness Is Next To …Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more  in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:
"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."
Of course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.
I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?
(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)
Cleanliness Is Next To …Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more  in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:
"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."
Of course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.
I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?
(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)

Cleanliness Is Next To …
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:

"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."

A demonstration of the Muslim tradition of WuduOf course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.

Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.

I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?

(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)

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Whistleblowers, Resistors, and Defectors
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer

As I continued to do research for our upcoming program, “The Long Shadow of Torture,” I discovered an Australian public radio documentary that follows up with some of the original participants in Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments from the 1960s. In those experiments, participants were instructed to deliver increasingly intense electric shocks to a 50-something man whenever he answered a word problem incorrectly. Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, wanted to see how far ordinary citizens would go in inflicting harm on another person while under direction from an authority figure. What the participants didn’t know is that the whole experiment was rigged — the electroshock machine was a fake and the man receiving the shocks was an actor.

Milgram discovered that under the right social conditions many people will go along with what they’re told to do. One of the people who resisted during the Milgram experiment was WWII veteran and Communist Party activist Joseph Dimow. In his 2008 interview, Dimow says that being persecuted for his involvement with “the CP” gave him “the grit” to challenge authority. But he also wonders about the choices he might have made if the Communist Party had ordered him to things that were similarly harmful. Would he have complied out of a desire to belong and be accepted by the group? In the audio clip above, he contemplates these questions in his own words.

Sgt. Joseph Darby

In Krista’s interview with Darius Rejali, he mentions Sgt. Joseph Darby (pictured above), the whistleblower who notified Army Criminal Investigation Command about detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Rejali says it’s hard to know what moved him. In 2005 Darby received a JFK Profile in Courage Award. Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech:

I’d like to tell you a small story. When we first entered the country of Iraq, crossing from Kuwait to Iraq, there’s a half mile of no man’s land, a barren desert with no moving vehicles, no people, no life. As we crossed that, I can honestly tell you today that I could not remember why I had left my wife and my family. And I did not know what waited for me on the other side.

But a few weeks later in Hillah, I had an experience that changed that. Our patrol was approached by a small group of children. And a small, unbathed girl around seven in a one-piece dress came and tugged on my uniform and said, “Mister, give me food.”

As I looked into her eyes, my doubt evaporated. I knew why we were there and I knew that we had to be there. And I knew that while we were there, we represented something larger than ourselves. We represented our country, its values, its principles, its morals.

Six months later, I was faced with the toughest decision. On one hand, I had my morals and the morals of my country. On the other, I had my comrades, my brothers in arms.

Today, for the first time since I’ve returned home, I am able to stand here publicly and be proud of my decisions to put the values of my country and its reputation ahead of everything else.

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