My comments at a recent Town Hall Meeting in Syracuse, NY

Photo taken by Mark Rupert. Copied from WAER article linked to below.

A group called the Central New York (CNY) Solidarity Coalition arranged a town hall meeting on March 18 to let residents of our Congressional District speak and share on their concerns.  We hoped our Member of Congress, Rep. John Katko, would be there, but he wasn’t.  The event was hosted by our local public radio station, WAER, which wrote up this article about the event (including an audio summary).

Here’s what I said in the 2 minutes allotted to each person who wanted to speak.  This post serves as an intro of sorts to some posts I’ll write next on overcoming polarization, talking with Trump supporters, and looking at elements of gun control that aren’t helpful or useful.

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My name is Ethan Bodnaruk and I’m a proud resident of Syracuse, in the NY 24th district.

I’m here because I’m deeply worried about the actions and rhetoric of the Trump administration.  Healthcare, the existence of climate change, immigrants and refugees, schools, the State Department, the EPA and others are under attack, being cut, or negatively impacted.

Representative Katko, we need you to be bold and brave and principled.  During the election you eventually spoke out against Trump the candidate and reacted to beingo n the same ballot as Trump by saying “that’s why God made Scotch”.  We need more of this from you, we need you to put the people you represent here first – above your party.

I think many everyday, ordinary people have many common interests and needs, but we’re divided by lies and propaganda.

There are ways we can work together to find solutions to the problems we face.  You’re doing and saying some good things – thank you, but we need more.

I’m a very liberal person, and I want to show I’ve got some skin in the game.  People on the Left need to do more to help diffuse the polarization, by being open to questioning our views, being self-critcial, having more empathy for others, and getting outside our bubble and echo chambers.

I’m an engineer and in a new position I spend a lot of time on construction sites with construction workers, many of whom enthusiastically voted for Trump.  When I talk to them and say the NY SAFE Act* doesn’t actually make us safer and isn’t tailored to the actual problems of gun control… When I say that many arguments against nuclear power ** are based on incorrect information about safety and radiation and are fear mongering, they do listen I push back and say “No, Hillary didn’t want to take your guns.  That makes no sense!” “And no, Trump doesn’t care about everyday people, haven’t you heard of Trump University?”

So we can all do more, but Representative Katko, we need you to stand up for us and for democracy itself.

That’s me on the right, up next to speak!  Unfortunately, it looks like I’m sleeping.  

Notes:
*  As I’ll explore in my next post, the NY SAFE Act (a gun control law) does do some good things but it also has provisions that are unnecessary and don’t do anything to help make people safer.  I hear this a lot from people much more familiar with guns than I am.  Poor provisions fan the fires of polarization and fear that guns will be even further and pointlessly regulated.

**  I mentioned nuclear not only because I have some specialized knowledge in the field of nuclear engineering and there is a lot of fear mongering on the topic, but also because there’s a nuclear power plant in a small town here in Central New York that is the subject of much controversy over whether or not to keep it open.

Hedge funds and big barns

Just because I’m a superman nerd, why not use a picture of the Kent family barn from the TV show Smallville??

This is a quick summary and reflection on an excellent NPR piece about hedge funds and illegal insider trading.  Give it a listen!

The concept of hedging your investments is pretty common.  Don’t put all of your money into one type of investment.  Diversity is good: in case some types of investments do poorly, all your money won’t be lost.

Hedge funds came about as an investment for the ultra wealthy to hedge against downturns in the market.  They could give a bunch of money to financial firms who would have wide latititude over how to invest it.  They could rapidly make trades that were potentially risky but with high potential for reward, including short selling, which is basically betting on downturns in stocks.  These types of investments would come with high fees that the hedge fund managers collected for the very hands-on management, research, and networking that goes into it.  Financial regulators decided to approve hedge funds because only the super rich were contributing to them, and could afford the risk and potential losses.

Over time, these hedge funds were extremely successful, with some firms posting such astronomical results that many (including the FBI) started asking questions about inside information and other types of illegal trading.  It’s easy to imagine how the combination of big money and flexibility would encourage traders to gain inside information or at least blur the lines of it.  Hedge funds are now one of the largest types of financial investments, increasing volatility in the entire financial system.  Trading in huge amounts of money is now being performed based on tiny tidbits of information and day-to-day developments in news and sources coming out of corporations.  What are the effects of incredible amounts of wealth creation based on no tangible production of goods?  This has to trickle down and hurt the average person.

When I listened to this story, the thought occurred to me that these hedge funds are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’ parable of building bigger barns.  Why is it that the super rich seem to be obsessed with gathering even more wealth when they clearly have more than they could ever need?

Here’s the parable:
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:13-21)

There’s a limit to how literally this can be taken, but it helps raise the questions of what is the point of our lives, and what should we do with excess money.

Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!