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!

The devil at work in the climate change “debate”?

A wolf in sheep’s clothing: another metaphor or image of Satan, the father of lies

A couple of weeks ago, my city’s newspaper, the Post-Standard, published an article framing climate change as a debate, with side-by-side columns arguing climate change is real and is not real.  This article was nationally syndicated: sent to newspapers across the country for publishing.  Much of the media has rejected the so-called “equal time” policy giving both sides of an argument a voice when one is simply false.  But not the Post-Standard, apparently.  A few letters to the editor were published expressing displeasure with this action, and I decided to write one from a religious angle.  It didn’t get published, so I’m sharing it here. It’s a bit of an unusual approach, but I think it’s accurate and important to say.

To the Editor:

As an environmental engineer, person of faith, and Coordinator of the interfaith Religions for Peace International Youth Committee, I am shocked and dismayed that the Post-Standard published a prominent article giving credence to the view that human actions – most notably burning of fossil fuels – are not causing climate change. (Should Congress defy Trump and move quickly on climate change,” February 5). This is a truly Satanic – yes Satanic – action by both the author William Happer and the Post-Standard.

Although I don’t believe Satan is a literal being, the concept is nonetheless powerful and profound. Satan is the father of lies, a master deceiver who parades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).  The article in question pits a mere “progressive commentator” who argues climate change is real versus William Happer, an emeritus physics professor who is knowingly or unknowingly acting as a mouthpiece of the devil.  By the contrast of credentials, the article wants us to believe that Happer is an “angel” representing science, knowledge, and truth while the progressive commentator is wrong and climate change is a lie.  We must see past this devilish deception.

We have known since the 1860s (John Tyndall) that CO2 traps heat from sunlight.  In the 1980s, simple calculations by scientists showed that humanity’s fossil fuel use would lead to higher CO2 levels than the Earth has experienced in hundreds of thousands of years, and was increasing at a rate thousands of times faster than natural change.

All people of good will, of all religions and no religion, must resist lies denying climate change.  Further, we need to demand practical and bi-partisan solutions that will also help the economy, such as a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend.

Counting the cost, climate change, and carbon fees (Part 2 of 2)

Source: http://grist.org/article/2010-09-27-a-price-on-carbon-is-a-must-says-delaware-senator/ (also a good article!)

Source: http://grist.org/article/2010-09-27-a-price-on-carbon-is-a-must-says-delaware-senator/ (also a good article!)

Today humanity faces the threat of global climate change based on our use of fossil fuels. At first we didn’t know their use would have such negative consequences or costs. It generally seemed that they were great and amazing, and some thought of fossil fuels as a gift from God. Governments subsidized their extraction and use because it makes sense to encourage good things. We flourished, expanded, and got used to spread out cities, long commutes, and long-distance travel enabled by cheap fossil fuels.

But now we know that fossil fuels are causing climate change that will increasingly affect us all, but especially the poor, vulnerable, and those living on coasts.

We know that fossil fuels have a significant and increasing cost. But we don’t actually count their costs in a meaningful way, within the framework in which so many of our decisions are made everyday: the economy. So we continue to make bad decisions like the tower builder in Jesus’ parable. Even when we subsidize renewable energy, our fossil fuel infrastructure and subsidies for fossil fuels are still there. Fossil fuels stay cheap despite their huge cost.

Our failure to count the cost of fossil fuels in a real and meaningful way will only ensure that we continue to use them. If it’s more profitable to use fossil fuels than other sources, or it’s still profitable to use a significant proportion of them in our energy mix, we’re in trouble.

A fundamental “counting the cost” solution is a carbon fee. If we make fossil fuels more expensive proportional to the amount of emissions they release, we will count the cost of fossil fuels in the way the world works: money. If it becomes clear that the nations are making all fossil fuels more expensive (not just picking and choosing certain types), businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers, investors in power plants, and every day people will have a major incentive to implement and further develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

If we start the carbon fee low, it won’t be a big shock to the system. If we make the carbon fee increase every year, then this is predictable and transparent, incentivizing the whole world to start planning now in a meaningful and realistic way to transition away from fossil fuels within the next couple of decades.  The fee would be paid by the corporations that extract fossil fuels or import them into our country.  This is simple, easy to manage, and avoids the complication of determining each person’s carbon footprint.

This type of fee wouldn’t shut down any power plants tomorrow (easing the worry of lost jobs and shocks to families). But you better bet that we’ll stop building new fossil fuel power plants in a hurry because business people would see that fossil fuel profits will decrease every year and eventually become zero. In the US in 2015, electricity from new power plants was about 68% from natural gas, 26% from wind, and 6% from solar. This is still too much fossil fuels, especially since a good chunk of the natural gas comes from hydrofracking which has major methane leakage issues.

Finally, the carbon fee should be revenue neutral, which means that the government does not keep and spend the money raised. Instead, the money is returned evenly to US households. This does two things: first, it ensures that the poor and middle class aren’t burdened by the fee since price increases of fossil fuels and products based on them or their energy would occur.  Importantly, because of the refund or dividend, the poor would make money overall and on average the middle class would break even.  People would also be incentivized to reduce their use of fossil fuels, in which case a larger portion of their carbon refund is profit.

Second, a revenue neutrality (the refund or dividend) makes the carbon fee much more politically feasible in the United States: the economy would grow from investment in alternative energy and from increased spending due to the dividend. Further, revenue neutrality is attractive to conservatives since it’s a market based solution and not an actual tax or regulation. If the United States can lead on this, and show that it is beneficial, then other countries will follow!  France and Victoria, British Columbia (Canada) have implemented very similar proposals to great success.

Jesus’ parable about counting the costs simply makes sense.  If we don’t count the cost of our actions it’s far too easy to make bad decisions and be unprepared.  This is a spiritual and moral matter.  Will we find ways to make our systems reflect the reality of the growing costs of fossil fuels?  Are we serious about root cause solutions to get off of fossil fuels?  Are we serious about the real impacts of climate change to people all around the world?

Any questions on this so far? There’s a lot of information here, and I remember when I first heard about carbon fees I had a ton of questions. I’ll follow up with further posts going into more details about how it would work, and common questions. But in the meantime if you want to do your own research, a good place to start is Citizens’ Climate Lobby or the Carbon Tax Center.

Fighting climate change interfaith style: divestment, reinvestment, and personal action

Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith in a webinar about fighting climate change, interfaith style!

Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith in a webinar about fighting climate change, interfaith style!

Check out this 30-minute webinar hosted by Religions for Peace on fighting climate change with Fletcher Harper, executive director of an organization called Green Faith.  They’re focused on building practical action on climate change on both a local scale and also a national/global scale through divestment and reinvestment.  He’s a great speaker and it’s really encouraging to hear what he has to say.

I’m a young adult leader in Religions for Peace so I had to opportunity to have some conversation with him at the end!  I could use a bit more polish in my speaking 😉

Check it out!!
http://www.rfpusa.org/religions-for-peace-webinar-gearing-up-to-fight-climate-change-with-fletcher-harper-may-29th/

 

Syria and international connections of young adults working for peace

RfP_IYC_Syria

It’s amazing to be connected to other young adults around the globe working for peace through the International Youth Committee (IYC) of Religions for Peace (http://bit.ly/1lBYvBO). Especially with social media, I get to see first-hand accounts of what’s going on in other countries through people I’ve actually met. Nataliya Pylypiv had been sharing about major Ukrainian current events, and Manar from Syria (Mnary OoIoo) wrote this to the IYC just a few days ago:

_________________________

“I miss you all very much and I apologize that I have not been in touch with you lately due to the sad events happening in my country. It is such a great pain. I had vowed my soul and my body to give everything and do all what I can to all my fellow citizens for the sake of my wounded country, Syria. The situation in this country is very painful and hard to describe. Men and women, children and elderly are all dying because of hunger, oppression, and expositions. Different methods of torture are used against my people and the whole world remains silent. We are exhausted and oppressed culturally and psychologically with no practical solution offered by any part of this world to get out of our crisis. There is no glimmer of hope, unfortunately, to stop the mass murder and in this part of the world. There is more and more fire and struggle in this country.

I just wanted to be in touch with you and share with a bit of my daily sufferings as a Syrian citizen.”

_____________________________

I don’t actually believe in supernatural intervention, but I do believe in the power of the human spirit and that amazing things happen when the collective human spirit focuses or coalesces on an issue or topic. Action springs out of conviction, love, passion, and inner peace. Prayer can cultivate all of these things. Martin Luther King, Jr said the universe bends towards justice and (Saint) Paul said that all of “creation” groans for wholeness. What I really think these mean is that the universe *wants* to bend toward justice (if you permit me to be poetic and anthropomorphize the universe), so when we work for justice with a pure heart and informed actions, we *will* see progress. We will see justice and love blossom, and deeper ties between people form … even sometimes between those who were previously enemies.

In response to Manar, Religions for Peace has put out this interfaith call to prayer for Syria (the picture at the beginning of the post). Please pass this on through your communities (or something like it adapted to your community).

We are grappling with a sense of powerlessness and asking what type of action can we take? What is the next step?

Do you have any ideas?

The world – and especially the people of Syria – are groaning in this struggle but also in hope for justice, peace, and transformation.

Book Review: Muslim, Christian, Jew

mus_xtian_jew

Muslim, Christian, Jew: The Oneness of God and the Unity of Our Faith … A Personal Journey in the Three Abrahamic Religions is a book with a really long title!

It’s the late Art Gish’s deep and moving work about interfaith dialog and peacemaking in Israel/Palestine and back at home in Athens, Ohio.

From 1995 until his death in a farming accident in 2010, Art and his wife Peggy spent 2 to 3 months each year in Hebron, West Bank with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a group devoted to reconciliation and nonviolent peacemaking that has also inspired a Muslim Peacemaker Teams.

peggy_and_art

In all these years, Art gained a deep knowledge and experience of the three religions (as well as secular traditions), working closely with Muslims, Jews, and Christians making peace. Back at home in Ohio, he attended mosques and synagogues, continuing to build relationships and trust.

This book is a unique blend of historical and theological analysis, reflection on how to engage in interfaith dialog, and personal stories that will inform, inspire, move, and entertain. Much of the interfaith movement shies away from religious differences and the topic of religious violence, but Art tactfully and sensitively engages them, pointing to a depth that can overcome differences.

I am deeply troubled by the great divide, the fear, the hostility, and the bigotry in all three religions toward the other two. … [But] maybe the contradictions are not as deep as most of us think they are.  Maybe we need to look deeper. All three traditions call me to love God with my whole being, to submit my life to God, and to follow the path God has created for us. (Gish 10).

His passion for reconciliation extended to the Israeli settlers and soldiers who had “cursed, spit upon, stoned, kicked, and beaten” him. He and his teammates saw their enemies as human beings with the capacity to love, continually trying to connect with them through conscience, religion, and culture.

This is Art standing in front of a tank in Hebron that was going to roll right over a marketplace.

This is Art standing in front of a tank in Hebron that was going to roll right over a marketplace.

Through his experiences, relationships, and deepening knowledge of the three religions, Gish knew the truth that “all good things come from God”:

“All truth comes from the same source. Since there is one God, it’s not surprising that there’s a consistency in the expressions of God’s Spirit wherever people around the world respond to that Spirit.  Christians must be open to what God’s Spirit may teach us through other religions. No religion contains all Truth. Reality is too great to be comprehended in only one way. I still have much to learn, [and] true spirituality involves humility. God is so much bigger than my small concept of God” (Gish, 28-9).

Gish’s book and the spirit it represents are major keys to the future of religion, interfaith relations, and interspirituality. His work represents a beautiful marriage of courage, love, and intellect working together to bring about the transformation of people and their religions – something the world badly needs.

It's like a Where's Waldo image but different.  See him over in the upper right corner?

It’s like a Where’s Waldo image but different. See him over in the upper right corner?

I wrote a slightly less goofy version of this book review for The Interfaith Observer.  The editor liked it and can hopefully squeeze it into their December edition!

Elisabeth and I were blessed to host Peggy at our house on Oct 16-19.  We helped arrange a couple of speaking events for her new book on her work in Iraq.  “Blessed” is one of those funny religious words that I don’t usually like to use, but it’s truly the best word to describe our experience of her visit!!

 

Graduate Student Wisdom

Today I happened to scroll through my department’s list of current graduate students online.  I was impressed and inspired by the favorite quote each person contributed, so I compiled them and here they are for you to enjoy!!!  [Kudos to anyone who finds a duplicate quote – there is one pair!]

 

Intelligence is a reflection of how well you function in your environment. — Issac Asimov

 

If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… How would I be? What would I do? — Buckminster Fuller

 

The minute you settled for less than you deserved, you get even less than you settled for. — Maureen Dowd

 

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. — Native American Proverb

 

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? — Einstein

 

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. — Albert Einstein

 

Know the rules well, so you know when to break them. — Gandhi

 

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

 

If I fret over tomorrow, I’ll have little joy today.

 

The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size. — Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up. — G. K. Chesterton

 

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. — John Muir

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead

 

Start with knowing yourself; as you see yourself more clearly, you will know where you want to go in life. Then learn about where you want to go, and pretty soon you’ll figure out how to get there.

 

Thousands have lived without love, not one without water — W.H. Auden

 

Grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

 

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there. — Richard Feynman

 

They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it.

 

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does. — Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

 

Wherever you go, there you are.

 

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding of a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. — Sir Isaac Newton

 

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. — Aldo Leopold

 

If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change. — Michael Jackson

 

I feel more confident than ever that the power to save the planet rests with the individual consumer. — Denis Hayes

 

Justice is what love looks like in public. — Dr. Cornel West

 

Forget the past. — Nelson Mandela

 

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. — Epictetus

 

No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true. — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

 

Do or do not… there is no try.

 

Aim for the stars, you might land on the moon… — High school chemistry teacher

 

If they give you lined paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez

 

If we surrendered to Earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. — Rainer Maria Rilke

 

It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities. — Albus Dumbledore

 

It loved to happen. — Marcus Aurelius

 

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

 

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, To leave the world a better place than what I’ve found… To know even one life has breathed easier Because I have lived…this is to have succeeded. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard. — Colin Powell

 

He who stands on tip–toe, does not stand firm; he who takes the longest strides, does not walk the fastest. — Lao Tzu

 

 

What a wealth of wisdom and insight!!!  I’m honored to have such friends and colleagues! 

 

Statement on Syria plus extra info

syria

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was at a conference meeting of an interfaith young adult network associated with Religions for Peace (the largest interfaith non-profit).  With the potential for a US strike in Syria coming up just after our meeting, we’ve worked together to put forward a statement.  We’re still rushing to finalize it, but here it is so far, in draft form:

_________________________________________________________________________

As a network of young adult interfaith leaders in North America associated with Religions for Peace, we call upon the United States not to engage in military operations or strikes in Syria.  We condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and are deeply concerned about the injustices committed, but the addition of a foreign violent actor will not help.  Our deepest traditions and values, as well as our domestic and international histories, suggest that violence will only create further violence, suspicion, and fear.  With numerous polls showing US citizens do not support military intervention and an already troubled reputation in foreign affairs, the United States does not need to join yet another armed conflict.

As our Jewish brothers and sisters embark on their High Holiday season, a season of introspection and awe, we call upon Congress and our President to listen to and reflect on the voices of the present and the past that have called for a just peace without violence.  As we conclude celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we ask our Congress and our President to honor the work of peacemakers like Dr. King and others by considering alternative ways of realizing a just peace through negotiation, reconciliation, and the nonviolent empowerment and aid of Syrian citizens.

As young adults representing diverse religions traditions –  Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism – we recognize that there are narratives in many of our religions that call for conflict resolution through violence.  As young people of a new generation we challenge this approach and its history of failure.  The best of all our traditions calls us to see other human beings as equals, emphasizing universal human dignity and our interconnectedness. This perspective prohibits the betrayal of that human dignity with acts of reactionary violence. We join with other religious leaders calling for peace, including Pope Francis in his interfaith call for a day of fasting on Saturday, September 7 for peace and solidarity with the people of Syria.

We affirm the values of human dignity and shared security based on trust, reconciliation, and justice.  We pray for the leaders of all nations to have wisdom and courage to seek a just peace in Syria and to address the root causes of injustice and conflict there and everywhere.  We also commit ourselves to work toward this end within our religious and political systems and traditions.

_______________________________________________________________________

Here are some further resources and information about the Syrian conflict that may be helpful.  (I just found these today!)

http://greenshadowcabinet.us/statements/obama-should-seek-legal-prosecution-not-illegal-war   This talks about the Chemical Weapon Convention and how it has procedures for penalizing and dealing with a state that uses chemical weapons.  Why is the US pursuing its own actions instead of following established international law on the matter?

http://www.popularresistance.org/which-syrian-chemical-attack-account-is-more-credible/
This points out that there are other accounts and stories of what happened in the Aug 21 chemical attacks in Syria, as reported by freelance journalist(s) who were there and interviewed doctors and rebels who were there.  One of the questions it brings up is why would the Assad regime use chemical weapons in a struggle it’s basically winning, when this would only attract more international pressure and even attacks against them?

http://www.mintpressnews.com/witnesses-of-gas-attack-say-saudis-supplied-rebels-with-chemical-weapons/168135/   This is the article written by a freelance journalist in association with a group called MintPress News started by Mnar Muhawesh, a Palestinian-American shown in the picture below.

Mnar Muhawesh

These articles at least shed some light on the weaknesses of American intelligence, past misuses of intelligence and omission of contradictory evidence, and the existence of alternative evidence not part of the US narrative.

They also bring up the point that Saudi Arabia may be supporting certain parts of the rebels with weapons and potentially the chemical weapons and that these rebels may be associated with Al Qaeda.

An Iranian friend of mine at school was telling me about how Saudi Arabia has wanted to overthrow the Assad regime, and how there’s a theory of the Shi’a Crescent that could explain some conflict in the Middle East.  (I’m not sure if it’s actually true or even provable, but it’s a real theory in Middle East studies and has its own wikipedia page).  The wikipedia page shows that four neighboring countries have Shi’a majorities, whereas overall Sunni Islam has a large majority.  The idea is that Sunni countries want to disrupt this “crescent” of Shi’a dominance, and one way to do that would be to topple Assad at the head of a Shi’a regime.   This paper is long, but the first few paragraphs of the conclusion are straightforward and interesting:  http://lib.ugent.be/fulltxt/RUG01/001/786/448/RUG01-001786448_2012_0001_AC.pdf

So I’m no expert in foreign policy, but I found these articles to provide some additional information and I think that’s a good thing.

Interspirituality: What is it, relationship to interfaith, and upcoming events

Many people have heard of various interfaith movements, groups, service projects, and so on.  A lesser-known related, but somewhat different, movement is interspirituality.  What is it, and how is it different than interfaith?  I’ll answer in part by sharing some of my experiences in both types of groups and also point out some upcoming conferences I’m excited about!    

Interfaith and Religions for Peace
A couple of years back I was invited to a conference for young adult leaders hosted by the world’s largest interfaith nonprofit, Religions for Peace (RfP).  RfP was revamping its young adult network in North America, and those of us invited to the conference became the new leadership group.  We were from the US and Canada, and represented Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism, Hinduism, the Shinto religion (or indigenous spirituality), and the Sikh religion.  A few Jewish and Muslim young adults were invited, but weren’t able to make the event.  They and others have since joined the leadership group.   

RfP_March2011Participants in the 2011 RfP Young Adult Network event!

Major commonalities were openness to new perspectives, the positive aspects of religion, honesty about the damage done by and in the name of religion, youthful vigor and idealism, and a commitment to nonviolence (which is usually a minority position in the largest religions).  We had a lot of fun spending time with each other, asking questions and learning about each other’s traditions, discussing actions we could pursue in North America, how to grow the young adult movement, and learning about the larger RfP organization’s work in decreasing governmental militarism.  (I don’t think it’s been successful!)  

RfP was going through a lot of staff and other changes so it was hard to keep the momentum of the group up after our gathering.  It was a bit of a confusing process and some of us didn’t know what we were doing next.  But now – a couple of years later – we’re having a meeting of the North American interfaith youth leaders in preparation for the world conference in Vienna, Austria in November.  The subject of the world conference is “Welcoming the Other: Action for Human Dignity, Citizenship and Shared Well-being.”  The idea is to be working toward these all across the globe, but ways most suited to where we live (North America, Asia, etc.).  I plan to post on these themes next.

Members of the RfP young adult network don’t have to formally represent their faith tradition.  They aren’t nominated or elected by a body within their tradition or denomination.  The “normal” RfP memberhip (not the specific young adult group) is mostly made up of clergy who formally represent their tradition.  The young adult group and the Global Network of Women are relatively new RfP groups, are more informal, and are made up of non-clergy members.  I’m glad we don’t have to get official approval – I’m kind of a heretic in disguise!  

I’m often skeptical of world leaders getting together to talk about problems.  Such meetings can be marked by politically correct speeches, fancy words, and a lot of important things that go unsaid.  I’m hoping this group is different!  If I’m able to go to the world conference (which is mostly run by the formal clergy group), I’ll be extremely curious if there will be a profound “vibe” of humility , simplicity of speech, and serious comittment or if fluff, pomp, or political style speech dominates.  I’m glad that RfP has created the young adult and women groups, extending participation to more “everyday” people.  

Interspirituality
In college I stumbled upon the idea of contemplative prayer, and the book below by Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk.  The Trappists are a Catholic contemplative Order involved in monastic interreligious dialog and home of the best-known Catholic monk of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.    

Centering Prayer is a practice that’s essentially meditation, and it developed independently of Buddhism and other Eastern religions.  I was drawn to it because back in college I had a sense that prayer was supposed to be deeper than “talking to God” and asking a deity for all of the things I wanted or needed.  I decided that after college I’d take a year off and live at a couple of these monasteries.  I was lucky to meet Basil and really enjoyed his presence.  He was in his late 70s and vigorous, but passed a way a few years later (2007-ish).

Some of the monks were especially devoted to spreading awareness of the Christian contemplative tradition as a way to deepen peoples’ experience of Christianity and promote personal transformation. They saw felt this work would directly and indirectly deal with most of the negative problems of Christianity.  

These monks laid the foundation for interspirituality in the West.  Interspirituality is the recognition of the core contemplative and ethical similarities of the (deepest parts of the) world’s religions.  It unites them and helps overcome dogmatic differences, as the contemplatives in all world religions tend to distance themselves from doctrine.

The “founder” of Interspirituality
The term interspirituality was coined by Wayne Teasdale in the early 2000s.  Earlier in his life he wanted to become a Trappist monk, but he wasn’t accepted by the Order.  (I didn’t have to go through this process because I was just visiting and not trying to become a monk!  A small community of, say, 13 monks really needs to feel a newbie is good fit because he’d be a housemate for life!)

Teasdale instead decided to be a “monk in the world”, living at a Christian-Hindu ashram in India called Shantivanam established by some members of the Jesuit Order, and he eventually became a professor of comparative religion.  He wrote a book of this title, A Monk in the World.  (I actually liked it better than his previous book on the shared contemplative dimensions of the world religions).  

Teasdale dreamed of an interspiritual movement that would transform religion and humanity.  He passed away in 2004, but friends pushed his dream forward and created the Interspiritual Multiplex (I think it’s a weird name!) and Community of the Mystic Heart (CMH).  I’m a member of CMH (named for Teasdale’s book on the common contemplative core of world religions) and enjoyed meditation sessions and conversation/sharing.

There’s a conference near Seattle at the end of September on “The Dawn of Interspirituality”.  I’m really excited to see what’s going on there and to be part of the growing interspiritual movement.  The website of the conference has a good video of conference leaders talking about religion and interspirituality.  Many of the speakers are involved in interfaith work so there’s certainly a growing overlap and recognition of the movement.  

One short comparison of interfaith and interspirituality
Interfaith work seems to be very well-known among young adults.  Interfaith groups are all over college campuses and there are many interfaith service groups apart from universities.  In my experience, interfaith work doesn’t focus as much on differences between religions, how to wade through doctrine and dogma, or on contemplative practices.  This is of course an over-generalization as there’s bound to be huge variation between different interfaith groups.  

Younger people may intuitively sense that differences between religions aren’t so great, but they may not have explored many religions or the contemplative aspects of their own.  In my experience, most people involved in interspirituality are over 30 years old, more into meditation and more knowledgeable and experienced in practices from several different religions.  These are perhaps some differences between interspirituality and interfaith movements.  

In the end, words are words: interfaith vs. interspirituality may be potato vs. potahto but I do appreciate interspirituality’s focus on contemplation and a way to overcome religious differences through greater depth within religion.  On the other hand, there’s a lot more New Age and pseudo-scientific belief in interspirituality than interfaith groups in my experience!  (I could blab on about that stuff forever!)  

I’ll be sure to post on my experiences at the RfP event next week and hope to sneak in another post before then!