To many, our resolution to divest from fossil fuels was a scandal. So much so that months before the national Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) would consider it a well-funded, all-out campaign to defeat the resolution was underway. It didn’t have to be that way.
As soon as I read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article on the terrifying math of global warming it was clear to me that the church needed to provide leadership. Bill and I had been arrested twice at the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, and the three days we spent in jail further clarified for me that in response to the reality of climate change, God is calling the church to a new vocation.
Over Thanksgiving I drafted a resolution calling upon the UCC to divest from fossil fuel companies. In late December 2012, the Board of the Mass. Conference UCC, representing 370 UCC churches, voted to bring the resolution to the national UCC Synod. Rooted in an understanding of love of neighbor — one that regards future generations as no less our neighbors than those seated next to us in church — it also drew from language available from 350.org. That vote was the first by any religious body in America to divest from fossil fuel companies.
I immediately wrote to the CEOs of the two major investment agencies for the UCC: the Pension Board and the United Church Funds (UCF). As a pacifist, I wanted to do all I could to find a way to forge an unlikely collaboration among the three of us. The UCC’s United Church Funds engaged me in conversation. The Pension Board conducted a comprehensive campaign to defeat the resolution.
Initially, I was surprised that divestment was controversial. While corporate engagement and socially responsible investing were totally acceptable, to many, divestment was a third rail. Over time, I began to realize that many in the church had lost sight of a crucial role we too often discount or ignore. We actually do have the power to bend the arc of justice.
Between January and June 2013, ten of the 37 other Conferences of the UCC voted to endorse or co-sponsor the resolution. This kind of support was unprecedented.
Meanwhile, the leaders of United Church Funds and I spent hundreds of hours drafting some possible amendments to the resolution that would make it actionable and would even allow UCF to support it. Thus, the resolution, as revised, would require a hearing at every Synod at which our investment institutions will have to defend any on-going holdings as “best in class.”
Many of the delegates were shocked to learn that United Church Funds and I had worked out some proposed revisions. And most of them rejoiced, realizing that this was not just a moral declaration — it was a commitment to actions and a process that had teeth.
These hearings will, I believe, result in such an outcry that within five years, the UCC will have fully divested. That result will come thanks to everyone – our investment leaders as well as the rank and file delegates — learning more and more about the current science of climate change.
Once the Synod voted to approve the resolution, it received ample coverage by worldwide media and I began hearing from partners in the struggle to defend God’s creation.
Bill McKibben tweeted, “Just got news that the United Church of Christ has voted to divest from fossil fuels. This is incredibly important news!” He also wrote in an email to the AP that the UCC vote “may be the most important moment yet in the divestment campaign.”
Not only that, a Nobel Prize laureate and the head of a major Protestant denomination sent their congratulations. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu also sent his congratulations, adding, “We hope others will follow your splendid example.”
All of us hope this resolution will become a model for all faith communities who care about God’s creation and recognize the urgent scientific mandate to keep at least 80 percent of the known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground.
I know we share this conviction. Now it’s time to amplify our conviction with our money. As other denominations vote to divest — joining President Obama in his call to divest — our hope for a sustainable future will begin to take shape.
One final thought. On Ash Wednesday 2013, civil rights legend Julian Bond and I found ourselves crammed into a prisoner transportation vehicle. We had just been arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House. With our hands cuffed behind our backs, we made the most of our time. We shared stories of the civil rights movement and climate activism.
I asked him what single ingredient was most essential for the success of the civil rights movement.
He responded: “Persistence.”
I pray that we all have the necessary persistence and courage to respond to God’s call to witness on behalf of Creation.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, and former Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He provides national leadership as a climate activist for the United Church of Christ.
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