Gary Payton has served with Fossil Free PCUSA since its inception in 2013. In mission, he has served as the Coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and a coworker as Regional Liaison for Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. With dozens of others, he advocated for fossil fuel divestment at GA222 in Portland, Oregon.
This piece was also published in the River Journal here.
Across the landscape of two historic Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, advocates for God’s creation are facing difficult personal choices. In recent weeks, the highest policy making bodies of both denominations rejected calls from the grassroots to divest tens of millions of dollars in fossil fuel holdings (oil, gas, and coal) from their pension boards or foundations. The unwillingness to divest came with decisions to “stay at the table” and try to influence the companies through shareholder engagement – even in the face of the urgency for climate action and the track record of major fossil fuel companies.
The issues and the choices are far from abstract for me. For the last three years, I’ve served on the steering committee of Fossil Free PCUSA journeying in my faith walk with thousands of others who want their religious community “to put their money where their values are.”
My angst from my time at GA222 is framed by conversations with Africans suffering from devastating drought and agricultural disruption, with Filipinos still reeling from the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, and the never ending deaths in the Syrian civil war – all events accelerated by human caused climate change and a fossil fuel industry bent on “drill baby drill.”
Meanwhile, the record is clear. For decades, senior leaders of fossil fuel companies have poured millions of dollars into pseudo think tanks, disinformation campaigns, and political contributions for the purpose of sowing doubt about the science of climate change, delaying effective climate action, and blocking legislation to move the nation toward greater use of renewable energy. As denominations have previously divested from tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and for-profit prison industries, so we’ve judged the time is now to begin divestment from those companies whose very business plans threaten lives and the continued habitation of our planet.
The prayerful soul searching continues. Understanding the urgency of action in the face of climate change, what path will faithful grassroots divestment advocates chose after the decisions of the 222nd General Assembly (PCUSA) and the General Conference 2016 (UMC)? How will they, how will I, wrestle with a deeply moral question?
- End efforts to change denominational policies at the national level seeing the institution of the church as too cautious, slow moving, and focused on its own preservation?
- Shift focus from “higher bodies” to concentrate on climate action at the presbytery/district and congregation level?
- Disengage from their faith community’s creation care work and pour personal energy into a secular environmental NGO in hopes of effecting change more swiftly?
- Sever connections with their current faith community and seek another whose values and actions are more focused on the urgent issue of climate change?
- A mix of the above?
There are deep ironies in the Presbyterian and Methodist decisions. Both denominations face declining memberships, aging populations, and challenges in attracting young people “into the pews.” I heard it best from an engaged young adult urging fossil fuel divestment. “You say that you respect our voices and want us in the life of the church. I say, first give us something to respect.” And, then the policy making body voted to “stay at the table” with the fossil fuel companies and continue their millions in investment.
But finally, Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24, NIV.