by Sue Smith
Sue Smith is the Vice-Moderator of Presbyterians for Earth Care, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson (NJ), and a GreenFaith Fellow.
I still get emotional thinking about it. On October 14, 2016, the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA) overwhelmingly approved a commissioner’s resolution brought by Rick Ufford-Chase and me to divest from fossil fuels. While I am thrilled with the outcome, that is not what makes me emotional. It was the grace-filled conversation that evolved in the course of the debate.
Advocating for the resolution, I tried to address the questions that I consider noise in this debate by using my own divestment decision as an example. We still drive gas-powered automobiles; until there is less oil extracted from the ground and car manufacturers are forced to find other means of powering cars or we build up our public transportation infrastructure, most of us will be driving cars. We lose our seat at the table; look at the history of Exxon’s response to shareholder resolutions, our seat is meaningless. It doesn’t matter, someone else will buy the stock; true, we live in a market economy, anyone can buy any investment they want.
But I am a Christian who loves the awe-filled story of creation in Genesis 1 and the intimate story of creation in Genesis 2, and who takes seriously the call in both of those stories to steward, care for and tend all of creation. In the end, the only question that mattered for me, and the one I posed to the assembly, was, do we fund our futures owning companies that have in their hands the oil & gas reserves that can do great damage to our communities and all of creation?
Rick talked about the history of the grassroots movement for fossil fuel divestment in the Presbyterian Church, and spoke to the inevitability of approval, most likely at the next General Assembly. Rick also answered the other question that always seems to come up: what do we say to our members who work in the fossil fuel industry? His answer spoke to the dichotomies around this issue. If we don’t do this, what are we saying to all the people around the world who are being harmed by the growing use of fossil fuels? And yes, we have to show care for our people whose jobs may be affected by the transition to renewable energy.
But here the conversation changed. Harold Delhagen, the Synod Leader, first made a statement to the effect that it is easy to divest – sell the stock; there are plenty of other stocks to meet investment objectives. It is a one-time event. What do you do afterwards to address the hard questions around the issues raised by climate change and environmental degradation? That became the focus of the conversation - imagining the possibilities of what we could be and do. Divestment was non-contentious. A very different divestment conversation from any that I had been part of previously.
The Synod has a structure that allows for this conversation of possibilities to continue beyond the assembly, Synod Networks. These are “ways people gather together to move our ministry and church forward. They are spaces where we gain strength, share resources and educate ourselves and others.” That night five of us gathered to start the formation of a new network: the Clean Climate Network. Our vision is to be a “Carbon Neutral regional faith community that inspires other faith communities and regions. To support the Synod in becoming a leader in claiming our moral voice to combat climate change.” It was an energy-filled discussion.
I have learned to look at divestment differently through this experience. Divestment is a clear pronouncement that the harm being done to God’s creation by our fossil-fueled economy is an important issue for the church and for individuals. More important is the work that needs to be done afterwards. How are we church in the face of environmental degradation and climate change? How do we minister to the communities that suffer from the results? How do we pastor to people who lose jobs in a changing economy? How do we inspire congregations and individuals to live more lightly on the earth? How are we to be true stewards of all of God’s creation?
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