Religion, Divestment, Shareholder Engagement, the United Church and the Way of Jesus
Religion is not rational. It is about relationships and symbols that speak to our lives and to our connections with what is within us and beyond us. It helps us connect to other people and to the creation as a whole. Religious beliefs ground our ethics. Theology helps us to see and hear the sacred in a disordered and flawed world.
Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple as a sign of God’s outrage with those who were taking advantage of the poor and powerless. After the incident, the moneychangers cleaned up the mess, complained to the authorities and went back to business as usual. Meanwhile, because Jesus had the audacity to react to immorality – he was arrested, beaten and executed.
Divestment from companies that support or profit from the occupation of Palestine may not be the same as overturning the moneychangers’ tables but it is a theological choice. Primarily, it says to our partners, “We will stand in solidarity with you in your hour of need.” It is a way for us to be “salt and light” in the world.
Human suffering may not trigger a change in corporations but it should elicit a response from Christians. Divestment clearly says we refuse to support corporations that make people suffer. It puts our relationship with our brothers and sisters who “cry out in anguish” ahead of any commercial enterprise.
In some cases, shareholder engagement is an effective tool to bring about change. Unfortunately, in Palestine and Israel it has failed. Larger churches in the US have worked with Hewlett Packard, Caterpillar and others for years with no success. Dr. Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine and Harvard Law Professor, has clearly stated that attempts by the UN failed with most corporations.
A year ago, the General Council (GC) of the United Church of Canada, the highest decision making body of the denomination, a group we believe is guided by God’s Spirit, requested the United Church, our foundation and pension fund divest from companies supporting or profiting from the occupation. Four years ago, GC directed, “the Executive of the General Council to explore the wisdom of divesting in companies that are profiting from or supporting the occupation.”
In response, a committee was formed to develop a policy regarding what euphemistically has been called responsible investment. No actions and/or recommendations on divestment in support of our partners in Palestine and Israel and our other partners in Guatemala who have ongoing concerns with Canadian mining interests have been forthcoming from this group. This leads to the question, what is our priority, developing a policy or supporting those who have been and who are suffering?
The will of the General Council is clear – divest. So why not divest, as requested and then develop a policy for future guidance? After all, there is no legislation that prevents the United Church or any other body from investing in or divesting from any one corporation. The wisdom of the General Council is clear. The stories from our partners are compelling. The groundwork done by other churches is faithful. Finally, the overwhelming evidence from independent NGO’s, sister churches, the UN and other agencies in Palestine and Israel calls us to act!
The evidence in relation to the brutality of the occupation is abundantly clear. The firsthand accounts of our partners and the 20+ Ecumenical Accompaniers appointed by the denomination attest to daily violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian laws. Credible international groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Defence for Children International, the World Council of Churches, B’Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights and Addameer have clearly documented the reality of the occupation. Additionally, the last report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian territories is tantamount to an indictment for apartheid. So why not do the right thing, the just thing and act!
Religion and theology help to guide us in a disordered and tragic world. The prophet Micah wrote, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The General Council has decided for justice and support for human rights and the rule of international law. It would serve us well as a denomination to listening to the cries of our partners and humbly respond by divesting from corporations that benefit from the occupation and then create a guide to responsible investing. After all, we do have a theological obligation to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered for 49 long years.
When we divest there will be criticism. There always is when we decide to stand for justice. I remember entering theological college in 1988 just after the GC decided that sexual orientation was not a barrier to ordination. There was a lot of criticism. Still, we trusted in the Holy Spirit guidance then and we did not delay implementation. Our church is richer for that decision.
Divestment is a sign and symbol of solidarity with those who are suffering. It is not a reasonable shareholder reaction – it is saying, “Here I stand I can do no other”. It may not be as dramatic as overturning the tables of the moneychangers but it is faithful to the one who calls us to be salt and light in the world.