Body, Blood, and Oil: The United Church of Christ and its Stand Against the Fossil Fuel Industry

This past Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending an event in Manhattan sponsored by the North Country School and Camp Treetops.  The event drew a sizable crowd of ecologically minded folks, who gathered to hear a group of panelists discuss the current state of climate change.  One of the esteemed panelists for the evening was Bill McKibben, renowned author and founder of 350.org, a global grassroots movement committed to solving the climate crisis.  When discussing the practical steps being taken to solve the climate crisis, McKibben repeatedly spoke of divestment as a key strategy now adopted by 350.org.

What is divestment?

The divestment strategy of 350.org is born from the premise that if it’s wrong to destroy the climate, then it’s also wrong to profit from that destruction.  McKibben and his constituents are asking schools, universities, churches, and other organizations to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, as well as divest their direct ownership in any fossil fuel public equities within the next five years.  In doing so, the movement hopes to pressure the 200 largest petroleum companies on the planet to keep 80% of their untapped fossil fuels underground.

Why divestment?

If we fail to restrict these companies from burning these resources, the results will be nothing short of cataclysmic.  According to 350.org, the 2795 gigatons of carbon dioxide that would be released from the burning of the world’s untapped reserves would result in an increase of the Earth’s temperature far exceeding the 3.6-degree (Fahrenheit) that most world governments agree would be catastrophic.  Simply stated, we cannot sanely invest in companies that will provide short-term financial gain, but ultimately destroy the planet as we know it.  Thus, a massive collective effort is needed to financially impact the petroleum industry in such a way that they take seriously our demands to protect the health of the planet.  Only by attacking the massive pocketbook of fossil fuel companies can the public hope to create lasting change in the policies of an industry concerned solely with profit. 1

Divestment and the UCC

Perhaps one of the most encouraging, albeit unexpected moments of McKibben’s discussion of divestment was his mention of the United Church of Christ as the first major Christian denomination to commit to divesting from the fossil fuel industry.  In July, the General Synod of the UCC voted to divest its investments from fossil fuel companies by 2018–making it the first major religious body in the U.S. to do so.  According to Rev. Jim Antal, the major proponent of the divestment strategy, “This resolution becomes 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…This vote expresses our commitment to the future.  By this vote, we are amplifying our conviction with our money.”  Additionally, the General Synod also passed a resolution to reduce the carbon footprint of the UCC by conducting energy audits on their church buildings, with the intention to make them more carbon neutral. 2

Thinking Theologically About Divestment

For anyone concerned with environmental care, the resolution passed by the United Church of Christ is praiseworthy, and should certainly be considered a move in the right direction.  But how should other people of faith think about their action against the fossil fuel industry, and what does it mean to think about this issue in a theological manner?  From a practical standpoint, the UCC’s divestment from fossil fuel did very little to disrupt the massive momentum and power built up by the multi-billion dollar industry.  However, when one views this action of the UCC as one of eschatological vision, the significance of the resolution becomes dramatic.  As one who follows the Christian faith, I believe in the mysterious proclamation that Christ will come again.  From a biblical perspective, this second coming of Christ entails the embodiment of “shalom,” or a state of being in which everything is as it should be.  Ordered and unified, it is this shalom that I look to when I try to find hope in the climate crisis of our time.  Shalom provides us with the hope that not only will there be a day when all creatures are at peace with one another, but that it will also be a day when we will be at peace with the land that nourishes us.  In light of this vision, I simply cannot sit back while corporations driven by profit destroy the beauty and life-sustaining capacity of God’s creation.  Thus, we must view the action of the United Church of Christ as a prophetic one, pointing to a day in the future when Christ will reign and everything in creation will be as it should.  Though their own divestment is a small gesture in itself against the massive financial power of the fossil fuel industry, the collective divestment of faith communities around the globe would be enough to make a radical statement of change.  Divestment from fossil fuel companies is ultimately for churches an act of faith.  Through divestment, the body of believers proclaim, “God, we forsake the easy profit for the hope of ushering in your world as it should be.”  May we keep our eyes fixed on that future, as we take action today.

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