Divesting of Power

rich-young-rulerReaders of this blog will not be surprised that I was disappointed by the decision of the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA)—at which I was a voting commissioner—to divest from Hewlett Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar because they profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

I have consistently opposed divestment—not because I am unconcerned about the suffering of Palestinians and not because I don’t understand the ethical dilemma of investing in businesses that do things that go against our core beliefs—I oppose divestment because it is a flawed strategy that will not advance the cause of peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.

The only consolation in my mind is that the divestment overture that passed was the best possible such overture because it also said the things we need to say about Judaism and Israel. (Read this open letter from Presbyterian leadership to American Jews.)

The aftermath of the 310-303 vote has played out as expected. National Jewish organizations are distancing themselves from the PC(USA). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a pretty blunt assessment of our action. And Presbyterians continue to be deeply polarized on this issue. (Interestingly, this divestment action is more divisive than our actions on same gender marriage.)

It seems to me that the divestment debate has been a debate about how to best use church power. Some believe that divesting from these 3 companies will leverage our power to pressure Israel to change its strategic policies and also empower Palestinians. Others believe that divestment undermines the power of our interfaith relationships and therefore distances us from the peacemaking process.

On the Monday after GA, Matthew 19:13-22 came up in the daily lectionary. It helped me reconsider divestment in light of my sustained reflection on post-Christendom. In the same way that Jesus asked the rich young man to divest of his wealth to truly follow his way, I wonder if churches like the PC(USA) should be getting out of the power game altogether. Perhaps we are holding on too tightly to the ways of Christendom and the notion that we have power to wield in the world. Perhaps God is calling us in this post-Christendom era to divest of power and follow Jesus in a new way.

I confess that I’m legitimately torn about this question of power. Community organizers suggest that mobilizing power is the only way to affect change in the world. And it’s not the case that I think the gospel and politics are mutually exclusive—to the contrary, I have always believed that our faith commitments necessarily inform how we engage political processes.

But after a decade of being embroiled in a political quagmire and feeling like the PC(USA) has been pushed and pulled—if not used—by various parties involved in this complicated situation, I wonder if this kind of power play is what the church needs to be about. While it is perfectly appropriate for individual Presbyterians—and even groups of Presbyterians—to engage this and many other challenges of the world, I wonder if the days of denominational interventions are over. Is this the best use of our time and resources as a denomination?

The opening lines of an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal note that the PC(USA) has lost 30% of our members since 2000 yet the crisis that most consumed us at GA221 is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I agree that we need to rethink our priorities and foci if we hope to thrive as a post-Christendom church.

Comments

  1. I don’t think the power play is the divestment decision so much as the maintenance of a portfolio of financial investments. That’s a kind of power the church has sought for the purposes of enabling ministry and providing healthcare and pensions to its leaders. The decision to divest seems to me less about leveraging power for a desired political outcome and more about aligning the church’s “powerful” investments with its values.

    And I think you’re totally right about the concept of power endorsed by community organizing being in tension with the gospel. I’m struggling with that tension here too

  2. Rocky, I’m sure that “aligning investments with our values” was the thing that motivated many to vote for divestment. But Michael Gizzi has explained in his essay why that doesn’t work in this case. The better course would have been for the church to tackle government policies that prolong the suffering of the people of the Middle East. Divesting in Cat won’t bring peace any closer. Almost everyone agrees to that. So divestment is not really a practical way of advancing our values. It might make us appear more “pure” but if purity comes at the price of peace, I stand with Luther. “Sin boldly so that grace [and peace] may abound.”

    • The question, for me, is less about the effectiveness of divestment as a strategy for achieving peace than it is about deciding to stop supporting injustice. I don’t think any of the commissioners who supported it are misled that the action either hurts the three companies in any significant way or that the companies themselves are playing a critical role in the occupation that, if only weakened, would produce peace. And there’s a difference between “aligning” and “advancing” one’s values. I read the Assembly’s action to say, “We’re taking a stand with victims of an unjust situation” and not, “We’re imposing a solution on an unjust situation.” I think the former is a valuable statement to make.

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