Divestment from Fossil Fuel Companies — It’s Past Time

ImageFor several weeks now the Session (local governing body) of First Presbyterian Church has been considering a proposal to endorse an overture to the General Assembly (highest governing body) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). “Overture” is church speak for an official communication which asks for action.

On November 17 the Session voted unanimously to endorse the overture.  Here is what Overture 25 asks the General Assembly to do:

   The General Assembly expresses its profound concern about the destructive effects of climate change on all God’s creation. Climate change has had a disproportionate impact on those living in poverty and in the least developed countries, the elderly and children, and those least responsible for the emissions of greenhouse gases. General Assembly thus recognizes the moral mandate for humanity to shift to a sustainable energy plan in a way that is both just and compassionate. This mandate propels us to action as a denomination: to divest from the fossil fuel industry even as we reduce our use of fossil fuels and shrink our carbon footprint.

  1. 1.The General Assembly calls upon the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Foundation to:
    1. a.     Immediately stop any new investment in fossil fuel companies and instruct asset managers in their work for the denomination to do the same; and
    2. b.    Ensure that within 5 years none of its directly held or commingled assets includes holdings of either equities or corporate bonds in fossil fuel companies as determined by the Carbon Tracker list[1]; and
    3. c.     Incorporate, into already existing financial reports, regular updates detailing progress made towards full divestment. These reports will be made available to the public.
  1. 2. The General Assembly calls upon the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to inform those fossil fuel companies of the passage and implementation of this resolution.

The Session of First Presbyterian concurs with the authors of the Overture that global climate change is an urgent moral issue.  Congress is stuck.  Big Oil and Big Coal have the ears of the Congress, due largely to their generous contributions to both political parties.

Meanwhile the world is putting more, not less, carbon into the atmosphere.  Fossil fuel resources are more than adequate to supply the world’s demand for decades to come.  The problem is not supply.  The problem that is our use of fossil fuels puts the planet in dire danger.

The rational for the Overture says, in part:

The realities of climate change require prophetic and strategic action by people of faith seeking to be faithful to the everlasting covenant God has made with us, with every living creature, and with all future generations. If fossil fuel companies simply fulfill their business model, the earth will become irreversibly inhospitable to life as we know it. . .

There is no such thing as moral purity.  All of us, as consumers of fossil fuels, share responsibility for the current crisis.  On the other hand, we should not profit at the expense of the earth’s future.

Ethically, the current crisis is akin to the struggle to abolish slavery in the 19th century.  The South’s economy depended on slavery.  Changing course was traumatic and costly.  Still, most would argue today that abolishing slavery was the right thing to do.

Divestment is a small, but significant, step in the right direction.

Liberal Calvinist


University of the South/flcikr

While in the Surgical Waiting Room at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, I picked up copy The American Conservative Magazine (September/October 2013) and found it interesting reading.  Of special interest was an article about Marilynne Robison, the author of Gilead and Home. The writer, Robert Long, is an editorial assistant for the magazine.

Long admires Robinson’s form of Calvinism, even though he recognizes that she can hardly be called a conservative.  I found especially interesting her response via e-mail to a question about the identification of American Christians with the right.  Here is what she wrote:

Well, what is a Christian, after all?  Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption?  Then what does he deserve from us?  He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek.  Granted, these are difficult teachings.  But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example?  Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it?  He says precisely the opposite.  Surely we all know this.  I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away. 

Long concludes,

It’s little wonder conservatives are drawn to the liberal Robinson, when she not only writes beautifully but does so with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies.  Robinson’s critiques, if at times broad-brush, provide an always-needed reminder that the church should never allow itself to be simply the Republican Party at prayer.  As Robinson writes in “Open Thy Hand Wide,” the Christian story is “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale.”

Amen, sister!  Kind of makes you proud (but not too proud) to be a Calvinist.

Chewing on Justice

ImageThe “Faith Food Friday” forum is in its second year.  A program of the Village Square, the slogan for FFF is “Improbable Conversations for People of Faith and No Faith at All (because talking politics wasn’t hard enough).  I’ve been to several of these discussions which are lead by a panel of local religious leaders composed of Fran Buhler (First Baptist Church) Jack Romberg (Temple Israel) Darrick McGhee (Bible Based Church) Dave Kileen (St. John’s Episcopal Church) and Betsy Ouellette (Good Samaritan United Methodist Church).

Sometimes the panel brings in another person to help with the discussion.  Dr. Richard Mashburn did an excellent job this month leading a discussion about racial inclusion in religious congregations.  For the February 8th meeting I’ve been asked to lead a discussion about social justice.

I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but I do regard “the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the Kingdom of heaven to the world” as two of the “Great Ends of the Church.”  Whatever I say has to be brief and targeted to a mixed audience of believers, non-believers, seekers, and people who just like to take part in a stimulating conversation.  Here are some points I want to make:

  • Social justice is key to Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
  • Biblically speaking, “justice” or “righteousness” is both individual and social.
  • Genuine “spirituality” demands justice.  Perhaps you can be spiritual without being religious, but you can’t be spiritual and ignore the call to justice.
  • Biblical justice involves both the right administration of law (judicial) and the fair allotment of the earth’s resources (distributive).
  • Biblical “prophecy” is not about predicting the future as much as it is a call to justice.
  • Jesus stands in the line of Biblical prophets.  Although Christians believe he was more than a prophet, he was at the very least a prophet.
  • Christians distort the gospel when they emphasize “charity” to the exclusion of “justice.”  (Christmas baskets for migrant worker families are good; just wages for farm works are better.)
  • The way forward for inter-religious dialogue lies not in papering over our dogmatic differences, but in pursuing a just society together.
  • From a Christian point of view, it doesn’t matter if we don’t win on every issue.  The point  is faithfulness.  (For Calvinists the point is gratitude!).  Ultimately, God’s will shall be done with our without our help.

If I have time, I want to mention justice causes right here in Tallahassee that need the attention of our faith communities.

What do you think?  Send me your ideas.  I could use all the help I can get.  My e-mail is brant@oldfirstchurch.org.  The program on February 8 at First Baptist Church begins at noon and is free to the public.  If you want to eat the excellent cooking of the First Baptist cooks, come at 11:30 and pay $10.00.  To register, go to www.tothevillagesquare.org.

Lord, Forgive Us Our . . .

There are some pitfalls in this brave new world of social media.  One of them is the fact that when I make a blooper, it is exposed not only to the flock (who are used to my many shortcomings) but also to the entire World Wide Web.

For the past few weeks I have been posting this column as a blog post.  As typos go, the ones in last week’s column were real howlers.   Instead of “Pig in a Poke,” I typed “Pig in a Polk.”  As if that were not bad enough,  I left out the “l” in “public” when referring to “public policy.”   This is more than a little embarrassing.  I don’t really want to get into that particular conversation online.  I get enough unsolicited e-mail already.

I figured out how to fix the blog post, but the newsletter went out uncorrected.  I offer thanks to the many of you, both in the congregation and out there in the ether, who caught the typos and let me know about them.  Humble thanks, of course.  In the circumstances, I could hardly offer any other kind.

This puts me in mind of a young pastor in my grandparents’ church in Coahoma, Texas.  Not long after arriving in that community of cotton farmers, he offered a pastoral prayer imploring the Lord to bless the “hoers in the field.”  He hadn’t quite cottoned onto the local lingo.  Every parishioner who shook his hand after worship whispered, “It’s hoe hands, Charlie, not hoers.

On another occasion Charlie prayed, “Lord, forgive us our falling shorts.”  Not quite the same thing as the Book of Common Worship’s “shortcomings and offences.”  I’m sure the Lord knew what Charlie was talking about, but the image evoked by his rough equivalent is likely to have left the congregation rather distracted.

Baggy pants are a fashion statement these days, but falling shorts are another matter.  (Come to think of it, the former might well contribute to the latter.)

Typographical errors, as bad as they are, are not quite so embarrassing as liturgical ones.  In by first parish I began the Easter morning liturgy by shouting “Christ is born . . . I mean . . . risen!”  It was not my proudest ministerial moment.

Humility is desirable in my line of work, but if you’re me, it’s unavoidable.

Pig in a Poke

When I arrived to serve First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee in 1985, Florida was coming down with a bad case of lottery fever.  Both conservative Christian groups and the liberal-leaning Florida Council of Churches opposed the establishment of a state-run lottery, even though proponents insisted that funds derived by separating fools from their money would be used to “enhance education.”

I joined Southern Baptists and Unitarians to say that the state should not encourage the something-for-nothing mentality that undergirds “gaming.”  (You can’t say “gambling” anymore.  That word has been stricken from the lexicon.)  We opposed the lottery on moral grounds.

We lost, of course.  The voters of Florida, in their infinite wisdom (or utter gullibility) took the bait.  And guess what!  The pea wasn’t under the shell after all.  Over time, the tax dollars that should have gone to education went elsewhere.  And the Governor is praised for proposing a budget increase for education that barely makes up for last year’s cut.

Meanwhile the ads for the Lottery grow increasingly surreal.  Throwing your money away on lottery tickets is not an exercise in cupidity after all.  It’s a way of “contributing” to education.

Eat your heart out, George Orwell.

The slide down the slippery slope has brought us to Gretna, a town in that is 85 per cent black and has an unemployment rate of 25 percent.  In a few days the residents of Gadsden County will get to vote on whether to allow slot machines to be added to the barrel racing and card games that are already underway at Creek Entertainment Gretna.

There’s not much doubt which way the vote will go.  The allure of jobs and new tax revenues is powerful.   My colleague, The Rev. Mr. Charles Scriven, a man of impeccable integrity, has launched an effort to defeat the slots.  Alas, the momentum is against him.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  “Gaming” is probably here to stay.  The best we can do is to try to contain it as best we can.  Still, I can’t relinquish the dream of a system that uses equitably-derived tax dollars to further the public good.

“Gaming” is a social evil, no matter how many voters approve it.  It’s bad for families, bad for individuals, and bad public policy.  Dress it up anyway you want, it’s still a pig in a poke.

Dissing the Saints

A colleague sent me an article by Tom Ehrich, dated January 5, which offers an interesting take on the changes churches will have to make to avoid fading into obscurity.  Erhrich, who I gather is an Episcopalian pastor, writes about the decline of so-called “Mainline” churches on his website MultiChannelChurch.  He offers lots of helpful suggestions, but he strikes me as a bit too enamored of the marketplace.

Ehrich begins by lamenting the demise of Eastman Kodak, using this company as metaphor for all institutions, especially the church, that fail to adjust to fast-changing realities.   He then offers these two lists:

For clergy

  1. Clergy will need to become strong, assertive entrepreneurs, even in polities that believe in constraining clergy power.
  2. Institutions built on Sunday worship will need to channel resources away from Sunday worship.
  3. Constituents will need to embrace “harvest giving.”
  4. Leaders will take a fresh look at facilities – a long and strategic view, not a “survivor” view.

 For churches:

  1.  Constituents who have seen church as a place to get their needs met will need to become servants, self-sacrificial and radically inclusive
  2. Laity will need to let beloved institutions change radically, and allow leadership to pass to risk-takers, upstarts, new and younger constituents
  3.  Judicatory heads trained to manage institutional processes will need to become advocates for a movement.
  4. Seminaries will need to stop preparing ordinands for a church that no longer exists.
  5. People will need to let their faith be more than convenient religion, a comforting engagement with affirming fellowships, and instead wade boldly into disorderly gatherings marked by diversity and neediness.

The article is helpful in many ways, but apart from the word “servants,” I note a decided lack of theological content.

I agree with much of what Erhrich says, but disagree strongly that clergy should become “entrepreneurs” while members should become “servants.”  His implies that people of faith in mainline churches possess only “convenient religion.  This strikes me as downright insulting and a form of bearing false witness against his neighbors.

The people I “serve” (and I use that word on purpose) at First Presbyterian Church are not focused entirely on “comforting engagement with affirming fellowships.”  The are true servants of the living God who are engaged in God’s mission.

While I appreciate constructive criticism, I don’t appreciate condescension.  The Apostle’s advice to the church in Rome seems appropriate  “ . . . do not claim to be wiser than you are (Rom. 12:14).

Surely the church can change without “dissing” the saints who are currently in the pews.