The Common Good

Why Union’s Decision to Divest from Fossil Fuels Matters

Last week, Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, announced that the school is divesting its endowment of fossil fuels. It is the first seminary in the world to do so, marking Union’s latest action in a long legacy of social justice commitments.

So what? Well, it helps to look at this news in context.

First, for many people the word “divestment” brings to mind the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. By removing financial investments from a morally wrong political system, people around the world made an important statement and pressured the South African government to change. This new divestment movement, from fossil fuels, is both similar and different. Like the anti-apartheid movement, this one is about removing our money from something immoral, because fossil fuels are the main driver of global warming. This one also has the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Unlike the anti-apartheid movement, however, we are all contributing to the sinful pollution of the fossil fuel industry. The target isn’t a single country, but a pervasive bad habit: the habit of burning fossil fuels to power our lives, of allowing these corporations to block personal and political action on climate change.

Divestment is an act of resistance to both the pollution of fossil fuels and the monetary influence they hold over our country’s government. It is also, as Serene Jones puts it, a repentance of sin – the sin of being a part of the climate change problem. We are all sinners, but what Union’s board knows, and what all Christians know, is that God gives us grace to repent of our sins – not just to express regret, but to turn away from them and begin again in a new direction. That’s what we need to do as a whole community of faith: turn away from the sin of climate pollution into a new direction that will redeem God’s creation.

At Union, social justice is a core part of the school’s identity, and has been since it first opened its doors in the heart of New York City, not only educating its students but actively engaging in the local community. The school has been home to the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, James Cone, and Paul Tillich, and it already has a policy against investing in tobacco, liquor, and gambling. The Board of Trustees’ unanimous vote last week means they will remove the endowment’s current investments in fossil fuels, so that the seminary no longer supports the sin of climate change in this way. This year showcases the seminary’s commitment to creation care as a matter of Christian justice; not only are they divesting from fossil fuels, but in September, the school will host a major interfaith conference adjacent to a Climate Summit of world leaders at the United Nations, where important decisions on international climate negotiations are expected to take place.

Micah 6:8 tells us plainly what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Union’s move to divest from fossil fuels is an act of justice, because climate change, which harms most those who have polluted the least, is the ultimate injustice for God’s people and planet. And this divestment is announced with humility, as Jones points out that “[its] endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat.”

The good news is that Union isn’t alone. Like in all of God’s work, community and collective action are critical ingredients. The divestment movement is growing in the United States and around the world. Across the country, 25 cities, two counties and 11 colleges have already committed to divestment with the help of 350.org, and the Wallace Global Foundation is leading the way in getting charitable foundations to divest as well. Many churches and religious organizations are divesting already.

“Union’s vote to divest is prophetic and strong,” said the Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith, an interfaith environmental group which has advocated fossil fuel divestment and clean energy reinvestment by religious institutions. “The seminary has joined hundreds of religious institutions in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and elsewhere that are either divesting or moving in that direction. When an iconic organization such as Union divests, it sends a powerful message.”

For secular groups and universities, this is a matter of morality and justice. But when a Christian institution such as Union divests, there are two levels of decision-making occurring. “It is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment,” Jones said, “and on theological grounds that we trust it matters. The Christian term for this reckless hope in the power of God to use our decisions of conscience to transform the world is resurrection, and I have faith in the power of resurrection.”

Liz Schmitt is Creation Care Campaign Associate at Sojourners.

Image: Union Theological Seminary, by David Merrett / Flickr.com

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