The Common Good

Money Talks: World Council of Churches Disinvests in Fossil Fuels

The Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United case infamously affirmed money spent in political campaigns as a form of free speech, thus declaring various legal limitations unconstitutional. The ruling gives a political megaphone to those with the most money and has been decried by many as contributing further to the nation’s political dysfunction and rigid polarization.  I strongly agree.

But this ruling came to mind again when I heard the news that the World Council of Churches, at its Central Committee meeting in early July, had made a decision not to invest in fossil fuel industries. In fact, money does talk. Where institutions place their invested funds is not a neutral, pragmatic matter. It speaks volumes.

The response to this action and how it originated in the first place add to the interest in this story. I first heard of this from social media, when groups campaigning for fossil fuel disinvestment were heralding the WCC’s action as one of the most important endorsements of this policy to date. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and one of the leaders of this effort, joined with others in underscoring the significance of the WCC’s decision. And as a body comprised of 345 member churches around the world, with over 500 million members, certainly the WCC’s action was a strong message of encouragement to the fossil fuels disinvestment campaign.

What puzzled me, however, was that the WCC’s many press releases issued during the time of the Central Committee, covering a wide range of reports and plenary sessions dealing with challenges to justice, peace, and human rights, made no mention of this. By coincidence, I was traveling to Geneva shortly after the Central Committee to take part in a seminar on the WCC’s new Statement on Mission and Evangelism. So I asked staff there, whom I knew from the time I served both on staff and then formerly as a member of its Central Committee, what the story was.

It turns out that this action was found in a single line of the Report of the Finance Committee. It read that “the list of sectors in which the WCC does not invest should be extended to include fossil fuels.” And in fact, the relatively small portfolio of investments held by the WCC does not include fossil fuel industries. So the WCC staff members I spoke to were actually surprised at the amount of attention this item had attracted in social media — in contrast to many of the statements that had been formally issued the Central Committee.  (In response, the WCC eventually issued a press release about this a week after its Central Committee meeting.)      

But all this should tell us something. Words are easy. The WCC, like other church bodies, regularly make statements on important issues. At times they can be insightful, compelling, and even prophetic. But they are just statements. Money, on the other hand, can speak far more powerfully, giving a megaphone of credibility to a message in social media.

Simply confirming that the WCC would not put any of its money in fossil fuel industries sent a message that this organization is trying to walk its talk when expressing its global Christian witness. Further, the WCC’s talk on this question has its own credibility, backed up by 25 years of actions, way ahead of the curve regarding the threat of global warming.

That began when the WCC adopted a program called “Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation” in the 1980’s. I was privileged to be part of the WCC’s staff then, and therefore shared some of this history. As Director of Church and Society for the WCC beginning in 1988, my task was to work with those trying to give expression and meaning to “Integrity of Creation.” We decided to focus on climate change, sensing that global warming would pose severe threats to the most vulnerable around the world and alter the intrinsic harmony of God’s creation.

In the years since, that work of the WCC has remained a consistent part of its witness, supporting U.N. efforts to negotiate effective international commitments and providing educational resources to WCC churches around the world. So when the WCC added that line to its Finance Report, it was a faithful, continuing expression of a deeply rooted commitment.

One of those calling for disinvestment in fossil fuels has been South African archbishop Desmund Tutu, who served at one time on the staff of the WCC.  He knows firsthand how money talks. During the anti-apartheid struggle, in which archbishop Tutu was one of the leaders, the WCC eventually matched its verbal opposition by establishing a Special Fund to Combat Racism.  Grants were given to liberation groups in the struggle against apartheid, and this became one of the most controversial programs ever adopted by the WCC. But the WCC decided to put its money where its mouth was, even when the cause seemed almost hopeless. Now, Tutu has called for an “anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossil fuels industry.”

Reversing global warming may prove to be even more difficult than dismantling apartheid. Further, we know that any transition moving away from fossil fuels involves enormous complexities and requires time. But the direction must be set, and the churches must be among those offering the signposts to preserving the integrity of God’s creation. The WCC’s simple action resonated with many because money talks, often even louder than words.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s most recent book is From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. He served as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994-2011, and prior to that was Director of Church and Society for the World Council of Churches. He has been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for the past 40 years.

Photo: Svetlana Lukienko and Andriano/Shutterstock.com

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