The 2008 United Methodist General Conference
The General Conference of the United Methodist Church meets once every four years and is the only body that speaks on behalf of the whole church. The United Methodist Church is a global church with some 25 to 30 percent of its membership in countries of Africa, Europe and in the Philippines. General Conference adopts broad policies and principles designed to guide church actions. The work of implementing such principles goes to agencies and local churches.
Six Annual Conferences along with the Methodist Federation for Social Action and several individuals submitted divestment petitions to the 2008 General Conference, which took place from 22 April to 2 May in Fort Worth, Texas. They all outlined a process of corporate engagement that included divestment as a last step if a company refused to end its involvement in violations of international law stemming from Israel’s military occupation, the wall and settlements. Because these petitions all involved investment decisions they were referred to the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee rejected all divestment petitions with mandatory procedures but adopted one on Sudan which only encouraged United Methodists “to prayerfully consider divestment” as well as one creating a Socially Responsible Investment task force to develop more explicit church-wide guidelines in the area of human rights. The plenary later affirmed the committee recommendations. Many churches and pension funds were also reluctant to take the lead on divestment regarding apartheid South Africa. Instead, many chose other forms of shareholder activism short of divestment.
Critics quickly and wrongly hailed these decisions by General Conference as a rejection of divestment from Israel with language suggesting the resolutions were anti-Semitic. However, none of the petitions proposed divestment from Israel but rather selective divestment from US companies profiting from military occupation, the building of settlements, bypass roads and the wall that all violate international law.
Opponents of divestment do not offer alternative nonviolent strategies, but seek to equate challenges to companies profiting from Israel’s military occupation with criticism of the right of Israel to exist and with anti-Semitism. Such attacks are meant to intimidate and stifle churches from taking up nonviolent actions. Yet at General conference, it seemed the long standing reluctance of church financial institutions to support divestment for any reason was the main factor in blocking a mandatory church-wide divestment process.
Many Finance Committee delegates look to the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (Pensions) for guidance on petitions. Leading up to General Conference, Pensions openly opposed divestment petitions in presentations and on their website. Their argument against divestment was primarily based on financial considerations. They also argued that by holding shares, rather than divesting, they had more opportunity to influence a company’s unjust behavior.
In a web statement entitled “Position on Divestment,” there is a startling disparity and disconnect between the description of divestment relating to Sudan and to Israel-Palestine. The section on Sudan begins with the humanitarian crisis on the ground and then points to legislation adopted by the US Congress as well as local governments, universities and others. It concludes by suggesting the board may divest from one company if it does not change quickly.
By contrast, a section entitled “Fiduciary Responsibility and Israeli-Palestinian Divestment” makes no mention of humanitarian conditions facing Palestinians on the ground. Instead it mentions its 74,000 plan participants (clergy and staff of general agencies) and states that “[d]ecisions regarding our investments, by necessity, must be solely for the future benefit of these plan participants” (emphasis added). The lack of US government action, and that “no major US institutional investor has adopted a similar strategy of divestment” are given as arguments against divestment. Such rationale cannot be found in the United Methodist Discipline and Social Principles which list human rights, not US government action or widespread action by other investors, as criteria for divestment.
Pensions’ position statement further declares that “[i]f the General Board were to divest from the many companies manufacturing or selling products or services purchased by Israelis who live in the occupied territories, we would find it difficult, if not impossible, to hire investment managers — our screening requirements would be so restrictive, investment managers would decline to comply.” Such a statement greatly mischaracterizes the divestment petitions and investment realities.
New England Annual Conference listed 20 companies on their divestment list in 2007. Pensions already excluded most of these as weapons manufacturers. Pensions already has a list of 633 companies on its “Failed/Ineligible Investment List” that are excluded for production of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and weapons or for large military contracts. Yet, not one company is excluded for human rights abuses!
The argument that no investment manager could be found is simply false. Pensions itself already has an optional portfolio with stronger social screens that excludes all of the companies named for profiting from Israel’s military occupation such as Caterpillar and Motorola! The argument that shareholders have more influence on a company than those who divest is not an either/or one. Institutional investors can place a company like Caterpillar on a ‘no further purchase’ list while using their existing shares for ongoing shareholder advocacy.
To get a full sense of what happened at General Conference we must examine the other petitions relating to Palestine/Israel. All of the one-sided petitions that uncritically supported Israel while ignoring the suffering of Palestinians were submitted by individuals and were soundly rejected. One to oppose any discussion of apartheid in relation to Israel was defeated by a show of hands. One that singled out Hamas for criticism was also defeated. One specifically entitled “Oppose Divestment from Israel” was widely rejected.
At the same time, five petitions submitted by general agencies to update existing resolutions (on Holy Land Tours, on Opposition to Israeli Settlements, on Fair Trade products like Palestinian olive oil, on UN resolutions on Palestine-Israel) and add a new one condemning all violence and coercion, all passed. Those based on human rights for all, on international law, and on our biblical calling to be peacemakers — all passed. In general, the real work of General Conference occurs in the committees. The plenary accepted the committee recommendation on 98.6 percent of all petitions. Most of the petitions submitted by General Agencies are adopted as they have gone through a prior process of discussion and approval.
If we take all these decisions by General Conference together, it seems that while General Conference rejected specific recommendations for a mandatory church-wide divestment process, the mandate in the Discipline for Socially Responsible Investment and possible disinvestment remains the responsibility of each agency and annual conference. An amendment added more explicit reference to human rights in the Middle East, Sudan and China in the newly established Task force on Socially Responsible Investment. Thus the committee affirmed the human rights basis on which divestment petitions rested while not yet affirming the specific step of divestment for the whole church.
It remains the task of Annual Conferences and General Agencies to be good stewards, seekers of justice, and protectors of human rights through nonviolent shareholder advocacy with our investments. One Annual Conference has already introduced a new divestment resolution at its session in late May 2008. More divestment resolutions are likely in 2009 at regional and local levels. Like the movement seeking an end to Apartheid in southern Africa, there are a variety of nonviolent strategies that are all useful to end systemic discrimination and violence. There will continue to be plenty of healthy debates within churches on nonviolent actions like shareholder advocacy, divestment, ending military aid, and supporting direct action through accompaniment of civilians in the occupied territories.
The Global Christian Church taking action today
In the global struggle against colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa, the World Council of Churches took a bold step in 1968 when it created its Program to Combat Racism. Much of the program lent nonviolent support to peoples’ movements suffering from, and resisting, the brutal oppression of colonial regimes across southern Africa. The churches were subjected to harsh attacks for this program including accusations that the WCC was aiding terrorists. Those so-called terrorists included former President Nelson Mandela and the current governing party of South Africa, the African National Congress. Despite these attacks, the WCC’s moral courage to stand for justice in the face of systemic oppression contributed greatly to eroding support for unjust rule.
It is important to note that the WCC did not create a program for dialogue in the midst of colonialism. Churches understood that only a program aimed at challenging systemic injustice would help build just and lasting peace for all. What is emerging today among the global church is a similar movement for justice: an ecumenical program to end military occupation and human rights violations through nonviolent actions.
In June 2007, 130 representatives from churches in the holy land and around the world met in Amman, Jordan to issue “The Amman Call: Churches together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East.” The Call expresses the urgent call from Palestinian Christians, “No more words without deeds. It is time for action.” It seeks to mobilize broader church actions that embody “costly solidarity.” The final paragraph expresses the pledge of the global ecumenical movement to “risk reputations and lives to build with you bridges for an enduring peace among the peoples of this tortured and beautiful place — Palestine and Israel — to end these decades of injustice.”
Since the 2006 WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, a number of US churches met with Palestinian Christians to hear their pleas for greater nonviolent economic measures to end corporate support for Israel’s brutal military occupation and ongoing colonization. An ecumenical working group of denominational socially responsible investors, including United Methodists, has formed and is undertaking similar nonviolent measures with companies involved in Palestine-Israel. Hundreds of letters and several shareholder meetings with company managements have taken place. Shareholder resolutions on human rights and foreign military sales, like the ones with Caterpillar, were filed for the first time with ITT, Motorola and United Technologies. The World Council of Churches Amman Call included workshop recommendations to identify five companies for coordinated nonviolent economic measures from churches globally.
To date, these efforts have yet to produce changes in company practices. But many more church investors are now trying to do something about corporate complicity in Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights. Companies are also on notice that they must account for their profiting from military occupation. Each year that military occupation continues, that settlements keep expanding, and that companies continue to profit from business that perpetuates these human rights violations, church investors will be forced to account for their reluctance to support divestment. Now, more than ever, grassroots Christians need to keep pressing church pension funds and other investors to take stronger actions to end corporate support for military occupation and settlements.
Praying with our feet: the march for justice
On 10 June 2007, many church members joined with the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and over 100 other groups in a national mobilization to end all US support for 40 years of Israeli occupation and human rights violations. The Call to End all US support for Israel’s Military Occupation involves ending both military and corporate support. Two manifestations of these efforts are ongoing work targeting Caterpillar and Motorola. Since Motorola makes cell phones in addition to surveillance equipment and fuses used by Israeli settlers and the military, it is more vulnerable to a consumer-based campaign and boycott. Boycotts are often easier for churches to support than divestment because a boycott can be implemented by a wider group of consumers and not just investors. Ending corporate support will not happen with one decision, but will require a steady effort by grassroots churches and other activists pressuring those who make investment decisions to demand corporate accountability to protect Palestinian human rights. There are several crucial next steps that churches are and should be taking in support of the BDS campaign:
- Grassroots church folk who have called for divestment are now moving to implement it on a local and regional level as they continue to press for a church-wide process.
- Church pension funds and other investors should facilitate more in-depth corporate research on companies profiting from military occupation and settlements, and make such research widely available for use by local churches and individuals.
- Church institutional investors are working on further shareholder resolutions that will press companies to change, or at least document their refusal to end unjust behavior.
- Church pension holders are beginning to press the board of Pensions that they do not want their pension funds invested in companies profiting from military occupation. Twenty years ago pension holders played a key role in demanding that Pensions exclude military companies from their pension funds.
- As churches join in signing on to the WCC Amman Call they can focus efforts on several companies like Caterpillar or Motorola through a variety of actions from letter writing to shareholder resolutions to boycott to divestment.
- Link opposing military occupation of Palestine with opposing military occupation of Iraq. Several companies exploit both situations for massive war profits.
- Delegations to Palestine-Israel of church investment staff. When they meet with Palestinian and Israeli human rights advocates as well as Palestinian businesses, they will see the profound constraints military occupation and settlements place on the whole Palestinian economy. “Positive investment” is not a substitute for divestment: both are needed.
- As more churches study the manifestations of apartheid and colonialism imposed on the whole Palestinian society, support for nonviolent actions of boycott and divestment will grow. Involvement of the South African Council of Churches in a US Campaign sponsored Anti-Apartheid tour in November will greatly strengthen church involvement in the work of BDS for the long haul.
David Wildman is the Executive Secretary - Human Rights & Racial Justice in the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. He also helped found the US Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and currently serves as co-chair of its steering committee.
This essay originally appeared in al-Majdal, the English-language quarterly published by Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. Al-Majdal’s current issue “Overcoming the Nakba: BDS and the Global Anti-Apartheid Movement” is now available online (click here to download PDF).