The General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approved a recommendation today (Feb. 26) to denounce “Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from non-peaceful uses of a number of its products.”
The 24-9 vote on the recommendation from the denomination’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment committee came after some GAMC members voiced concerns about the effect the denunciation would have on the Presbytery of Great Rivers, where Caterpillar’s headquarters are located.
MRTI’s focus has been on Caterpillar’s profit from “non-peaceful uses of its products” in Israel/Palestine, such as the demolition of buildings in Palestinian Occupied Territory and the construction of settlements and the “separation barrier” on disputed land.
“To simplify, Caterpillar makes the statement that they sell tractors. What people do with them is not their responsibility,” MRTI chair the Rev. Brian Ellison told the council’s Justice Committee, adding that MRTI sees a conflict between Caterpillar’s statements about its concern for human rights and its refusal to take responsibility for the use of its products.
The denouncement recommendation represents hope for more dialogue between Caterpillar and MRTI and its ecumenical partners, Ellison said. If MRTI were to recommend divestment — the final step in the corporate engagement process — conversations as shareholders would be off the table.
“We think this is a good-faith effort to avoid the potentially fiery result of a divestment recommendation, but also to speak a clear word about justice,” Ellison said. “We’re running out of options within the regular corporate engagement process.”
Previous efforts over the past two years have included meetings with Caterpillar officials and the filing of shareholder resolutions. Ellison said Caterpillar has been unwilling to hold any meaningful conversations and its business practices have not changed.
“We call upon Caterpillar to carefully review its involvement in obstacles to a just and lasting peace in Israel-Palestine, and to take affirmative steps to end its complicity in the violation of human rights,” the recommendation reads.
It also praises the positive actions taken by the company, such as its work in local development, disaster relief and workplace safety.
The PC(USA)’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network and the Presbytery of Great Rivers were present for the meeting of the council’s Justice Committee, which reviewed the proposal. Both groups had been asked by the Justice Committee to submit written responses to MRTI’s recommendation.
Though Great Rivers Presbytery has taken no action on the denunciation, some Great Rivers members wrote objecting to the denunciation. They were backed by GAMC member the Rev. Clark Cowden, executive presbyter for San Diego Presbytery.
Social justice and prophetic witness are important ministries, “but when they threaten to weaken the fragile nature of our church” it’s good to take a step back, he said, adding that he doesn’t think denouncing Caterpillar will lead to improved dialogue between MRTI and the company.
Ellison said that MRTI values the connectional nature of the church and has met with Great Rivers about its concerns. However, he said, other presbyteries have voiced support for similar or even stronger action than MRTI’s recommendation.
GAMC member Andrew Sonneborn, a member of Great Rivers, spoke in favor of the recommendation, saying that the church needs to be a prophetic voice.
Caterpillar is one of several companies MRTI has engaged in response to a 2008 General Assembly statement that called upon corporations doing business in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank “… to confine their business activity solely to peaceful pursuits …” and to not allow their products to be used for activities that exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.