When Stewardship Is an Act of Public Witness

September 10, 2014

Louisville

The New Testament portrays a church composed primarily of the poor, the powerless, the outcast. Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise … powerful … of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). The ethics of that era was predicated on powerlessness: it exalted endurance, patience, long-suffering. First-century Christians were society’s martyrs, not its managers.

The church of today must accept the fact that it has great power in its hands, especially economic power, … through its individual members who hold responsible positions in business, government, and organized labor. The church has additional power in its vast holdings in real property and investments and in its accumulation of large sums of money. Therefore, in its corporate use of power it must set an example; and in its counsel to its membership it must be ethically competent. …

The church is also faced with the decision concerning how it should spend and invest sums of money under the control of its courts, boards, agencies, and institutions. The power to spend and to invest implies the power to refrain from spending or investing. The church has not only the right but the responsibility to be selective in the use of its funds. It is the responsibility of the church to acquaint itself with the products and policies of every firm with which it trades and every corporation in which it holds or purchases stock....” (Minutes, PCUS, 1968, Part I, pp. 99–100)

The practice of divestment and proscription of equities or other investments by individual Christians and by church bodies for ethical reasons has been around a long time. In its earliest stages it was focused largely on the refusal to invest in companies whose profits were derived from such things as tobacco, alcohol, or gambling. Presbyterian investors have often been among those who refused to invest in these so called “sin stocks.” Those decisions were taken with the full awareness that many Presbyterians were users of tobacco and of alcohol and some were participants in gambling, as well as the awareness that in some cases, Presbyterians were owners or operators of some of these businesses and that Presbyterians also worked in those enterprises.

Of course, in the secular investment world, the general practice of identifying companies to avoid is a part of daily business. Most of the time, those decisions are based on such things as analysis of a company’s “fundamentals,” market trends, stability of management, and other factors. There are also times when secular investors stay away from certain companies in the belief that their business practices or ethical standards are such that the companies simply are not good business risks.

Over many years, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), through actions of the General Assembly, has attempted to connect our theology to the way our accumulated assets are managed. That effort has taken three basic forms:

1. Issue-based divestment/proscription—Examples include refusal to invest in companies whose products or activities (alcohol, tobacco, gambling, etc.) are viewed as intrinsically harmful or undesirable. This also includes divestment because of corporate activity that is harmful to workers, environmentally destructive, or where corporate involvement appears to contribute directly or indirectly to human rights violations. The 213th General Assembly (2001) placed Talisman Energy Corporation on the divestment list because of their activities in the Sudan (Minutes, 2001, Part I, p. 212). Other engagements with corporations involved in such places as Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, China, and Indonesia around human rights and environmental issues, which could have resulted in divestment recommendations, ended in changes in corporate behavior that made that step unnecessary.

2. Categorical divestment/proscription—This type of divestment is illustrated by the General Assembly’s Military-Related Investment Guidelines. On the basis of the long-standing commitment to peacemaking, and opposition to militarism, the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) approved guidelines that limited investment in military-related production. There were three categories for divestment or proscription:

  • Corporations that are among the top ten by volume in military production.
  • Corporations whose military production is more than 25 percent of their total business.
  • Corporations that produce nuclear weapons or components for them. (Minutes, UPCUSA, 1982, Part I, p. 261)

These guidelines were revised in 1998 to include the production of land mines and other weapons designed to kill or maim indiscriminately (Minutes, 1998, Part I, pp. 402ff).

As of the adjournment of the 221st General Assembly (2014), this list included thirty-one corporations.

It should also be noted that the list is reviewed regular to identify what may be changes in corporate policy. Thus corporations have been removed from this divestment/proscription list because of changes in corporate behavior.

3. Selective Phased Divestment—Adopted in 1985 at the height of the apartheid crisis in South Africa, this policy, “Divestment for South Africa: An Investment in Hope” (Minutes, 1985, Part I, pp. 209ff), focused on engagement with particular U.S. corporations doing business there, with a view to changing their behavior so that their presence no longer undergirded the apartheid economy, but became a positive force for change in both the policies of the South African government and that of the United States. This policy involves a number of deliberate steps which can unfold over an extended period of time:

  • Establishing criteria for determining the nature, impact, and strategic importance of a particular corporation’s involvement.
  • Establishing a focus list of the most important companies to engage, in some cases jointly with ecumenical partners. (It is imperative to identify a manageable number of companies with which to work).
  • Notifying these corporations of the General Assembly’s concern and attempting to arrange meetings with management, accompanied by presbytery leaders in the area where the corporate headquarters is located.
  • If there is, over time, no positive response from management, shareholder resolutions may be filed, calling for action and giving broader visibility to the church’s concerns.
  • The final action, where none of these steps bear positive fruit, is to recommend to the General Assembly that the subject corporations be placed on the General Assembly’s divestment/proscription list.

In each of these forms that divestment has taken, the goal has clearly been positive change in policy and practice, not the divestment itself. As the 197th General Assembly (1985) declared:

The shift from shareholder action to divestment as a strategy to seek change in corporate and public policy toward South Africa is not a means to “cleanse ourselves” from complicity with the evil of apartheid. Such purity is not possible; all institutions are flawed by sin, corporations and churches included, and involvement in American society makes complicity with U.S. governmental support for apartheid inescapable. The church has said to the corporations that if they were not willing to use their presence in South Africa as an effective challenge to apartheid policy and practice, they should withdraw. The church has repeatedly entreated the U.S. government to adopt policies that would replace de facto support for the South African government with maximum incentive for change. (Minutes, 1985, Part I, pp. 228–29)

Our Reformed faith leads us to use our resources in seeking justice, but the target is always unjust behaviors, not corporations or managers themselves. As Reformed Christians we are taught that sin is at work in all of us—no exceptions—just as it is in human institutions such as corporations and including the church; but that does not mean that individuals and institutions who act unjustly are totally evil.

That is why we insist that our goal is change in those unjust behaviors, not the demise of the perpetrators. A prime example of this posture is found in the actions of the 202nd General Assembly (1990). That assembly voted to place the Chevron Corporation (whose CEO happened to be a Presbyterian elder) on the South Africa divestment list because of their continuing sales of petroleum to the South Africa police and military as they implemented apartheid. At the very same time, that General Assembly voted a “Corporate Commendation” award to Chevron, along with some other companies, congratulated “for specific programs and projects that exemplify responsible corporate behavior in such areas as employee relations, humanitarian concerns, care for the environment and awareness of the need to operate with concern for the global community” (Minutes, 1990, Part I, p.545, paragraph 36.202).

In discussing the most recent divestment decisions regarding corporations that, in the eyes of the 221st General Assembly (2014), were contributing to the injustices in Israel/Palestine, it is not necessary to argue about similarities with the South Africa history. The goal is changed behavior, not divestment itself.

And there is more.

Economic pressure as an act of Christian stewardship has never been only about investing and divesting. We have taken action as Christian stewards in the marketplaces where we shop every day. Every Presbyterian should know the role of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the international boycott of the products of the Nestle Corporation—a worldwide campaign intended to change Nestle’s unconscionable efforts to market infant formula to poor women, especially in Africa. In Africa, their sales representatives, wearing white coats to resemble medical personnel, duped women into replacing their own breast milk with Nestle formula, even though they had no clean water with which to mix it and so little money to buy it that they starved their babies by cutting it to make it go farther. By the time many of them realized their babies were not getting adequate nutrition, their own breast milk had dried up.

As word of this horror swept across the religious community in the U.S., thousands of Presbyterian women and men surged into our supermarkets, bearing signs urging shoppers to avoid every product in the store bearing the Nestle brand. The campaign went into months and years with Nestle refusing to budge, until finally they came to see the economic value of changing their ways. With great celebration at a meeting in Mexico City, the group of international leaders who had led the boycott met to announce a formal end to the action, but also vowed to focus their efforts on the leading infant formula producers in the U.S., such as Abbott Laboratories, makers of Similac, and Mead-Johnson, makers of Enfamil. Nestle, in fact, became a resource in pressing these companies to change their marketing practices as Nestle had done.

In the same vein, Presbyterians, supported by actions of our General Assembly, moved to the edge of a boycott of the Campbell soup company because of their failure to support fair employment practices along their production chain. An actual boycott was avoided when James Andrews, Stated Clerk of our General Assembly, brought together Campbell executives, leaders of the tomato growers association, and representatives of the field workers, and a three-way agreement was reached that provided justice and fairness for the workers.

Most recently, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick joined in support of a boycott of Yum Brands products—Taco Bell, KFC, and their other brands—on behalf of the tomato pickers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who were not receiving a living wage and were asking for an increase of a modest penny-per-pound from the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange for the tomatoes they picked. After meetings with Yum executives at their headquarters in Louisville, the growers and leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers reached an agreement that became the model for subsequent agreements with McDonald’s and other major fast-food chains in the United States. Those agreements established benchmarks for subsequent negotiations with produce chains such as Kroger and Publix, with whom campaigns are still ongoing.

These are stories of change—change that follows the “arc of the universe that bends toward justice.” And from beginning to end, they are stories of Christian stewardship. They confirm the faith and commitment of Presbyterians in every age who have used their resources and their energies, with the help of God’s spirit, to bring change where people are suffering and to lead those who have wealth and power to use it in ways that are more just, to the benefit of the whole human family.

  1. Great history on divestment in this article. Remember that the Presbyterian tradition of stewarding these assets also includes significant shareholder activism and positive investment for change. Indeed, far more companies are engaged through these positive efforts than those impacted by divestment.

    by Rob Bullock

    October 15, 2014

  2. Thank you Vernon , and for the Office of GA, for placing the actions of GA'14 on the divestment from the three companies in a historical context. This is very helpful for the people in the pews. It makes our decision to take such action even more prudent. BP

    by william plitt

    September 18, 2014

  3. Great piece and will be extremely helpful in educating congregations and communities about faithful and responsible investing!

    by Clay Thomas

    September 12, 2014

  4. my memory goes back to 1975 when five of us met to write a resolution that became the Peacemaking program and emphasis in the church. Thank you Vernon for tracing the consequences of that decision in some of the divestment actions.

    by L.William Yolton

    September 11, 2014

  5. Investing as Jesus might is an important part of my faith process. I am upset sometimes by church brothers who talk the scholarly Biblical phrases but shun meaningful involvement in social justice issues-especially if "controversial". I'm not as brave or as active as those earlier giants against injustice, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, but I do my best. Thanks for your uplifting article Vernon!

    by Vincent D. Stravino

    September 11, 2014

  6. Vernon, thank you very much for taking the time to lay out the issues and processes that have gone (and continue to go) into the arm of Christian Discipleship that calls Presbyterian to use their money justly. This will be a helpful article as my congregation discusses the divestment decisions around Israel/Palestine.

    by Francis Miller

    September 11, 2014

  7. This is a great recent history of actions against injustice to people over the last 30 years and shows that the recent actions by the general assembly have not simply been anti-semitic.

    by Lewis Pinch

    September 11, 2014

  8. Thank you, Vernon, for putting the recent GA action in context. I particularly liked your observation that divestment isn't an end in itself, a way to try to keep our own hands clean, but rather is an attempt to change the behavior of those who provide the means for violence and other destructive acts and make a profit from it.

    by Earl Arnold

    September 11, 2014

  9. Thank you for this helpful information! Would we have read this before General Assembly 2014, surely it would have lead to a stronger vote for divestment than the close margin that was finally counted.

    by Wilma Jones

    September 10, 2014

  10. A heartfelt "Thank you" from a United Methodist for this record of powerful economic witness by the Presbyterian Church USA! In some of these historic actions, our church has stood with you; in the case of divestment from the Israeli occupation, you are a shining example that thousands of United Methodists are praying will light the way for the UMC.

    by M. Theresa Basile

    September 10, 2014

  11. Thank you for this important history lesson, Vernon! It is one of the reasons I'm proud to be a Presbyterian. We, most of the time, use our thinking power to find ways to pursue heart-felt moves toward justice.

    by Pauline Coffman

    September 10, 2014

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