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Eco-Justice Notes
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What Would Jesus Divest?
distributed 5/3/13 - ©2013

What sort of advice does Jesus of Nazareth give on managing investment portfolios?

Investment advice is a fairly direct concern as congregations and denominations -- as well as colleges, individuals, and city and state governments -- consider the call to divest their portfolios from fossil fuels. The strategic issues around divestment can be complex.

Jesus, though, cuts through the moral and tactical clutter with some clear guidance. Matthew (6:21) and Luke (12:34) quote him: "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

(For today, I'll bypass the related words found in Luke 12:33: "Sell your possessions, and give alms." We'll narrow the question to how to manage investments, not whether we should have them at all.)

If your church's pension and endowment funds own stock in corporations that produce fossil fuels -- ExxonMobil or Peabody Coal are two big examples -- then you'll want those businesses to be profitable. Why else would you own their stock? Well, perhaps so you can be a shareholder activist! But generally, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

When your investment choices hope for good returns from the companies that produce burnable carbon, you're not very likely to be an advocate for policies that cut the profit margins. Should coal companies no longer blow the top off mountains to get at narrow seams of coal? Should Shell Oil be denied permits to drill for petroleum in the Arctic Ocean? Should an across-the-board carbon tax increase the cost of all fossil fuels? Most dramatically, should most of those fossil fuels be left in the ground, never to be sold and never to be burned? Those actions have economic consequences that define the returns that shareholders receive.

If your treasure is invested in fossil fuels, then your heart is tied to those companies, too.

If you are concerned about climate change, ocean acidification, and the destruction of communities -- human and habitats -- that result from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, then divesting from those corporations is probably a necessary step to get your head and your heart into alignment. An investment portfolio without fossil fuels allows you, your church, or your college to look honestly and ethically at how coal, oil and gas should fit into our future.

Intriguingly, the investment advice from Jesus isn't grounded in complicated ethics or strategic effectiveness. He simply points out the power that wealth has to shape our choices, and to reveal our values. We're better off when head and heart, when treasure and ethics, are consistent.

What would Jesus divest? (Yet another variant on the WWJD initials, sorry!) Assuming that the Son of God has a deep concern about climate and related issues, I think he'd drop fossil fuels from the portfolio, and urge the disciples to do the same.

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There are lots of other consideration in decisions about divesting from fossil fuels. For me, three of those moral and strategic arguments confirm the WWJD guidance.

  1. "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage." That's the core moral message being voiced by the international Fossil Fuel Free campaign. Money is not morally neutral. It does make a difference how those funds are generated.

    That has been a central principle in socially responsible investing for a long time. Churches and other groups have made ethical choices about their investments -- rejecting portfolios that feature weapons, or tobacco, or alcohol. Refusing to profit from fossil fuels is a choice that stands in a long and solid tradition.

  2. The call for public decisions about divestment forces institutions and their board members to deal with moral and policy issues that have often been hidden and avoided. At hundreds of colleges and universities, students and alumni are demanding that endowment funds stop damaging the world where those future graduates will live and work.

    When educational institutions, pension funds and denominations are forced to address those questions, then the morality of fossil fuels is brought more clearly into public discussions. Whether or not an institution decides to divest, the question is on the table. A recent article in the Harvard Political Review says that the campaigns against South Africa in the 1970s and 80s suggest "that divestment, while ineffective in a financial sense, can have an impact by shaping public discourse. If universities across the country divested from fossil fuels, this would again be the case."

  3. A shift in investments does make an economic difference. The biggest producers of fossil fuels probably are not very concerned about a few billion dollars that are pulled from their companies. That's small change for some of them, and other investors will still be eager to reap the fossil profits. But those billions that are divested can make a huge difference if they are shifted into fossil fuel-free energy and sustainable practices.

    Such a shift of investment priorities does not have to be fiscally reckless. An article from Clean Technica says, "Ironically, while fossil fuel investments may be among the most profitable around today, divestment could be the best financial choice any investor can make long-term."

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"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." First and foremost, divestment takes the question of immediate financial self-interest out of climate and energy discussions. If our retirement funds don't rely on ExxonMobil making huge profits, then we can be more objective about the morality of a fossil fuel dependant society.

Once we have that clarity, then we can see that large-scale divestment is also a good choice morally, in political strategy and in creating new economic incentives.

I urge you to see where you can support divestment campaigns. Ask whether your college and seminary are dumping fossil fuel stocks. Support denominational resolutions for divestment. Join local efforts to bring divestment into state and municipal funds. And, if you are fortunate enough to have such a thing, act now to divest from fossil fuels in your personal portfolio.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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