GA 2010: Committee recommends denouncing, not divesting from Caterpillar

MINNEAPOLIS – A church panel wants the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to stop short of selling off its stock and bond holdings in Caterpillar, Inc.

The Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee voted today (July 5) to instead recommend denouncing the profits the company reaps from “non-peaceful uses” of some of its products, which include heavy machinery used in Israel to demolish Palestinian homes.

A committee member from the company’s headquarters area in Illinois said however that it would be better for churches serving Caterpillar employees if the PC(USA) took the more drastic alternative divestment.

“We actually think that denunciation is a worse action” because it means the “open wound” of the church’s relations with Caterpillar will continue to fester, said Charles Hardwick of the Great River Presbytery.

He said it would be better for Presbyterians to “pull it (divestment) off and get it done, rather than inch by inch by inch undermining” a church that was certain to lose members even if Presbyterians took the less drastic step of denouncing the Peoria-based manufacturer.

But the panel voted 45-7 for the measure preferred by the church’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI). Brian Ellison, the MRTI chair, said that after extensive efforts to persuade Caterpillar managers to limit the permitted uses of their equipment in Israel, his group voted unanimously to recommend denunciation coupled with continued engagement to get the company to change its actions.

The vote would not have been unanimous “if we’d chosen to do more or less,” he said.

The committee’s recommendation will be considered by the whole General Assembly later in the week.

The Peacemaking Issues Committee dealt with two alternative overtures that called for outright divestment from Caterpillar by passing a substitute motion that trumps them with the denunciation measure.

Church officials said Monday that the Presbyterian Board of Pensions holds Caterpillar stock worth about $9.5 million and the Presbyterian Foundation holds stock that was worth about $1.5 million last Dec. 31, plus $685,000 in Caterpillar’s corporate bonds.

Ellison said that despite its otherwise strong record for social responsibility, Caterpillar “continues to take no responsibility for the end use of its products.” He said that in Israel, some Caterpillar equipment is outfitted with weapons.

By holding Caterpillar stock, “we are acting in complicity,” said Alfred Johnson of the Newark Presbytery, speaking in favor of one of the divestment overtures.

Geoff Browning of the Presbytery of San Jose, also speaking for divestment, held up a plastic bag of what he was pieces of a demolished Palestinian building.

“This is what we are getting for our investment in Caterpillar,” he said. “Rubble.”

Debate on the committee reflected what Ellison called “the pain around this issue.” Philip Keevil of the Lehigh Presbytery said singling out Caterpillar for denunciation was absurd when the world offered many examples of state-sponsored injustice that are “far worse than anything the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.”

Keevil said the church should not take what, given economic conditions, amounts to a “just plain cruel action” against a major employer just so it could be seen to be doing something on a frustrating issue.

“Simply doing something is sometimes much worse than doing nothing,” he said.