Compelled to respond:  The 223rd General Assembly and climate change

To work for the transformation of society

The two of us have spent the last two years (and longer) working in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on overtures about climate change, with proposed actions including both divestment from the fossil fuel industry and a variety of other efforts to change individual and institutional behaviors. abby mohaupt (she prefers not to have her name capitalized) is the moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA (a grassroots movement focused on adding divestment to the other things being done to respond to climate change). Jim Allison has been active in the group trying to define alternatives and additions to divestment. It is not unimportant that Jim is an economist and former employee of a fossil fuel company, and abby is a Presbyterian pastor and activist, as well as a Ph.D. student in religion and climate change. With those kinds of credentials, it is perhaps not surprising that we do not agree on the particular question of divestment.

However, we do agree on many other things, including the importance and urgency of the climate change issue and the importance of the church’s response. The church, in order to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, must respond to social justice issues. It seems to us that there is not unanimity within PC(USA) on this point, a fact that has left past decisions by the last two General Assemblies focused on finding agreement among all concerned parties instead of committing to action. This lack of action on the part of General Assembly is a problem for both the PC(USA) and all creation.

We Presbyterians believe we are called to engage with others in an effort to align society more closely with God’s will. In the Book of Order, this view is reflected in the Great Ends of the Church – “the promotion of social righteousness” (F-1.0304) – and in the summary of the distinctively Reformed aspects of our confessions: “The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God” (F-2.05).

However, when we introduce proposals to address certain issues (through an overture to General Assembly, for example), a common reaction is the complaint that the church “should stay out of these political issues” or “should focus on missions.” It appears to us that this reaction stands well outside our Reformed tradition, which raises two questions: Why is this happening? What should we do about it? Our answers to these questions are necessarily speculative, but those answers are informed by our experience engaging with one of the social justice issues that triggers this response – the question of the denomination’s response to the issue of climate change.

Diagnosis: Why is this happening?

We suggest two possibilities of why we are hearing such objections from Presbyterians. First, we have observed over the last decades that denominational boundaries have blurred and traditional doctrines have become less understood. While our Reformed tradition has long emphasized Scripture’s call to engage with social institutions, other Protestant traditions see the matter differently. To the extent that the people in our pews represent a mixture of traditions, we might expect to observe some “averaging down” on the commitment to engage social institutions. To this argument one might object that our presbyters – those who actually have voting rights in the councils that make decisions on these matters – are supposed to be trained in our tradition, and thus should have been immunized against this temptation to average down. We agree as a matter of theory, but observe that real life doesn’t necessarily follow that theory.

Second, and perhaps more important, the people who raise objections to the way we have engaged with social justice issues may be on to something. They have observed our behaviors when we have pursued these matters, and they don’t like what they see. In practice, when we strive to align as a denomination on steps to confront issues of social justice, we often start out with divergent views of what, if anything, ought to be done or said. Our tradition says that we should greet these divergent views with “mutual forbearance” (F-3.0105); in practice, our debates too often seem driven by scorched earth policies, and an outcome of separation seems preferred over forbearance. Perhaps the people who object just want the fighting to stop, and (who knows?) if we stop fighting with each other, perhaps we could actually make progress.

Living “mutual forbearance”

In practice, we (the two authors) have encountered precisely this problem in our interactions with each other on the issue of climate change, and our experience may illustrate practices from our tradition that may tone down the fighting. Our disagreement is not so much on the issue itself (we actually are profoundly in agreement on both the substance and urgency of the issue of climate change) as on one of the proposed actions in response to it. One question that the PC(USA) must address (and that is before the General Assembly this summer as it was in both 2014 and 2016) is the issue of how the denomination should relate to fossil fuel companies. One alternative is to divest; a second alternative is to continue our practice of corporate engagement. These alternatives are mutually exclusive – you cannot synthesize a third alternative that addresses both sets of arguments; each proposed response carries significant emotional weight — people care deeply about these matters. And we two authors simply do not agree which is the more faithful response.

That disagreement could easily position us as bitter adversaries. Before that happened, however, we were given the opportunity to get to know each other a little bit. Getting to know each other, even just a little bit, changed the nature of our arguments. We still disagree, and we are each capable of (one might say enthusiastic about) a vigorous defense of our own position and rebuttal of opposing positions, but getting to know the other person makes it so much easier to focus on issues and facts rather than looking for ways to demonize the other. Getting to know each other has also give us the opportunity to understand the other’s position and to defend the right of the other to have that faithful response. Our tradition allows for, indeed encourages, vigorous debate, and it also emphasizes that spiritual discipline of “mutual forbearance.” The PC(USA) should create opportunities for people who disagree to come together for respectful discussion. In our case, abby and Jim were granted that opportunity by Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI), which created time during its meetings to hear from visitors who represented divergent views.

And so this is not an article on whether or not divestment is the right way to respond to climate change. Instead, this is an across-the-aisle argument that Presbyterians, as part of the Reformed tradition, are compelled to engage in issues of social justice. Climate change is one of the most pressing and all-encompassing social justice issues of our time — exacerbating poverty and racism, limiting access to natural resources such as water, creating refugees and increasing global conflict. Our Puerto Rican kin continue to languish without power after Hurricane Maria, and our indigenous kin in Alaska have watched their homes and ways of life be decimated by rising temperatures. Their stories are just two examples of how – simply put – climate change, caused by dependency on fossil fuels, adds to human suffering and creation groaning.

Responding to climate change as a church

As a denomination, the PC(USA) officially believes in the reality of climate change — that is, our policies and statements reflect a confidence in the overwhelming majority of scientists who say that the climate is changing and that humans are responsible for that change. As a denomination, we support national staff who work directly on climate change and its effects (in the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). The Presbyterian Hunger Program and the former offices of Environmental Ministries put out resources on behavioral change (like “Walk lightly for Lent”) and liturgy and worship resources on caring for creation. Our denomination also has an “Earth Care Congregation” program with over 200 congregations loving creation and responding to environmental issues like climate change through stewardship of their buildings, worship of God alongside of creation and educational opportunities. The PC(USA) Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (the standard for shareholder engagement for denominations) has long been concerned with how companies affect the environment. The Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation already offer investment options that do not include the fossil fuel industry, just as they have socially responsible investment screens for other industries and companies our denomination views as harmful. Past General Assemblies have passed overtures on carbon offsets, the Doctrine of Discovery and, since 1990 when the “Restoring creation: For ecology and justice” report was released, the PC(USA) has had clear denomination-wide theological statements on caring for creation. We already do so much as a denomination — and the reality and urgency of climate require that we do more. That is, the specter of climate change continues to grow worse and so we must add to our response.

Our theological tradition compels us to engage in responding to climate change. As we seek to respond to God’s biblical call for us to love creation and each other, there is an array of possible responses from which we must discern the most appropriate at a given time. As we communally discern the appropriate path, there will be strong and divergent opinions about what to do. Those opinions require difficult (but not impossible) conversations, ones we’re uniquely suited for as Presbyterians. We enter into the current debate about how we as Presbyterians shall continue to respond to climate change as an ongoing example of both difficulty and promise.

Discerning faithful responses

 The litany of overtures about climate change and care for creation coming to General Assembly covers a myriad of topics and actions. There are two overtures about divestment from fossil fuels, two overtures about alternatives/additions to divestment as action, and overtures on environmental justice and environmental racism and use of Styrofoam. How can we discern where the Spirit is calling?

How do we disagree as Presbyterians? At General Assembly, we gather as Presbyterians who vote not as delegates from particular presbyteries with pre-assigned votes, but as faithful people called by the Holy Spirit and commissioned by presbyteries to vote our conscience and the movement of the Spirit. Whenever we gather, we pray to hear and feel that movement of the Spirit. Our disagreements are opportunities to listen with humility to other opinions, to trust that the motives of our fellow Presbyterians are well-intentioned and to learn from each other. Our Reformed tradition does not require us to always agree (in fact our polity allows us to register our disagreement decently and with some semblance of order). Disagreements do not keep us from acting — in fact they open up a way for us to find common ground. Our own (that is, the authors’) disagreement (between doing everything but divestment and doing everything and divestment) is a microcosm of this opportunity. We disagree, but we believe in our common faithfulness and in our common call to respond.

Because indeed, how we discern and how we disagree must not be allowed to impede our response. Reformed tradition compels us to respond — how do we respond as Presbyterians? Calvin calls creation the theater of God’s work, rooting our work as the church in collaboration with creation. As Presbyterians we believe in our common fallen state — that is, none of us is sinless and each of us is complicit in climate change. God’s grace alone will save us, and we respond to that grace with hope and with repentance. Such repentance requires real action on our part; we cannot simply say that we will continue to study an issue that we know is negatively affecting our neighbors, ourselves and all creation. We must – as a response to God’s love and grace – act boldly in responding to climate change as a social justice issue.

JIM ALLISON  is a ruling elder at Pines Presbyterian Church in Houston. In 2015 he retired from ConocoPhillips after 33 years with that oil company. abby mohaupt is a minister member of San Francisco Presbytery and the moderator of Fossil Free PCUSA.

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