|United Methodists explore divestment
Roger Kallenberg of Jewish Voice for
Peace urges passage of a petition recommending United
Methodist divestment from Caterpillar Inc., while Rabbi
Gary Greenebaum (background) waits to speak against it
in behalf of the American Jewish Committee. The
discussions took place during the United Methodist
Pre-General Conference News Briefing. UMNS photos by
Marta W. Aldrich.
By Linda Bloom*
Jan. 29, 2008
| FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)
Would divestment from companies connected to the Israeli
occupation of Palestinian land help bring about change in the
Four United Methodist speakers explored
that question during a Jan. 25 panel discussion on
"Divestment, the Middle East and Sudan" during the Pre-General
Conference News Briefing sponsored by United Methodist
Conference, which meets every four years, is the
denomination’s top legislative body. The 2008 assembly will be
April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth.
The Rev. Steve Sprecher of the Board of
Church and Society presents reasons behind the
Caterpillar divestment petition.
The Rev. Steve Sprecher,
a director of the United Methodist Board of Church and
Society, called divestment "a time-honored policy" within The
United Methodist Church.
Sprecher was part of the
committee of the Board of Church and Society that led the
social action agency to send a petition to General Conference
recommending divestment from Caterpillar Inc., the heavy
equipment manufacturer based in Peoria, Ill. The petition
charges that the company profits from illegal Israeli
occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the
occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy
About $5 million of the denomination’s
estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in
A different Church and Society
petition to General Conference applies to Sudan, asking that
those who invest United Methodist funds divest of all equity
and debt holdings of companies doing business with the
government of Sudan. The petition cites concern about the
humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Sprecher pointed to a resolution (#312) passed by the 2004
General Conference opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian
land. "This is the current policy of our church," he said. "So
how do we make it more than just words?"
The Rev. Randy Cooper and Gail Gaddie,
General Conference delegates from the Memphis Annual
(regional) Conference, listen to the
He stressed that the action against Caterpillar is proposed
because the company’s bulldozers and other equipment are being
used to clear Palestinian land, destroy Palestinian homes and
olive groves and help erect the "wall of separation," some of
which is on Palestinian land.
The Rev. W. Douglas
Mills, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on
Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, noted that
divestment is not such a simple solution and could have a
negative impact for a denomination that places a high value on
Christian-Jewish relations, the horror of the Holocaust and
the quest for peace in the Middle East.
on Christian Unity has its own General Conference resolution
that calls upon United Methodists to continue "to advocate for
a peaceful settlement of the conflict between Israel and the
Palestinians through negotiation and diplomacy rather than
through methods of violence and coercion."
he likes processes that foster dialogue and is "a big fan of
During General Conference, the
denomination can show both Israelis and Palestinians "that
United Methodists can stand for peace," he added, while
demonstrating to people in the American Jewish community that
a relationship with them is considered valuable.
Susanne Hoder, moderator of the Interfaith Peace Initiative
and member of the United Methodist New England Annual
(regional) Conference Task Force on Selective Divestment,
stressed that divestment related to Israel is aimed only at
companies that support the occupation of Palestinian
denomination must back up its previous stance on illegal
Israeli settlements with action that will help bring about
change. "In the past four years, the situation has not gotten
better; it’s gotten markedly worse," she said.
Panelist Susanne Hoder says divestment
related to Israel is aimed only at
supporting the occupation
considers divestment to be "a legitimate Christian response"
to the crisis. "If we are going to make a difference, we need
to cut our ties to the occupation," she added.
England Conference passed a resolution in 2005 calling for
divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation
in significant ways. A June 2007 report from a conference
divestment task force identified 20 companies fitting that
The denomination’s Virginia,
California-Nevada and North Central New York conferences also
have passed resolutions relating to possible selective
In a petition to General Conference, the
Oregon-Idaho Conference is asking the church to "refrain and
divest of companies that harm Palestinians and exacerbate the
Advocacy and dialogue
Dave Zellner, chief investment officer with the United
Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits, noted that his
agency is recognized as "the leader among denominations" on
He called for advocacy, rather than
divestment, with Caterpillar. "With our partners, we are very
effective in making change," he said, citing negotiations with
major drug companies to make therapy for diseases such as
malaria and HIV/AIDS available at lower prices. With
divestment, "we wouldn’t have had a voice at the table and may
not have made the progress we have made."
paper issued by the pension board on investments in companies
doing business with Israel states that the agency "views
divestment as a policy of last resort."
Rev. Timothy Bias, a General Conference delegate and pastor of
First United Methodist Church in Peoria, where 70 percent of
the membership has employment ties to Caterpillar, questioned
Sprecher on whether directors or staff from Church and Society
had spoken directly with Caterpillar executives before passing
their proposed resolution.
The Rev. Timothy Bias inquires about
dialogue between the Board of Church and Society and
executives at Caterpillar. The manufacturer is based in
Peoria, Ill., where Bias serves a congregation.
Sprecher acknowledged they
had not, although Jim Winkler, Church and Society’s chief
executive, recently met with Jim Owens, chairman of
Caterpillar, who also is a United Methodist.
that delegates to General Conference are being urged to engage
in "holy conferencing" on divisive issues and questioned why
the board did not engage in the same practice of dialogue and
listening with representatives from Caterpillar. "It just
seems to me that we would serve ourselves much better … if we
would have conversations before we pass resolutions," he
Several Jewish visitors spoke briefly during the
short question and answer period for the panel. Mark
Braverman, a member of Washington Interfaith Alliance for
Middle East Peace, urged United Methodists to adopt
divestment, adding that it was not an anti-Semitic
However, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director
of the Department for Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish
Committee, said such an action does "feel" anti-Semitic. He
proposed investment in Israel rather than
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service
news writer based in New York.
News media contact:
Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or email@example.com.
Rev. Steve Sprecher: “I…do not want my pension money
Zellner: “We advocated for change and we were
Agency calls for targeted divestment in Israel,
United Methodists urged to divest from 20
Task force issues divestment
Pre-General Conference News Briefing
Board of Church and Society Petitions
New England Divestment Task Force
Commission on Christian Unity