Recently The Riverside Church announced our intention to divest our $140 million endowment over the next five years from the Carbon Underground 200 — the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. This decision was the culmination of a careful and intentional two-year process of deliberation and communal discernment.
This all sounds so virtuous, but believe me, it wasn’t easy.
The decision was not made lightly, or even without some disagreement. Everyone involved shared a deep commitment to climate justice and a conviction about the moral urgency of the climate crisis. Because …
Nobody wants the polar bears to die. We all want clean water, air that doesn’t choke our lungs, and food that is not contaminated. Most of us prefer rolling fields to sprawling landfills, the cooling shade of trees to the heat radiated by slabs of concrete. The idea of caring for creation is pretty uncontroversial.
But it’s when we get down to actions that things get more complicated.
The idea of caring for creation was not in dispute at church, but the specific action of divestment raised a number of challenging questions. Does divestment reflect biblical principles of good stewardship? Can we really say we believe in social justice if we don’t divest? Is this financially responsible? Is this the best way to use our resources to care for the environment? What impact can we realistically have on a trillion-dollar industry?
Good people disagreed on tactics and had honest debate over how to live out our values.
The disagreement was challenging for us all. But we all know that few actions are morally pure. This is a reality in our world. And yet, people of faith know that it is also a reality that if we do not act, forcefully and decisively, oceans will continue to rise, crops will fail, and people will die.
Theologian Karl Rahner compared sin to the act of buying a banana. There is nothing inherently sinful in buying a banana — in fact doctors tell us it’s good for us. But peel back the layer of that act only a little bit and we’re quickly immersed in a complex system of global supply chains, unsustainable farming, and geo-political colonialism, an entire economic chain of sin and tragedy wrapped up in every bunch of bananas in every grocery store and gas station.
Does that mean we should never buy a banana? No, instead it means we must acknowledge that the actions we take, however noble or innocuous, are done in a world that is deeply broken. This does not diminish the impact of our justice work. Instead it honors the full complexity of human existence and the messiness of interwoven relationship.
The idea of justice is compelling, but the work of justice is hard. And in the thick mud of moral complexity, people who love God are often going to disagree on how to do justice, show mercy and walk humbly. Very rarely is there one “right” solution to the problems we face.
Still, we must not allow the complexities of the world to keep us from acting. Whatever the issue in your church — homosexuality, racial justice, climate advocacy, gender equality — we must come together with honesty and authenticity, willing to engage in hard truth-telling and vulnerable listening. Too much is at stake for us to do anything less.