Exxon Mobil and Me (and the BOP)

Author Sue Smith
Author Sue Smith

Immediately before creating humans in Genesis 1, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). In Genesis 2 the very first thing God does with humanity is to: “put [the man] in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). In these stories narrating the “first things” of creation, caring for God’s creation is not one among many Christian spiritual practices; it is our first and foremost responsibility.

As it stands, we seem to be falling down on the job. The climate is changing; there are more floods, droughts, and extreme weather events. What can we as Christians do?

I try to live lightly on the earth. I changed my light bulbs; I recycle; I try to buy local. And yet, it does not feel like enough. I still live a fossil-fueled life. My own quest to live lightly has shown me how, as long as fossil fuel companies refuse to change their business models, it is extremely difficult to significantly change our own lifestyles. The hard truth is that many of the products and services I use in my daily life cannot be changed until the fossil fuel companies move to alternative energies.

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As followers of Jesus Christ, what is the balance between making money for ministry and mission and caring for God’s creation?
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About a year and a half ago, I heard about a 350.org campaign urging colleges and religious organizations to divest from fossil fuels. I took a look at my own portfolio of individually held stocks. And there, staring me in the face were 100 shares of Exxon Mobil acquired in 1999. Was selling this holding something I could do to take care of God’s creation?

ExxonMobil_SunPhoto_retouch_cropped_959_487_90_c1The process was a struggle. If it was a sin to own these shares, was it a sin to sell them to someone else? Did I want to lose my 100 seats at the table – the opportunity to vote on shareholder resolutions calling Exxon Mobil to set greenhouse gas emission reduction goals? Did I want to pay broker fees and capital gains tax? Did I want to give up the 2.5% dividend income in a market where bonds and money markets pay next to nothing?

I wrestled with these questions for about 9 months; then one day, I realized I could no longer hold these shares and at the same time say that taking care of God’s creation was important to me as a person of faith. I realized that there are plenty of people to sell to who just want to make money in the market and not be socially responsible. I realized that I had been voting for the same resolution to set greenhouse gas reduction goals every year since 2007. I realized that Exxon Mobil ignored up to 30% of the voting shares on this resolution. To give you an idea, one year that 30% of the vote that was ignored was made up of about 750 million seats at the table. My 100 seats were insignificant; Exxon Mobil was not listening. I sold my shares on December 20, 2013.

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The process was a struggle. If it was a sin to own these shares, was it a sin to sell them to someone else?
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In the meantime, in a response to the same divestment campaign from 350.org, a movement had begun in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to send an overture to General Assembly asking the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation to stop buying fossil fuel stocks immediately and divest holdings over the course of 5 years. The Presbytery of Monmouth (NJ) concurred with the overture, and I was selected to be the Overture Advocate to the Assembly in June 2014. This was incredibly exciting for me. I was a commissioner in 2006 and an exhibitor with Presbyterians for Earth Care in 2012, but this was my first opportunity to see the work of the Church from an advocate’s perspective.

Photo Credit: Treehugger.com
Photo Credit: Treehugger.com

The end result was not what we had hoped for. The overture was referred to the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) for study; the overture itself was not discussed. We had a chance to take immediate, prophetic action. We did not. As a seminary student, two things disappointed me about the experience.

First, I heard what I call the seven last words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” Many at the Assembly argued that investment decisions have always been studied by MRTI first. I do believe that MRTI does important work through corporate engagement. Remember, giving up my seat at Exxon Mobil’s negotiation table was a stumbling block for me. MRTI has been doing its work, and doing it well, for 40 years.

However, much has changed in the business world in those 40 years. It used to be that if shareholders holding 30% of the stock voted for a resolution, the company took notice. Exxon Mobil has ignored the greenhouse gas emission reduction resolution since 2007. With God’s creation at stake, it has become clear to me that we need to do more than engage the boardroom.

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The hard truth is that many of the products and services I use in my daily life cannot be changed until the fossil fuel companies move to alternative energies.
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The second thing that disappointed me about General Assembly was the use of certain tactics in committee – albeit possibly unintentional – by representatives from the Board of Pensions and the Presbyterian Foundation. As a student of ethics in seminary, what took place with these financial representatives in Committee 15 are what I have come to understand as the use of tactics by oppressors trying to maintain their power and privilege.

ffdivest7These representatives used the microphone to advocate against the overture instead of merely to answer the questions asked. The information that MRTI has already been engaging with fossil fuel companies for 25 years was withheld. Roberts Rules of Order, the nuances of which many people do not understand, were used to prematurely refer the overture to MRTI, shutting down any discussion on the content of the overture itself (as referral motions are not debatable) and the pressing social issues it addressed. The fear was raised that the portfolios would not sustain returns and would require high investment expenses if they could not invest in fossil fuels. This concern may have particularly caught the ears of commissioners and advisory delegates, as loss of return affects the medical and retirement benefits of pastors and investment monies available to churches to continue to survive. However, the already-lagging returns of oil and gas companies and the fact that we already ask managers not to invest in tobacco and alcohol were not mentioned.

My experience presented some questions that I will continue to wrestle with. Paul said, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). If we truly believe those words, why do we insist upon doing things the way we have always done them? Are we afraid of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit? As followers of Jesus Christ, what is the balance between making money for ministry and mission and caring for God’s creation?

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Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple; he took it upon himself to intervene in the marketplace when what he saw was not in line with God’s will.
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wilderness+cryingWe should remember what Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem: “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.’” (Matt. 21:12-13). Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple; he took it upon himself to intervene in the marketplace when what he saw was not in line with God’s will.

As Christians, we too need to raise our prophetic voices in the marketplace; engagement in the boardroom is not enough. In the Presbyterian Church this summer, our moneychangers used their power and privilege to silence our prophetic voices and keep things going “the way we’ve always done them.” Do we as the Church have the courage to continue to be the “voice crying out in the wilderness” for God’s creation?

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AUTHOR BIO: Sue Smith worked in the global financial services industry for 30 years. She is a ruling elder and member of First Presbyterian Church of Rumson (NJ). She is the Treasurer of Presbyterians for Earth Care and a GreenFaith Fellow. She is currently a student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary.

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