BDS: Lacking a Consensus

We sometimes hear, “The Presbyterian Church already has certain companies in which we won’t invest because of ‘theological, social and economic considerations.’ Therefore, MRTI’s recommendation to divest from Caterpillar, H-P and Motorola Solutions for the business they do in Israel is merely a continuation of this process.” In fact, the MRTI recommendation dramatically breaks from the model we have used to make investment /divestment decisions. In the past, we have divested only when a broad consensus to divest has been established.

In the 2012 General Assembly Divestment List, it is stated that there are three categories of companies subject to divestment: “military-related production, tobacco or human rights violations .” In a revealing comment, the document notes that “there are currently no companies on the General Assembly divestment list for human rights concerns, although the church is engaged with several corporations on such issues through correspondence, proxy voting and dialogues.”   During the 21st century, the document describes having to divest from only one company for human rights issues

Why is it that the PCUSA has largely avoided the area of human rights violations when divesting but consistently divested from companies a majority of whose business is military-related or tobacco? At Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, we contend that the PCUSA has rightly avoided placing companies on the divestment list where there is a lack of consensus within the church. There has been a strong consensus not to invest in tobacco companies, given that their products pose a clear hazard to health. In a church committed to turning swords into plowshares, there has been a similar consensus not to invest in companies doing over 50% of their business in the production of military-related goods (None of the three companies in the MRTI divestment recommendation to the 2012 GA come anywhere near the 50% criteria. In fact, all three are primarily commercial or consumer oriented businesses). 

In the 21st century, with the one exception, there has been no consensus within the PCUSA on divesting from companies doing business in situations where human rights abuses take place. So, for example, there has been no effort made to divest from companies doing business in China, Iran, Russia, Syria or other nations where there are well-documented human rights abuses, including persecution of Christians. It was the lack of a consensus within the church that caused the past three General Assemblies to reject efforts to divest from the three companies cited in the MRTI 2012 recommendations. 

It is fair to assume that a lack of consensus in other denominations is why they have refused to join the effort to create an international Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement aimed at applying pressure on Israel (but not apply pressure on the Palestinian Authority or Hamas). The Lutherans have refused to join the BDS effort, explicitly stating at their Churchwide Assembly that they would not go down the divestment path. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has come out against divestment and in favor of positive investment. The most recent head of the National Council of Churches opposed BDS.   The United Methodist Church’s pension board concluded that the three companies targeted by MRTI have positive human rights records and codes of conduct and that divesting from them would render the church unable to raise any concerns that might arise in the future. The Methodist’s General Conference agreed, overwhelming rejecting by a two-to-one margin a resolution similar to the PCUSA’s MRTI recommendations and adopting one in favor of positive investment. 

If the last eight years have taught us anything, we have learned that the application of BDS does not have enough support, within the PCUSA, to validate it as a peacemaking strategy. Three consecutive Assemblies have rejected a move toward BDS. With the opposition to BDS within the PCUSA larger today than it was when the debate started in 2004, those supporting the MRTI recommendations cannot claim the kind of consensus needed for the PCUSA to approve them 2012 General Assembly in Pittsburgh.

Over the past eight years, the proponents of BDS have failed to make their case to the PCUSA in a way that creates the kind of broad support required for this or any General Assembly to approve the MRTI’s recent recommendations. It is time to “call the question,” defeat divestment and put an end to this divisive debate.