New York City Seminary Divests and Makes History

By Gryffindor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Union Theological Seminary in New York City, first seminary to divest from fossil fuels

It’s hard to fight a regime you’re funding. Leaders like Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t just rely on marches and speeches to break-down entrenched systems of racial segregation in Africa and the United States — they boycotted racist establishments. They made sure the oppressed weren’t paying their oppressors.

Today the fossil fuel industry is profiting by exploiting our natural landscape, polluting our drinking water and air, and using their political influence to mislead the public and suppress new forms of energy technology. To fight this entrenched energy regime, the Union Theological Seminary in New York City took the monumental step on Tuesday to divest the school’s $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, making it the world’s first seminary to take such action in the fight against climate change.

Union Theological Seminary in NYC Practices What It Preaches

“As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ and this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels,” wrote Serene Jones, President of the Union Theological Seminary in a press statement published in Time. “As vulnerable communities have been swallowed by rising shorelines, as potable water has become a commodity of increasing rarity, as hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by violent weather, it is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing — or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.”

Jones admitted that divestment was not an easy decision for the Seminary to make. But the Board of Trustees realized that the Seminary could remain fiscally responsible to the students, staff, faculty, and community members even with divestment. “We were heartened to learn that over the past two decades, a portfolio that had left out fossil fuel companies would have returned, on average, only six tenths of one percent less. This is a small financial loss when compared to the importance of our moral statement,” said Jones.

The Seminary also plans to adopt campus sustainability efforts, as well as host a conference in the days leading up to the United Nations’ Climate Summit in September. The conference, called Religions for the Earth, will culminate in an interfaith service and will be held in partnership with GreenFaith, the Interfaith Center for New York, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace.

“We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union,” wrote Jones. “All of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.”

A Growing Movement to Divest

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Christiana Figueres Urging Religious Institutions to Divest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

Although Union Theological Seminary is the world’s first seminary to divest, it joins a growing number of religious institutions and leaders that have become concerned about the welfare of the environment. Earlier this year, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United Nations Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres called on religious institutions to do the moral thing and divest from oppressive fossil fuel companies.

“Dear friends, for the first time in history we human beings now have the power to alter the physical foundations of life on this planet,” said Figueres in a speech at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in May. “But as ever throughout history we also have the responsibility to set the ethical foundation of our global society. We have done this with slavery and apartheid. It is time to do it with climate change.”

Religious groups in Australia, North America, and the United Kingdom have answered the call. In December 2012, the board of directors for the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ  became the first religious body in the United States to vote to divest its assets from fossil fuels. “If there has been a David and Goliath situation, this is it,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, minister and president of the Massachusetts Conference.

In April 2013, the Uniting Church of New South Whales & ACT in Australia also made the bold step to divest, directing their investments into renewable energy instead. And just a few weeks ago, Brighthelm Church and Community Center in Brighton became the first church in the United Kingdom to divest from fossil fuels. “We don’t want our money to support an industry that is killing the planet,” said Brighthelm’s minister, Rev. Alex Mabbs. “Instead we want to contribute to a world in which all life can flourish.”

More Must Join the Movement

While the Seminary’s divestment is helpful, it’s not enough to break the power of oppressive fossil fuel companies. To effect real change, more religious institutions around the globe must heed their moral imperative and divest. Pope Francis must ensure that the Catholic Church’s $655 million investment assets are not funding fossil fuel companies and inhibiting his ability to be a “custodian of creation.” And religious organizations around the world must not limit their actions to speeches and marches urging others to act for the environment.

You can’t fight a regime you’re funding. Thank you Union Theological Seminary for showing others what’s possible.

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .