Friday, June 20, 2014

We have only a witness

I spent part of my week in Detroit.  This was primarily part of the "next stage" of my fool's errand, the part where the seminary education and general seeking to discern gets (hopefully) translated into a vocational calling as a pastor somewhere in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  That denomination is holding its General Assembly, an every-other-year orgy of polity and overtures (not the operatic kind, regrettably) and amendments and amendments to amendments and such by which the church seeks to set a path forward as a (more or less) unified church in a world that (more or less) doesn't care what we do, except when it does (and GA is often the time when it does).  The GA made a bit of news this week; you may have heard.

I was there not for GA proper, but for the oh-so-secret face-to-face (I'm apparently into hyphens today, big-time) interviews that take place between churches and those seeking a call.  Since I'm just about the only person in my graduating class (almost three weeks ago now) who hasn't already secured a call at BigCity Presbyterian somewhere out there, it seemed worth a shot.  I guess it went well; I stayed busy enough that I really didn't know much at all of what was happening in GA proper.  I'd know more today except I can't follow the live feed of the floor proceedings; my connection doesn't seem to be up to the challenge.

After a bit of hunting and pecking I did finally find out what happened on one issue with which I was particularly concerned.  On an overture to move forward on divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, the GA did something at which it excels.  The headline of the linked article, "Creation Care PC(USA) looks to long-term efforts, not immediate divestment with fossil-fuel companies," is what I shall call generous; it might as well and more honestly read "GA punts on fossil-fuel divestment just like it does on every mildly contentious issue that comes before it, at least two or three times."  (I suppose I'm required to be fair and note that the GA has plenty of other contentious issues before it on which it can no longer punt, so I'm probably being unfair in my snark.  I don't really care at this point.)  In theory the divestment issue can be revisited in two years, but more likely we will get around to divesting only when a major US city is leveled by the explosion of a Bakken-crude oil train or pipeline along the lines of the unfortunate city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, or a major river/water source is befouled by such an accident.  (I'm exaggerating.  I hope I am, at least.)

Is this what it will take?

While I could easily go on on this particular subject, as anyone who follows my Facebook or Twitter feeds could tell you if they haven't tuned out already, that's not where my current ranting is directed.  No, it is instead a perennial argument found in all manner of previous punts on divestment issues in this and other denominations.  It is the concern, voiced in the PC(USA) GA article linked above in so many words, that we will somehow lose our influence with fossil-fuel companies if we divest from them.

I am sure that those who voice such concerns are sincere, and believe that they are somehow making progress with Exxon or BP or Shell or whatever companies my future retirement is sunk into.  However, when I continue to see a steady stream of stories like this one, in which states go so far to protect the fossil-fuel industry as to forbid residents sickened by the activities of the fossil-fuel industry from saying so, I am hard-pressed to see where that progress is.  When I continually see stories about the poisonous water that the fracking process pumps into the ground -- that will eventually make its way into our groundwater -- and how said industry won't fess up to what they are (with the aid of the state governments again protecting them), I'm a bit unsure about what influence we're having.  When I see the Gulf coast still struggling with the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill this many years later, I don't quite see how my future retirement money is changing much of anything.

Here is the thing; the church does not have influence.  The church has only a witness.  Here it is again, pardon my shouting: THE CHURCH DOES NOT HAVE INFLUENCE.  THE CHURCH HAS ONLY A WITNESS.

And here's a corollary to the above: when the church tries to wield influence, it usually ends up failing to be the church.

Look to history.  Is there any historical case where the church, in any of its manifestations, has been particularly Christlike or godly when it has thrown its weight around in world affairs?  Do all those crusading armies particularly recommend the faith all that well?  Is England particularly nostalgic for Oliver Cromwell's Puritan types?  Oh, it might look good for a while.  I dare say Southern Baptists got a little bump from their culture-war turn, but that denomination is now well into its fourth decade as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, and look what's happening to their membership and baptism numbers; it's still a slow decline so far, but the bloom may just be off that rose at the last.  (Let's be clear, it wouldn't have mattered which party they sold out to; it would still have constituted a selling-out of witness in favor of influence.)

Corporations are give-me-your-money-and-shut-up outfits; unless you're at the Big Boys Table (and that's usually a pretty accurate description, but I digress) you opinion does not matter.  Political parties, or their upper-level types, are that way rather often as well.  I'm trying to come up with a time when a church's money actually moved a corporation off the time and towards more just business practices, but I'm getting nothing.  Anyone?  Seriously, if you've got an answer I want to know.

In short, I do not see where our money invested in such corporations (be they fossil-fuel corporations now or Big Tobacco backintheday) has ever had a whole lot of influence on those corporations and their concern for justice and basic human decency.

Now let me make this clear too: there is absolutely no guarantee that divesting from fossil-fuel companies will move them at all, either.  PC(USA) just isn't that big, for one thing.  For another, fossil-fuel companies are increasingly shielded by the states in which they do their damage, as noted above; until that changes, there is very little that can influence them at all.  Do you see any signs that BP is suffering in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill?  I don't mean embarrassed, I mean suffering even the tiniest ill effect on their revenues or sales?

We do not have influence.  We have only a witness.  And more and more I'm convinced that my future retirement money, such as it is, being tied up in the fossil-fuel industry of the 21st century actually harms my witness, no matter how fine my preaching is or how compassionate my pastoral care may be.  Is the sickening of the people of Fort Chip or the water deprivation of Texas o.k. for me to live off of in my dotage?

We have only a witness.  It requires us to speak up.  Speaking up requires us to live in a way that backs up our speaking up, which can get awfully inconvenient.  Speaking up might even require us to march, to (shudder) protest, to (*swoon*) do advocacy.  It might cause our neighbors to dislike us.  It might cause them to try to shut down our soup kitchens or homeless shelters.  It might cause them to decide we're too impure or sinful to be associated with.  But it is all we have.

Our money is pointless.

We have only a witness.

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