The Timid Economics of Moderation

by Rev. John Helmiere, Convener of Valley and Mountain Fellowship (UMC), Seattle, WA

The General Conference vote about whether or not to ensure that The United Methodist Church’s $20,000,000,000 pension fund is not tied up in the fossil fuel industry is fast approaching. As a pro-divestment activist, I expect to hear a lot of “sympathetic rejection” from the anti-divestment side. My anti-divestment colleagues will say that the ideals of divestment are noble (sympathy), but that the action is too risky (rejection). They will say that they want to stop climate change too (sympathy), but that we don’t have the power to make a real difference (rejection). They will say that our church should take morally courageous action (sympathy), but that the pension fund is not where that boldness should take place (rejection).

Wesley is abundantly clear that the way we earn money (even if it is intended to be given away) has significant spiritual implications.

My anti-divestment colleagues will justify their stance by explaining that the purpose of the pension fund is to gain as much money as possible, and protect it responsibly, so that it can be distributed generously to retired clergy. Indeed, this line of thinking sounds very similar to that our beloved founder in his famous sermon, “The Use of Money”, when he wrote the three rules, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” However, the anti-divestment movement glosses over the fact that these simple rules are not so simple at all when you actually read the sermon. Each of the rules, especially the “gain all you can” rule, have copious footnotes. Wesley is abundantly clear that the way that we earn money (even if it is intended to be given away) has significant spiritual implications. He is explicit in saying that we must not profit by any trade that involves “hurting our neighbor” or that “devours” the land.  

We must not profit by any trade that involves “hurting our neighbor” or that “devours” the land.

Some of the most impressive “sympathetic rejection” and self-justification I have ever heard came from the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the Pacific Northwest when we challenged him to stop undermining his workers’ efforts to form a union. I spoke with him just after his company’s annual shareholder meeting had just ended. He wanted to talk about the prayer I had given at the start of the meeting while standing beside a dozen other clergy.  My prayer went something like this:

“We are grateful for the profits produced by hard workers and skilled managers.

“God, teach us to use these blessings in the right way.

“Save us from the snares of selfishness.

“Guard us from the gravity of greed.

“Forgive us where we have gone astray,

“And grant our leaders the wisdom and courage to make our company a beacon of success in business AND in ethics.

“Help us to live your ultimate and eternal truth that we belong to each other and to you.”

The CEO, an incredibly friendly-looking and clean-cut guy named Brad, told me that he agreed with the spirit behind my prayer and our actions. He agreed that the middle class was being squeezed, wages for most people were being pushed down, wealth was becoming too consolidated. I said that the issue must be settled! If he believed that then surely he would stop destroying any attempt by his workers to advocate for dignity on the job and live-able wages. He offered “sympathetic disagreement” and self-justification instead. Brad told me that other companies did the same thing, so his company changing their practices would not make a difference in the grand scheme of things. I thought of the workers I knew barely able to scrape by. One of these workers, a Somalian immigrant, told me he desperately wanted to get married, but he could not afford a wedding on his poverty-wage salary. I thought of the hundreds of millions of dollars of profit that had been announced during the meeting. I encouraged him to make his company stand out by rejecting the race-to-the-bottom. He offered a smile dripping with sympathetic disagreement.

Our actions can empower others to do the same, and when we act together, the world does begin to change.

Removing fossil fuels from our pension fund will not immediately end climate change, nor stop the exploitation of impoverished workers by huge oil companies. But it will bring us one step closer to living in sync with our founding values, and it will offer a cynical and spiraling world a beacon of courage and hope. Our actions can empower others to do the same, and when we act together, the world does begin to change.


Finally, let’s admit it: Despite research affirming that fossil fuel divestment is prudent, it can feel uncomfortable to walk away from the status quo.  

But how on earth did we get the idea that the way of Jesus was to follow the status quo?

The timid economics of moderation found in so much of the Church is a far cry from Wesley’s dauntless embrace of Biblical teachings on ethical earning, simple living, and extravagant giving. May we take a leap of faith at this General Conference that would make Wesley proud. Divest from fossil fuels.

Photo by Japanexperterna