(RNS) New York City’s venerable Union Theological Seminary plans to pull all investments in fossil fuels from its $108.4 million endowment, casting it as part of a bid to atone for the “sin” of contributing to climate change.

Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, the country's oldest independent seminary, took steps Tuesday (June 10) to begin completely divesting from fossil fuels, the first known seminary to do so.

Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary, the country’s oldest independent seminary, took steps Tuesday (June 10) to begin completely divesting from fossil fuels, the first known seminary to do so. RNS photo by Richard Madona, courtesy Union Theological Seminary


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President Serene Jones said Union is the first seminary in the country to take such a step, which came from a unanimous vote from its board.

Union’s portfolio has been investing 11 percent (or about $12 million) of its endowment in fossil fuels. Jones did not mince words in condemning the school’s contributions to fossil fuel, quoting “the wages of sin is death” from Scripture.

“We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union,” Jones wrote in an op-ed for Time magazine. “Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.”

Scientists say the burning of fossil fuels, particularly oil and coal, are the major cause of the buildup of greenhouse gases that is contributing to climate change.

Union has had a long-standing policy against investments in tobacco, liquor or gambling, said Michael Johnston, the chair of the seminary’s investment committee and a former executive vice president with Capital Group Companies, one of the world’s largest investment management organizations.

Johnston said he is unsure of the specific companies Union has invested in that involve fossil fuel, due to how the investments have been managed in large funds.

“I think investment companies are going to begin to recognize that there’s a segment of the country that doesn’t want to profit from something they disagree with,” Johnston said. “I would guess if other institutions do this, more big investment managers will begin to form sustainable funds that people can invest in.”

Union, which bills itself as the flagship of American progressive Protestant theology and was home to luminaries such as Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, will host a conference ahead of the United Nations’ Climate Summit in September called Religions for the Earth.

Starting with the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa in the 1980s, divestment has long been a strategy within mainline Protestant denominations. Last summer, the United Church of Christ became the first major denomination to vote to begin a path to divestment from fossil fuels companies.

At least 100 other religious institutions, universities, cities, counties and other organizations have divested or started to divest from fossil fuel companies, according to Union.

The seminary, which sits between the historic Riverside Church and Columbia University on the upper west side of Manhattan, has about 250 students and 30 faculty members.

KRE/MG END BAILEY

7 Comments

  1. “Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.”

    If religion is the motive for this very moral decision
    I might TEMPER my hatred for religion a bit.

    But many Atheist scientists have been advocating exactly this disinvestment for years and they did so with no religious motivation at all – so if religion is catching up belatedly to the humanitarian cause I’ll be glad to acknowledge it.

    • To Atheist Max, My comment is not related to the climate in any way. I just wanted to let you know I completely agree with your statement about hating religion. I don’t know if you have had this discussion before, you may have heard this many times. I apologize in advance if this is old news. I was raised in a religion (12 years of indoctrination at a parochial school), loaded with rules and legalism, fear and other things that just shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s perception of God. At the ripe old age of 12, I knew something was wrong although I had no idea what. I began to question, which was frowned upon to the degree of corporal punishment just for asking, and after all that they wouldn’t even attempt to answer my questions anyway. I spent 30+ years as a very sincere, ardent and outspoken atheist/agnostic (I vacillated between the two, I would say 80% atheist). I spent years studying other religions once I got into my teens right into my 40’s, just looking to see if I could find any truth that I could “prove” to fill a void that I did feel after so many years of religion being a part of my life (good or bad, it was there). This all started around 1964. It wasn’t until 1991, which was a long time to carry such animosity and anger around, that I read something that truly made me pause. I’ve always needed facts, “just the facts ma’m, just the facts.” This book challenged me as it also challenged the author who set out to prove that God and any “after-life” was simply a panacea for the masses, a means to control or simply a way to explain in a way that would comfort someone you really care about, that their just “passed” loved one did not just cease to exist, which leaves we humans feeling like “what’s the point?” If you’re still bearing with me, Thank You. In 1991 I read a book, written by an atheist, a Pediatric Emergency Trauma Physician who had a discussion with a young girl around 5 or 6, if memory serves, who had drowned in the family pool and had been clinically dead long enough, that he, although he attempted to revive her, as anyone would with such a young child and a devastated parent waiting outside the trauma room, did not really expect her heart to start beating again, it did although she remained comatose. There is way too much detail to go into here, briefly, she did not regain consciousness for a couple of days. When she came out of the coma, she sat up, looked around, saw her parents with her and was totally fine, although she had been oxygen deprived well beyond the point where people are left with permanent brain damage. The Dr. who had tried to revive her in the trauma room saw her for the first time two weeks after the incident. Again, too much detail to go into here but she shared information with him, unprompted, that caused him to speak to other Dr.’s to find out if they had ever heard of such responses from someone who had been clinically dead for as long as she had been. He found out there were many cases but for whatever reason doctors seemed unwilling to give any credence to it or even to discuss it, with anyone involved, be it family or other medical staff. Dr. Morse (the little girl’s trauma Dr.) set out to do a study to prove that what she claimed had happened to her and the others he had been told about from his colleagues was impossible. He presented a request for funding, received a grant and set up a very rigid set of criteria for any child that would be involved in the study. Just one of them being that they could not ever have been indoctrinated into ANY belief system. I probably have not given you enough details to cause you to be intrigued by this study but the study and the results will leave you stunned I’m sure, to some degree, and prompt more questions. It is a fascinating book full of clinical detail, which is what someone as cynical as I am wants to see. The name of the book is “Closer to the Light,” by Dr. Melvin Morse, available at Amazon, it may even be available at the library, I’m pretty sure it is. Our shared background, especially hating religion, is what prompted me to write this. If you’re still with me :-) What I have since learned is that all religion and Religions are man-made. Religion is about rules, legalism, man’s desire to control even what others think or believe, division, “class warfare,” etc. I’d love to tell you more about the journey I am now on but I’m not even sure you’ll ever see, read this, be curious or respond. I’ve never been on this site before but I’m going to “bookmark” it and just check every few days to see if this piqued your curiosity. If it has and you do read the book I’d really like to hear your feedback. If you’re still here, thanks for taking the time. Looking forward to discussion, Bonnie

  2. So, are they all going to stop driving their cars too? If not, then they are continuing to sin and destroy the planet. Do they all recycle, conserve water, buy smaller and more efficient homes, etc.? I appreciate starting somewhere, but I hate posturing!

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