For the past year or so I have been trying to think objectively about fossil fuel divestment. This is not easy to do given the place I live in and the parish I serve. Fort McMurray is in the center of the Canadian oil sands industry, one of the world’s most controversial oil sources. The community has stirred the fascination and horror of media, documentarians, and celebrities. Desmond Tutu and Leonardo DiCaprio have visited the region in the recent years, a fact that offers a brief glimpse into the theatrical and bizarre circumstances of an otherwise working class town. People here are used to being criticized for the environmental effects of the industry, but as international pressure builds the anxiety of the city is deepening. While I often tell people that we need to remain open to the criticisms of others, divestment feels like a final act of dismissal and abandonment. We might have expected this from the environmental lobby but not from our own church. The question of divestment has now made its way onto the Church of Canada’s General Synod agenda for 2016. In light of this, what follows are a few reflections on the difficulties that can arise when Churches morally target a particular industry.

First, because fossil fuel divestment is an inherently polarizing action — all or nothing — the theological rationales provided by church groups have tended to take this form. Divestment draws a line in the sand and signals the end of shareholder and industry engagement. It stigmatizes and isolates the industry (in this case the oil sands), and most of all it drives home the notion that the industry is on the wrong side of history. In the words of the Church of England’s climate change policy, oil sands companies “are unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to the transition to a low carbon economy” (“Climate Change: The Policy of the National Investing Bodies of the Church of England,” p. 20). The Diocese of Montreal pushed this idea one step further by informing delegates at its recent synod that “it is wrong to profit from an industry whose core business threatens human and planetary health” (“Background on Motion E “Diocesan Investment” from the Stewardship of the Environment Committee”).

Because these churches are making such black and white statements, they have been eager to provide theological rationales. Such rationales include everything we might expect: theologies of creation, stewardship, Sabbath, the marginalized; indictments of greed and consumerism, modern industrial capitalism, ideologies of technological progress. The CofE document contains quite a nice commendation of simple living (12). It would, of course, be unwise to argue against the gospel imperative that we should live simply or that we should be good stewards of creation, even if these notions threaten our livelihood. But among all the fine theological reasoning contained in various divestment documents, I have yet to encounter a single persuasive theological reason as to why divestment is an appropriate way for the Church to deal with the problematic or even sinful (as the Diocese of Montreal claims) actions of others.

Second, many of the statements attending fossil fuel divestment decisions have quite simply left oil field laborers morally and pastorally stranded. As the Diocese of Montreal has said: “it is wrong” to benefit financially from the fossil fuel industry. The United Church of Canada has been a little more gracious. Its statement on divestment urges caution concerning Bill McKibben’s demonizing of oil companies as “public enemies” for the simple reason that “it denies the possibility of change, or in religious language, of redemption” (Bruce Gregerson, “Theological Reflections on Climate Change and Divestment, 2015,” 15). True enough, but it begs the question: what must we do to be saved?

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At least in Canada, there has been very little engagement on the part of divesting churches with people in oil producing regions, whether Alberta, Newfoundland, or elsewhere. But if oil field employees are living in sin, surely it is the job of our national bodies to provide some pastoral guidance. Is it morally and spiritually acceptable to remain an employee of an oil sands company? Or as the Church of England has stated, is the time for engagement over? Anglicans in our region will be looking for guidance.

There’s yet another dimension to this problem: many of the people involved have experienced successive rounds of displacement. For decades the oil sands industry has employed economically displaced people, from the cod fisheries of Newfoundland and even war-torn Somalia. As our churches now advocate for yet another labour displacement, surely we need to demonstrate a level of pastoral concern for the profound effects this will have on people’s lives. There should be some acknowledgment of the sacrifices these theological statements are demanding of Christians in the industry. Not many of us would relinquish our livelihoods without deep misgivings. If this is in fact what some church bodies are asking of their members, it needs to be acknowledged and we need to support each other in the difficult road of discipleship. If this is not what they are asking, then Churches need to seriously examine the implications of their statements. To fail to be clear on this point is reckless.

Third, divesting churches risk pastorally stranding oil field Christians with an action that itself seems confused in its moral intention. Allow me to explain. If successful, divestment on a mass scale would starve and strand the fossil fuel industry immediately. As I understand it, this is the goal of divesting bodies. (To say that divestment is useless because someone else will simply scoop up the shares is like saying one should not bother being peaceful because his acts of peace will be swallowed up by a violent world.) But it is not clear that divesting groups actually want to destroy the industry tomorrow. As the UCC document says, the real goal is to stigmatize the industry with unrealistic moral restrictions (7). The reality is we are not quite ready to be free of fossil fuels. Governments, industry, and health care systems would collapse without a viable alternative energy. For the future, it is more likely that we must imagine a diminished, yet enduring role for fossil fuels in providing global energy demands. In this case, fossil fuel development is unlike, say, apartheid — an example environmental critics like to use: there is no future anywhere at any time for racial segregation.

Divestment then seems to amount to little more than moral posturing, however well intended, when the world needs genuine, thoughtful, and powerful action on the environment now more than ever. Unfortunately this posturing has profound societal and ecclesial effects. It heaps up unbearable moral burdens on those now caught in the energy transition, and it exaggerates already painful divisions between different regions of our church. Divesting churches and dioceses have justified this approach with theological language that is smooth, generic, and almost evasive, given the complex situation it is engaging: there is little interest in counterarguments or the people who will be adversely affected by such statements. The CofE document speaks of Christ’s concern for the poor and our need to act on behalf of those now affected by climate change (14). True enough, I wouldn’t dare disagree, but the energy transition will create new regions of poverty and exacerbate existing concerns in oil producing countries. And it somehow goes unnoticed that the transition to renewable energies will create new power structures and financial inequalities. We are now between two energy kingdoms, and Christians of all people should be cautious in offering allegiance to either. For its part, the Diocese of Montreal does not seem too concerned about this detail: not only is divestment the right thing to do, it will even have financial benefits (“Background on Motion E”), not to mention the desired social prestige of being progressive. There will be no such prestige for those embedded in an industry that the entire world still relies upon but likes to denounce, and the financial impacts of the energy transition on working class people in northern Alberta, for example, will be considerable.

Divestment is an inherently inarticulate and blunt action, and the attending theological rationales have done little to dull its edge. In many cases they have made it worse. Phillip Turner has argued that the primary concern of Christian ethics “is how Christians are to live with one another.” How the Church relates to the societal and political order is still important but secondary to the way Christians are called to love one another (Christian Ethics and the Church, xiv). One might disagree with this ordering of principles, but at the very least we could agree that these two aspects of Christian ethics ought to be pursued in some kind of harmony. Surely we can find a better approach to dealing with climate change that builds up the body of Christ as opposed to bypassing it in the name of urgency.

It is not easy for me to think objectively about this issue, but that is the nature of a national and global church. Ecclesial discernment allows our engagement with fellow Christians to limit the scope of our theological judgments or unexpectedly deepen them. Instead, in the case of Canada, individual dioceses have lurched to theological conclusions that, without warning, have excluded members of their own church. The plight of oil field communities may not weigh heavily on the scales of global concern; but it should register. There are Anglican Christians in Fort McMurray, and as General Synod approaches I pray this fact will not be forgotten.

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is rector of All Saints Fort McMurray. The featured image of the Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine was taken by Elias Schewel (2008), and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the rector of All Saints Fort McMurray at the end of a highway in Northern Alberta.

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Charles Wingate

The analogy between making peace and making investments is not, though, so close as to work. My restraint from violence does add or subtract from the total, but my buying or welling shares does not make the pumping of oil or mining of coal increase or diminish. And indeed, considering the exotic materials which go into electronic devices, and which must be mined from the earth in who knows which foreign lands under who knows what conditions, balancing all these harms against one another quickly becomes incalculable, never minding the dubious qualifications proponents may or may not have to judge… Read more »