Sixty-two years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned racial segregation in U.S. public schools, the United Methodist Church ended its 2016 General Conference by voting 559-157 to continue investing its funds in U.S. corporations profiting from operations in illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories.
This do-not-divest vote rejected an effort by some delegates to the UMC General Conference to halt all investments in three American corporations profiting from Israel’s immoral and illegal behavior.
There are brothels in the state of Nevada which profit from what the vast majority of Methodists would consider to be immoral conduct. Some of these brothels would, no doubt, welcome church funds to sanctify their businesses.
Tell me, fellow Methodists, what is the difference between investing church funds in brothels and putting church funds to work in illegal Israel settlements built on Palestinian land?
While we reflect on your answer, remember that brothels in eight Nevada counties are legal under Nevada law, while the existence of Israeli settlements on stolen land violates international law.
By its vote, 559 to 157, to underwrite illegal occupation, did the Methodist delegates (559!) sanction immorality?
We will sit here and thumb through John Wesley’s book of sermons while we wait for your answer.
Meanwhile, we need to consider a history that links two tracks, secular and religious.
The Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools to be illegal 62 years ago. Meanwhile. over on its religious corners, the Methodist Church continued to practice segregation in its national organizational structure.
They retained that institutional segregation for fourteen more years.
It happened this way:
In 1939, the people who called themselves Methodists, not a biblical term but a derogatory term used by opponents (“these people are so methodical”), sought to unify three branches of the denomination, initially torn apart in the 19th century over slavery.
The 1939 merger was proposed to unite the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Initially split up by the historical circumstances of race, the new denomination was not about to give up segregation, the prevailing custom of the Old South and in many parts of the rest of the nation.
The Methodists chose to continue their segregated ways in their new structure by creating a new Methodist Church, divided into five regional jurisdictions, and the Central Jurisdiction, which was set aside exclusively for African-American churches.
The Central Jurisdiction was devised to segregate African-American churches, bishops, pastors and members. There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, especially in the Old South, the old segregated pattern continued.
Then came the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v Board of Education. Anyone with eyes to see had to know the days of segregation were numbered in all aspects of American life. But for how many days? How long, O Lord.
A religious institution should have led the way toward nation-wide integration, but like that huge battleship turning around in the middle of the ocean, the church moves slowly in actual practice.
In 1968, The Methodist Church wanted to merge again, this time with a denomination with similar Wesleyan roots, the Evangelical United Brethren Church. To make this merger work, the segregated Central Conference had to go. The new partner had no segregation.
Fourteen years after the 1954 segregation decision, the new Methodist Church ended its segregated structure. It was not a gesture of moral courage, but a change of practical necessity, driven by a need to run a more cost-effective organization.
Congregations were merged; seminaries came together, you know, the sort of thing a President Donald Trump would understand.
Now, 48 years later, in the year of our Lord, 2016, the United Methodist General Conference considered another issue of racial segregation, this time in a distant land.
The land is Palestine, where an occupying Israeli army controls the lives of the people there, 24-7.
Some Methodist members and leaders wanted to take a moral stand by divesting Methodist funds invested in illegally occupied Palestinian territories.
The inspiration for this action came from Palestinian leaders, both religious and secular, who had devised a strategy of non-violent economic protest, organized as a program called BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions).
Of the three legs of the program, Boycott and Sanctions were strategies best carried out by governments. Divestment from funds inside a targeted area (think apartheid in South Africa, where a form of BDS worked successfully) could be carried out by religious groups with money to invest.
Here was a chance for the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination to take a moral stand with its own money.
The 2016 General Conference delegates assembled in in the Methodist Church’s May 10-20 quadrennial gathering in Portland, Oregon, pondered and debated four separate resolutions calling for divestment. Then an overwhelmingly large number proceeded to reject all four.
The final death blow to this effort at a non-violent protest tactic, came from that 559-157 vote.
Four years earlier, the 2012 General Conference came close to ending all investments in the Occupied Territories.
This year the Methodists went back to their Jim Crow roots and voted by a huge majority to increase Methodist dollars within Israeli settlements through the profits of three U.S. corporations.
Not a very pleasant thought: Clergy retirement funds underwriting an illegal military occupation.
The book of Mark has something to say about this.
“For what shall it profit a man or a woman, if he or she shall gain the whole world, and lose their own souls?” (KJV Mark 8:36, updated)