United Methodists Answer: “What Does It Profit?”

gc2016-sidebar-logoby James M. Wall

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)


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Donald Trump, Israel, Middle East, Palestinians, Religious Faith, United Methodist Church. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to United Methodists Answer: “What Does It Profit?”

  1. Thank you, Jim, for a wide-ranging and informative post. 559-157: an unholy vote. Today, I am ashamed to be a member of the United Methodist Church.

  2. mgm says:

    Trace the money, and you have your answer

  3. What stunning news, Jim.
    The “progressives” were clearly outnumbered.
    Who was laying the groundwork?
    Were not the Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) called in to talk with the committee dealing with this issue?
    You don’t give any of the dialogue, the blow by blow talking points by advocates and opponents, (even though I’ve heard them all.)
    Has the UMC ever not divested pension funds in companies who don’t live up to denomination values?
    Not even a close vote. What does that say about the broader American public and their attitude toward human rights abusers in our urban centers and Isr/Pal?

  4. Harris Fawell says:

    Jim, one would think that the United Methodist Church would agree with you, and decide to take the moral stand. Blessings on you for all your good works.
    Harris Fawell

  5. Charles Emery says:

    Thanks for showing us our feet of clay. Moral courage is in short supply today.

  6. Sam khalil says:

    The Methodist church sold it’s soul
    for blood money just like Juda who sold Jesus
    for 30 pieces of silver.

  7. Margaret Halstead says:

    I am now ashamed to be a Christian. How absolutely appalling, that the UMC would aid and abet a brutal and violent military occupation of a civilian population. We are considering leaving the UMC. I do not see how we can stay in it. Shameful, shameful, shameful.

  8. Margaret Halstead says:

    I challenge each UMC member to begin placing in their donation envelope the following note: “I will not contribute today because the UMC is supporting with its investments the brutal Israeli military occupation of a civilian population — the Palestinians.” Maybe we can get a campaign going. We must respond to the General Conference’s moral cowardice.

  9. Kyle Holberg says:

    As always, money trumps all else..

  10. Blake says:

    Unfortunately years of conditioning of what could only be described as the anti Christ (big money) has done this to American Christians of all denominations.

  11. Helen Marshall says:

    I believe Hillary Clinton urged her church to reject the divestment proposal…whether from personal belief or at the behest of her “Israel-First” wealthy backers is unknown.

  12. Patricia says:

    I grew up in the Methodist Church, attended nursing school in a Methodist Hospital, but I no longer believe in the Methodist way. Shame!

  13. Eugene Fitzpatrick says:

    I share the surprise of my fellow commentators regarding the magnitude of the lop-sided defeat of the amendment to divest. Clicking on Jim’s link in the article ‘The final death blow’ will get you to a comment by reserve delegate Joyner which will give you a peek into the bizarre mentation to which those 559 Methodist friends of tyranny are in thrall.

  14. Eugene Fitzpatrick says:

    Amplifying on my comment above I’d like to show the words of a reserve delegate at the recent United Methodist Church convention in Portland, hoping thereby to give an example of what I consider the dysfunctional mindset of those delegates who overwhelmingly defeated an effort to put the UMC on the path of divesting from companies which aid Israel in its efforts to destroy Palestine.

    The quotation in taken from an article in United Methodist News written by Erik Alsgaard:

    The Rev. Alex Joyner, a reserve delegate from the Virginia Conference, said that divestment is unfair to Israel as it targets one party as a “bad actor” in the situation.

    “Divestment is built on the notion that Israel alone is responsible for the situation of the occupation, and that Israel, alone, can end it,” Joyner said.

    He said that the occupation is a deeply troubling reality and it must end, “but targeting settlements for divestment doesn’t address all of the issues that will lead to peace, including security concerns, the right of return, the status of Jerusalem and the question of borders for a free and independent Palestine.”

    As a student or parishioner I would clearly not wish to have Rev. Joyner as my teacher of History, Theology or Logic.

  15. oldkahuna says:

    I am tardy in responding to Jim’s good article (as usual!).
    I am reminded of a great leader in the WCC who belatedly got ordained. When asked why he had decided to get ordained, he said he had two reasons: (1) To more closely identify with the sinfulness of the Church; and (2) to make it clear whose side he was on.
    The heart breaks, but this is what we must do. First is identifying more closely with the sinfulness of the Church. Several bishops I know did not like this as a reason when they asked me why I wanted to be ordain many years ago. Tough, bishops!
    While fulfilling reason number two, I think the installation of Lieberman as Minister of Defense is a sign that we must be prepared for the demise (not the destruction) of Israel.
    Indeed, the heart breaks…but this is what we have to work with. So, let’s work in the noonday sun.

  16. As a long-time admirer of Jim Wall’s vision and courage, it is instructive to read about the UMC vote and the quick response of so many Methodist readers. We must all continue to express our commitment to justice in the land of Jesus’ birth and ministry.

  17. Happily, I learned of your blog today. I look forward to benefitting from it, as I have done in my first reading. I believe that as post-General Conference analysis is done, more “exposure” of the kind you write about will become clearer–“exposure that too easily gets lost as the pile of decisions got more deep. Your quote from Jesus us spot on. He also said that what is hidden will be revealed (Mark 4:22). Thank you for being an instrument for uncoveing realities which do not honor Jesus or the Wesleyan traditiin.

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