A handful of famed theologians like the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer have taught there, and today Union Theological Seminary in New York has taken the bold step to be the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels. Writing in Time, Union president Serene Jones proclaims that they feel a need to “live out our values in the world,” and therefore are “divesting the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels.” She explains:
As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that “the wages of sin is death,” and this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels. As vulnerable communities have been swallowed by rising shorelines, as potable water has become a commodity of increasing rarity, as hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by violent weather, it is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing – or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.
Wait, what is sinful? Being addicted to fossil fuels? What counts as an “addiction?” Is simply using fossil fuels sinful? Or does it have to be excessive use? And what is excessive? Is it sinful for the President of the United States to belch carbon emissions aboard Air Force One as he flies to Palm Springs for a weekend of golf right after he gets done lecturing college grads on the silliness of climate change skepticism? And what about the man on the oil rig, working in the drilling fields or owning a service station? Are they sinners for doing the work of developing fossil fuels? And further, is Union Theological Seminary really going far enough in simply divesting from fossil fuel investment? If it’s sinful, should they not be leading the charge in removing themselves entirely from the use of such articles of immorality?
These questions prompted a rather mind-boggling discussion between Ms. Jones and myself. After some rather curious answers from Ms. Jones regarding whether fossil fuels are sinful, things really got interesting when I asked her whether UTS would take a similar principled stand against an obvious moral evil like the destruction of life in the womb:
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Pete Heck: Yeah, I’m curious about one other thing and this may be seeming like it’s coming out of right field, but in the article you talk about resisting sin and I think that’s very noble, taking a stand on moral ground – you really don’t see that, it’s not common in our culture that people certainly at the university level are using these kinds of terms and phrases. But here’s what I’m curious about: I’ve done values based investing personally for a long time. For several years we’ve tried, my family, has tried to divest from companies that support obvious sins like the destruction of life in the womb and homosexuality that are explicitly clear in Scripture. Has Union Theological taken a stand when it comes to those obvious sins and companies that support those things as well, or is this just isolated on the ecological side?
Serene Jones: It is not at all isolated. Ten years ago we developed a socially responsible investing policy that divested us from tobacco, and from firearms and from alcohol. I think if you were to look at the leading, one of the leading causes of death in the country today of young people, um, you would be in one of those three categories. Um, and we’re also in the process of looking into our investments – if we have any, we’re exploring this right now – in for-profit prisons, that are in a sense making money off of imprisonment. So we take very seriously a whole range of issues. And, as a board, and as a whole community, we discussed them extensively.
PH: Mmm-hmm. I would say that when you’re talking about young people, obviously, abortion would seem to be one of the leading causes of killers of children. And I think as a Christian university that would be another great position for UTS to take. To say, you know, we’re not going to invest in companies that are funding, that are supporting the destruction of God’s innocent – we talk about creation meaning the earth, but God’s most innocent creations in the womb, in the sanctuary of the mother’s womb, certainly that seems like a great place for UTS to take a stand as well. Any chance that that might happen?
SJ: Well, you know, when I think about, particularly women and fertility, um, we have just begun to scratch the surface in terms of our scientific work around the impact of climate change on fertility. And particularly in poor countries where you’re living in a toxic environment where you have bodies that never even have the possibility of imagining having the choice to reproduce. And I think that’s very serious and it’s just going to continue to increase until we as a globe take on what our toxic environment is doing to the bodies of everyone, and in particular the reproductive bodies of women. It’s a, it’s a, it’s a massively important point for us to put into this conversation.
PH: Uh yeah, I definitely want the bodies of women to be cared for as well as men to be cared for. And that isn’t just the grown ones. And it isn’t just the toddlers. It isn’t just the infants. But it’s that innocent life in the womb as well. And I just, I feel like maybe um, you’re not wanting to answer my question relative to the unborn. And I guess that’s where I sit back and just say “Aren’t we warped when we’re going to take such a firm stand on protecting an environment but we’re not going to take a similar stand of importance when it comes to protecting innocent human life.
SJ: I, you and I are just going to disagree on that, um –
PH: But I guess, why? That’s maybe my biggest question. Why not?
SJ: Sure, I mean you wanna have a theological discussion about it? I don’t want to talk about it politically but I can sure talk about theologically.
PH: You mean about life in the womb?
SJ: Yes! So tell me your, your theological reasons based on God and Scripture um for this position and I’ll respond to you theologically.
PH: Okay, absolutely, let –
SJ: Let’s do it, let’s do it in the context of Calvin, come on, let’s go!
PH: Okay, well here –
SJ: I’m ready!
PH: First and foremost, I guess maybe I need to ask you, what do you believe is conceived in the womb? Is it a human being?
SJ: (pregnant pause) Is conceived in the womb?
SJ: Um (pregnant pause), I think that you would have to say that what is conceived in the womb, if you go to Scripture and you look at the history of Christian tradition on this point, the amount of change that has um, been associated with that – so at the time of Jesus when Scripture was written, you were not considered to be pregnant until you had had what was called ‘quickening.’ And quickening was the first time that the mother could feel the child move in the womb. And that was for about 800 years the standard that the church used to determine you know, what the point of conception was. That was the point that people believe God breathed the spirit into the life and it sprung into being.
PH: Okay, and that’s what you believe?
SJ: Um, you know, I that that; I think that what we see is that the idea of when conception occurs has changed. In my mind, um, uh, then we’re talking about the point of quickening, I think the point at which we begin to think about it consciously, um, I think that before quickening when we talk about what happens in the womb of a woman, everything is in such process at that point too. So, we can continue to talk about this.
PH: Uh, I, I guess –
SJ: So what would you say, what would you say about the view that in Jesus’ time there was no indication whatsoever that there was some magical point of conception before quickening? I mean, how do we address that in –
PH: Well, first of all –
SJ: Relation between Biblical times and our times today?
PH: Right. You can go back before the time of Jesus. You can go back into the Old Testament law, the law of Moses where if a man attacked and was physically assaulting a woman and caused her to have premature birth – the baby was born prematurely – then he would be fined, so on and so forth. If there was further damage then the ‘eye for an eye,’ ‘tooth for tooth,’ ‘life for life’ law applied. So even before the days of Jesus in the Old Testament law code you have the notion of the unborn baby being a human being that constituted a man losing his life if the life of that child is lost. And certainly throughout Scripture you see repeatedly that the life conceived in the womb is constantly referred to as a baby, not, not anything else.
And I guess even from a scientific standpoint today, we can talk about quickening, we can talk about all of that, but from a scientific standpoint today, attempting to mark the start of human life anywhere but the point of conception becomes a fool’s game. It becomes drawing an arbitrary line in the sand where we try to say, “Okay well at this moment it’s a human being but before that, well, what was it? A fern?” And if we say it’s going to be the moment of birth, well is that when the first body part comes out of the womb? Is it when the baby draws the first breath and then the second before that it’s not a human being? It gets into this silly calculation that I think is much more indicative of someone trying to justify an immoral act than it is actually pursuing truth and consciously understanding the issue.
Which is, I guess where I wanted to go with all of this. If we’re taking a stand on moral ground as Christians, and we’re standing for – which what I think you’re trying to do with this act at UTS – I just don’t grasp why a university taking such a firm stance in our culture would be ashamed to take that stand when it comes to God’s innocent creations.
SJ: And I think we’re just going to disagree on this.
PH: Very good.
SJ: We live in a very tragic world.
PH: There’s no question about that, no question. Serene I appreciate your time very much.
SJ: Okay, thank you.
It is a tragic world, and one of the reasons is because we have gotten to the point where our seminaries and Christian schools are more concerned with the environment than their fellow man. Perhaps this is why the great Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a staunch advocate for the sanctity of all human life himself – said that the students at Union Theological Seminary were “completely clueless.”
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