A contrarian (me) looks at socially responsible investing in this sermon from earlier this year.
Some thirty years ago, a family crisis led me on a roundabout route toward finding my religious home, and I joined my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, Community Church of New York. That particular congregation had a long history in liberal religion and civil rights, with names like William Cullen Bryant, William Ellery Channing, John Haynes Holmes, and Donald Szantho Harrington. Dr. Holmes especially was a powerful orator and leader, one of the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Under Dr. Holmes’ ministry, from 1907 to 1949, the church grew many times over, and people of color felt welcome. When I joined in the mid-1980s, about half the congregation was black, and many of those members drove all the way in from their suburban communities to the Murray Hill neighborhood of New York City on Sunday morning for services, out of respect for the history of the church as well as its continued emphasis on the civil rights movement. The greeters were almost always African American woman in their Sunday dresses handing out orders of service with white-gloved hands and words of warmth. I sometimes bicycled in from Queens and arrived sweaty, wearing running shorts and a T-shirt, but I got the same warm greeting.
This was the first spiritual home where I felt welcomed and accepted for who I was.
At the time, I worked for Mobil Oil. With the title Senior Public Relations Advisor, I helped formulate the words and the strategies to deal with Mobil’s political issues. One of the big issues at the time was the campaign to force Mobil to pull out of South Africa. There were no road signs then pointing toward the demise of apartheid or the release from prison of Nelson Mandela, and in the mid to late 1980s Mobil was the largest U.S.-based employer in South Africa.
Mobil at the time had an agreement – I don’t know if it was implied or expressed – with the South African government. As long as we didn’t talk about it publicly, we could treat our employees by our standards. All of our facilities were fully integrated, and we had more than 30 colored managers with whites reporting to them. It was my job to present the best defense I could, but I also sincerely believed that apartheid would end sooner by our staying than by our leaving. In leaving, we would have to sell our South African affiliate to a local company that, of course, would not continue our practices.
Remember, I don’t think anyone at the time believed that apartheid would end as soon as it did. I wanted an end to apartheid. The people I went to church with wanted an end to apartheid. The people I went to work with wanted an end to apartheid. But the people I worked with and I believed that our leaving would do more harm than good.
Since Community Church was less than a mile from the Mobil building, it launched a daily rally in front of the main entrance, demanding divestiture. I chose to continue using that main entrance and to say hello daily to those same black women – now without their white gloves, and now holding placards instead of orders of service – who greeted me at church on Sunday mornings. I talked with them and their husbands, who listened to my point of view on this explosive topic. I didn’t change their minds, and they didn’t change mine, but I felt heard, and I still felt accepted.
If my Community Church friends had told me then that only a racist could believe what I did, then I don’t think I would have remained a UU. So I am forever grateful to the members of Community Church, because my faith in Unitarian Universalism has grown stronger over the years and is an integral part of who I have become.
A punitive tax law passed in 1987 forced Mobil to sell its South African company, but no one foresaw what happened next. In 1989, one South African president had a stroke and his successor opened negotiations leading to the freeing of Mandela and elections in 1994. The African National Congress won those elections and Mandela became president that May, 21 years ago.
I’ll come back to what lessons we may draw from the South African boycott and divestiture, but first I want to talk about bias and about UU sermons.
Bias is, of course, a four-letter word, and we often hear it in a negative sense, like racial bias, or “you’re biased against me.” But in its pure form, it’s merely the angle from which we see the world. If we didn’t have biases, we couldn’t function. We’d be like the adult seeing or hearing for the first time – overwhelmed, unable to distinguish friend from foe. Maybe an ameba is bias-free, but as beings evolved, bias was an evolutionary adaption.
The problem is that we tend to cling to our biases. Over time, we can greatly lessen the impact of things like racial bias by exposure. But intellectual bias may be even harder, because we filter our input through our biases. Once I’ve spent time with people of other races, I can’t deny what my senses are telling me – these are people like me. But I can listen to opposing intellectual arguments day after day and just perfect my counter arguments.
In fact, there’s considerable evidence that having more education doesn’t make us more broad-minded. Instead, it makes us better at defending our biases. My unscientific, gut-level impression is that this hardening of the ideological arteries has become much worse during my lifetime.
One of my big biases is contrarianism. When all my friends and relatives are certain of something, I start doubting – picking around the edges, at least. To give you a totally outrageous example, I’m not sure that global climate change is a bad thing. Maybe it’s nature’s way of reducing our population and helping us evolve into beings that do a better job of listening to each other. Maybe it’s just our time to evolve.
A less outrageous example of my contrarian bias is my opposition to the don’t-build-it-and-they-won’t-come philosophy expressed by some environmentalists. The causes of our most serious ecological problems are population growth, economic growth and the way both are tied to energy use that releases greenhouse gasses and other pollutants. Not building a road, in most cases, doesn’t stop population growth; it just causes more traffic jams and more pollution until someone builds another road. Not building a pipeline, in most cases, doesn’t stop the production of hydrocarbons; it just reroutes the production. My bias says time spent opposing roads and pipelines – even coal production – would be better spent directly doing something about the demand.
But that’s just my bias, and that brings me to subject of UU sermons. A UU sermon is not to convince you to believe what the preacher believes. I won’t get past your biases anyway. I want to spur you to emotional as well as mental effort, to get you working toward your own conclusions. I don’t want to turn you into a contrarian. We contrarians don’t want company. It would only confuse us.
You know the old saw about sermons. They are to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I want to afflict you.
Specifically, this sermon us about how we spend and invest our money. I see it as a subdivision of Right Livelihood, which is one element of the Buddhist Eightfold Path. When I worked for Mobil Oil and also considered myself a practicing Buddhist, I discussed Right Livelihood several times with my teachers. They all said the same thing: “Think of the good you do by staying there.”
When we talk about Socially Responsible Investing, it’s usually about screens – screening out companies that we believe violate our principles. Community Church of New York has a large endowment managed by a socially responsible investment manager. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mobil was one of the companies screened out, because of its South African operations, in the 1980s when I was a member of the church and an employee of the company.
Last June, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly passed a resolution directing the Unitarian Universalist Association – the UUA – over five years to divest from its Common Endowment Fund the 200 top fossil fuel companies. The resolution also urged UUA congregations and members of those congregations to do the same. This has no direct impact on our church, because we have no endowment and no money invested in common stocks. But of course some of us individually invest directly in securities or in mutual funds.
As an aside, and in full disclosure, I still get some retiree benefits from the company that is now ExxonMobil, but I own none of its stock. The reason I own none of its stock is that I figured any company dumb enough to fire me couldn’t last long.
An investment screen is just a form of boycott. You won’t buy a company’s stock or invest in mutual funds that do. If you want to boycott all big hydrocarbon producers, the stock screen may be your only option to take a position, at least symbolically. Unless you can get everywhere by bicycle, or you’ve invented a solar- or wind-powered automobile, you need some hydrocarbons to travel. But, again, the contrarian in me just doesn’t like boycotts.
They are a blunt instrument with a lot of collateral damage, hurting friends as well as foes. If I, for example, had called off a trip to Indiana after it passed its so-called religious freedom law, who would I be hurting? I wouldn’t go into a pizza parlor that posted an anti-gay sign anyway, but I might veer straight into one of the pizza shops that posted a sign saying “We serve everyone.” People hate Walmart for all sorts of reasons. If I called for a boycott and got millions to stay away, the mother of one of our past presidents would lose her livelihood.
And how do we decide which issues are most important and which companies are bad enough to boycott? I recently needed a tool sold in hobby shops. The nearest one was a Hobby Lobby, and I couldn’t bring myself to enter. But I’d have no trouble walking into an Apple store or buying a product from Microsoft or Oracle, all of which engage in anti-competitive behavior that elbows smaller, innovative companies out of the marketplace. Those misdeeds may hurt us even more over the long run.
The contrarian in me keeps insisting that big problems don’t get solved with incremental solutions. They get solved with innovation. Fossil fuels themselves got their start as the innovative solution needed to replace whale oil and other fuels for lamps in the 1860s as the Civil War raged. I find it likely that, if global climate change is to be stopped, it will be by something to replace fossil fuels, something the public accepts willingly. Maybe it will be the hydrogen fuel cell for automobiles. Maybe not. Maybe it will be improvements that make solar or wind energy less expensive. Maybe it will be something we still don’t know anything about.
Change comes quickly when it captures the public’s imagination. Just ask the first person who uploaded a video of his or her cat to Youtube.
And we all know that positive reinforcement works better than negative. A new term in the investment community is “impact investing.” Instead of screening out companies we don’t like, how about focusing more money on companies we do?
Because I am a registered rep under FINRA – the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority – I may not talk publicly about securities without the approval of my broker/dealer, Allstate Financial Services LLC, and without a bunch of disclaimers that wouldn’t sound very inspirational in a sermon. So I’ll mention only in passing that there are ways to devote a portion of your investment funds to innovative technologies, or to other types of companies that support your values, whatever they are.
And there are websites like Indiegogo that offer opportunities to donate funds to help small businesses with big ideas. You don’t get stock in the company, you get gifts like this nifty mug I got for donating to Solar Roadways. It’s a controversial and far-fetched idea, but if against all odds it does work, I’ll call this a “smug” instead of a mug and brag incessantly.
The resolution passed by the UUA General Assembly last year, in addition to calling for the divestitures, did include a line about investing “an appropriate share of [endowment] holdings in securities that will support a swift transition to a clean energy economy, such as renewable energy and energy-efficiency-related securities.” So it wasn’t entirely about negative screens.
I said I’d come back to the lessons that might be learned from the boycott of South Africa. Harvard University faculty members have researched boycotts in general and the South African one in particular. They found that boycotts have no economic impact. There’s always someone else to buy the product or the stock at pretty close to the going market price. But the publicity around the boycott may influence public opinion. So we were all right, and we’ll never know if South Africans would have been better off if Mobil did not leave.
But, again, the views I’ve expressed are not to encourage you to think like me, but just to think about how you invest and where you spend your money. They are intended to challenge you toward your own conclusions. They say that Jews talk about money and not sex, while UUs talk about sex and not money. But, like so many other aspects of Unitarian Universalism, we are called on to make our own hard and reasoned choices. And to trust and respect each other’s choices.
We are like jurors with a solemn responsibility to reach our own conclusions. Many of you know about the recent trial for the murder of Etan Patz. He’s the 6-year-old who disappeared in 1979 in lower Manhattan on the first day he was allowed to walk alone to the school bus stop. The trial of his accused killer, Pedro Hernandez, began in February and ended Friday in a hung jury after 18 days of deliberation. Adam Sirois, 42, was the only juror who could not bring himself to vote for a conviction. Reporters asked him what it was like to be the only holdout. “It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t torture, either,” he said. “I feel all of my fellow jurors were very respectful of my position. I’m proud to be on a jury with all of them, even if I don’t agree with all of them about the decision.”
May we all be able to say that about our beloved church community. We all want to build a better world, based on our UU Principles, even if we differ on how to bring it about. And we will sing, with spirit, about building that world as we rise and turn to Number 121 in the gray hymnal, “We’ll Build a Land.”
The benediction today is from George Carlin: May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your house.
Copyright 2015 Mel Harkrader Pine