When Losing Becomes a Win

At the quadrennial General Methodist Conference, held in Tampa, Florida, a vote to divest church funding from companies that support military occupation in Palestine lost. A disappointment, it came as no surprise to delegates who had seen it regularly defeated in the past.

The divestment issue comes up each year at regional church conferences; and this year again it was a heated issue at the worldwide Conference, where a two to one loss, was a disappointment for a strong coalition of divestment supporters.

But disappointment also signaled hope. Sporting bright yellow T-shirts, advocates from several groups had united in an all out effort to educate visiting delegates about humanitarian concerns repeatedly trampled by votes that defy Christian values by using church funds for companies that oppress Christian as well as Muslim Palestinians. Homemade signs pinned to the distinctive yellow shirts were designed to inform nearly a thousand attending delegates by asking them to question funding, which sustains a brutal occupation by supplying weapons and machinery.

The Jewish Voice for Peace joined Christians, visiting Palestinians, ministers, peace groups and individuals to support the United Methodist Kairos Response in a unified appeal to Christian conscience for divestment from Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard, companies that make and supply equipment designed to destroy property and impose human misery while reaping profits from church funding.

Humanitarian as well as religious grounds justify a position to support withdrawal of church investments. The campaign was part of a growing BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) strategy to garner support for Palestinian justice through nonviolent movements that appeal to Christian values. Organizer Anna Balzer of JVP and Suzanne Hoder, representative of UMKR, though disappointed, said that the vote had a bright side. Supporters imparted information to delegates unaware of facts on the ground, and said more teaching about the cost and human impact is needed.

The strong unified advocate presence evidenced a future “win” for divestment at upcoming regional conferences. Conferences in Northern Illinois, California Pacific, New York and Western Ohio had already voted to pull investments. Hoder said she expects more will follow their lead.

A reception sponsored by UMKR, drew delegates, many from African countries, to hear experiences from indigenous Palestinians about injustices suffered by Christians in Palestine. Rev. Alex Awad of Bethlehem Bible College, Zahi Khouri, Chairman of the Coca Cola Company in Palestine and US Government economist Philip Farah were among Christian Palestinians who described the impact of occupation on Christians, often marginalized or neglected by the mainstream media.

Kairos Palestine, a doctrine written by patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem, attacks divestment on humane and moral grounds and calls upon world leaders to heed the cry of the oppressed. Used in 1985 during the struggle in South Africa against apartheid, it received strong support by highlighting Christian principles that promote human dignity for all peoples.

The impassioned speeches by influential Palestinians affected a compromised vote. While Christian fundamentalism and heavy pressure by Israeli lobbyists influenced the outcome, the call for “positive” investing to bring about change for peace, may indicate that the Christian speakers who emphasized being strangled by the occupation had influence.

Though the failed vote ensures United Methodist Pension Funds would continue, two proposals, one against the occupation and another condemning the settlements passed. Regarded as “token,” it indicated thought concerning Christian values and humanity sacrificed to occupation.

On the same day the outcome of the vote was learned, the Islamic Community of Tampa had invited Christians, Jews and advocate supporters to an evening meal prepared by Muslim members. Speaking in front of Christians, Jews and Muslims, Anna Balzer said that in spite of disappointment, important connections had been made, information was widely distributed, and personal contacts increased more supporters.

Hoder said defeat reflects disregard for the Christian principles; talking to people raises awareness and connects the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination with other movements as did the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa. Delegates carry home a message of justice for Palestine represented in cooperation among diverse faiths and ethnicities working together to uphold justice as the cornerstone of all civilized religions.