From the outset, it was clear that Caterpillar would be the villain and that the committee had punishment in mind. The only question was one of degree.
By a vote of 34 to 17, the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee will recommend that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) “denounce” Caterpillar Inc. for its sale of earth-moving equipment that is used by the Israeli government.
The decision was reached after considerable wrangling over an alternative action that would have ordered the denomination to divest itself of Caterpillar stocks and bonds. But the Rev. Doug Huke, pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Peoria, labeled that alternative “a distinction without a difference.” “The damage,” he said when the denunciation was announced, “has been done.”
Caterpillar employees and their families make up about one-third of Huke’s 500-member congregation.. Some have already left the church over the treatment their company has received from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s corporation police.
An action by the denomination to dump Caterpillar stock wouldn’t cause a blip on Wall Street’s radar screen, a point that was made by several persons testifying before the committee. So Presbyterians in Peoria are not concerned for their portfolios. What they do question is how they can remain part of a denomination that has denounced them.
The Rev. Brian Ellison, chairman of the General Assembly’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) committee, told commissioners that Caterpillar employees should not think that the church has denounced them or their company. “We denounced Caterpillar’s actions; not Caterpillar,” he said.
But Huke believes Ellison’s disclaimer won’t play well in Peoria.
Sitting in the committee room with Susan Krummel, a sympathetic Great Rivers Presbytery staff member following the vote, Huke said that they found themselves in a quandary as to how they might interpret this development to their people. Earlier, during committee hearings, Krummel warned the commissioners that Peoria’s response to the denomination’s denouncement could evoke devastating consequences for her presbytery’s mission.
The sound and light show
The committee’s action came after it was exposed to a ten-minute multi-media presentation put together by Geoff Browning, Will McGarvey and Al Johnson, representing Newark and San Francisco Presbyteries. Big screen images showed massive bulldozers and wrecking equipment, purportedly ripping into Palestinian homes and pulverizing the landscape. Pictures of Israeli soldiers superimposed over Caterpillar’s D-9 machines, juxtaposed with images of wailing women and children, made a demonstrable impact on committee members.
As images of the monster machines flashed on screen, the trio punched heart pounding rhetoric into their microphones: “These are weapons of mass destruction,” said one.
“We are complicit in this brutality,” said another. “… Accessories to this injustice,” said another.
“… living off this corporation’s profit, said another,” adding “’what shall it profit a man or a woman if they gain the whole world but lose their soul?’”
“We must hear the people cry and speak out,” said another.
“Send a message to Caterpillar,” another shouted, as the image of a huge mechanical claw arched over a small silhouetted figure.
During the discussion that followed, a handful of commissioners sought to turn the tide. One pointed out that Caterpillar has no control the use of its equipment, machinery that can and is used for all kinds of purposes. Another stated that if Caterpillar’s sales were terminated, Israel could buy the equipment from one of its foreign competitors. “You will accomplish nothing except hurting this company’s employees,” he said.
“Why single out Caterpillar?” asked Gary Davis, who spoke during the committee’s hearings. “Will you divest of computer companies, Ryder trucks, software companies, and countless other companies whose products are bought by the Israelis? You have made Caterpillar a symbol, and you have demonized this company unfairly.”
But Fuad Khuri, whose cascade of ribbons signaled his membership a Palestine liberation group, declared, “Israel is immoral and illegal. We cannot endorse in any way the destruction of the Palestinian people. Divesting is making a statement, putting our money where our mouth is. What are we going to invest in? I say its time to invest in people and peace.”
Ellison expressed MRTI’s frustration over the fact that Caterpillar executives will not take its counsel seriously. “They met with us twice,” he said, “but we didn’t accomplish anything.”
From the outset, it was clear that Caterpillar would be the villain and that the committee had punishment in mind. The only question was one of degree. The majority appeared to be persuaded by the argument that denouncement was better than divestment because if the denomination no longer owns stock, Caterpillar will have no reason to follow its bidding.
“At least,” said one hopeful commissioner who opposed divestment, “by only denouncing them we can keep them at the table.”
In Peoria, another form of divestment looms on the horizon. A weary observer commented as he left the room, “If the Presbyterian Church (USA) thinks the money we’ve earned is dirty, there are ministries elsewhere that would welcome our support.”
Committee No. 14’s recommendation is not