No More Palms, Please

Most Christians never question where the palms on Palm Sunday come from. It never occurred to me, until my first year pastoring, that someone had to get the palms (and order them well in advance).  But as we approach Palm Sunday, we ought to reexamine our theology of palms.

Traditional (read: conventionally harvested) palms are shipped from a handful of countries including Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. But because palm harvesters are paid by the number of palms, not the quality of them, the most efficient way to get palms is also the most destructive. Cutting as many leaves as possible from each tree damages the trees and the long-term sustainability of palm trees. Not only that, but palm trees grow in the shade of forests, and so sustainably-harvested palms support both the palms and the wider forest preservation efforts. Such noble organizations as the Rainforest Alliance have promoted the eco-palm movement.

Which is exactly what my congregation planned to do that year. Typically, the congregation purchased enough palms for just children from, an ecumenical development program that sells palms to congregations in the United States and Europe.

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In 2016, EcoPalms shipped 981,000 fronds. The eco-friendly palm traveled approximately 2,700 miles to get to Chicago.

It’s a great system, if you consider palms necessary. But there’s no theologically reason to take the palms literally. In fact, in the King James Bible, the word klados is translated branches, and literally means “a young tender shoot, broken off for grafting.” The whole EcoPalm movement is a product of cultural capitalism, where the purchase of a thing includes the cost of the redemption you need.

The problem is, it’s difficult to label any palm eco-friendly if it’s traveled 2,500 miles to reach you. Like many aspects of contemporary church, Palm Sunday is an opportunity to show loyalty to Christ through consumerism. If Christ was welcomed with palms, then we must have palms, the logic goes.

Jesus doesn’t need our palms. There’s nothing extra-sacred about the palm that requires us to purchase them from across the globe and have them shipped to us in order to deepen our connection with Christ.

In fact, the palms aren’t even that critical to Palm Sunday. What the Scripture says is, “a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road.” Not even all of the crowd was cutting palm branches! But palms are so much more tasteful to the modern church than the thought of throwing our good coats into the aisles and having children stomp all over them as they welcome Christ. So we purchase our palms, and assuage our questions by assuring ourselves that poor farmers in Guatemala and their damaged rain forests are benefiting from our consumption.

No matter that one of the largest causes of rain forest destruction is cattle ranching grown for export. But no church is talking about making Palm Sunday No-Meat-Day.

It’s not enough in church to think one step ahead in our missions giving. We have to think about our giving two, three, even five steps out to consider the bigger impact of our actions. Do we need the palms? No. Is palm-consumption the most efficient way to help the people and plants affected by rain forest destruction? Not at all.

In 2014, the first Easter at my current church, we unsubscribed from EcoPalms and used branches I cut from the evergreen trees on the parsonage property (they needed trimming anyway, and I needed more sunlight for my future-garden). We “saved” about $30, but instead of pocketing the money, we donated it to Heifer International, buying a hive of honeybees for small-scale farmers in Central America.

Palms 2014

The first year’s palm replacements (maybe I went a little overboard in my tree-trimming)

We eliminated the middle man of congratulatory missions giving, turned the palms into a metaphor, and made our donation the center of our former-palm initiative, instead of a self-righteous byproduct of it.

It’s not a perfectly happy story. The following year, we had evergreens again. In 2016, I had cut all the low-hanging, subtle branches I could reach on the church property, so we used boxwood from the bushes in the same parsonage lot. A congregation member informed me that boxwoods are invasive non-natives in North America.

I haven’t removed the boxwoods from the parsonage from the parsonage yet (it’s in the long-term landscaping plan). We may use them again this year. We may use the (also invasive) honeysuckle, early to leaf, instead. Our most seasonable option in this part of the Midwest is probably using dry, bleached winter prairie grasses. It’s a work in progress, but our palms are becoming more sustainable and more connected to our own lives and livelihoods. You can’t get more eco-friendly palms than from the tree behind the church building.

The palms, like the bread served at communion, are a metaphor for a spiritual moment. We don’t ship our communion bread from Guatemala; why would we import our palms? Across North America, there are many local substitutes for palms. And of course, there’s always the option to just lay our coats down for the Messiah and his donkey to walk on, as they come in to our midst.

‘Get Out’ as Apocalypse Story

Director/writer Jordan Peele calls his film Get Out a “social thriller,” and if you’re like me, your newsfeed has been saturated with tasteful Vaguebooking about the film. But Get Out can be described, with equal accuracy and without spoilers, as a “contemporary apocalypse.” Apocalypse has become Hollywood shorthand for the highest possible stakes of an action sequence–any film that uses the destruction of all human life as a plot device. But in the traditional sense, apocalypse represents an entirely different genre of literature.

Classical apocalypse has less to do with annihilation than regime change. The Greek word apokalypsis means revelation, or uncovering. it’s a genre of literature–much like horror.

Get Out 3

I was terrified at “meet my parents.”

Get Out is a social thriller in the sense that it uses social evil (racism) to heighten an otherwise traditional horror film. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t spend 15 minutes with my hands over my eyes (but I only see four movies a year and have a low tolerance for visual violence so don’t listen to my definition of scary). A black man accompanies his white girlfriend’s family in the suburbs (a terrifying enough premise on its own), and everything you know (and don’t know) about horror film ensues. I’m not a fan of spoilers, though, so what follows is fairly obtuse on plot details.

Get Out is apocalyptic the same way that Revelation–and other books of the Bible–are social thrillers. The plot hinges on a systemic oppression, laden with specific and symbolic details, reaching a low point and with the hope that a protagonist can interrupt the systemic oppression, regardless of personal cost or total efficacy.

In a sense, apocalypse is a Quentin Tarantino-esque fantasy about future or past envision the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor, resulting in the total collapse of the oppressor’s social structure. This is where our contemporary view of apocalypse comes from: the collapse of the oppressor’s social structure and all the fear that comes with losing the social order. Continue reading

The Beatitudes are Like Yogurt

[This is adapted from a sermon I preached Jan. 29]

There is an awful lot that needs to be said about Donald Trump, but I don’t want to begin there. I want to approach American politics via Jesus. And yogurt. So I begin with the Beatitudes. Many Christians think of the Beatitudes as “the New Testament Ten Commandments,” but I prefer to think of them more like “yogurt.” The Ten Commandments are, as it happens, commands. What the Beatitudes and yogurt have in common is that they are both not commands. Continue reading

Advent is Not for the Hopeful, it is for the Tenacious

This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached Dec. 4. Find the full text here.

This Advent, I’ve heard many Christians saying how excited they are for the season of hope and comfort. After the stress of the election and the beating 2016 has given us, they ask to avoid the dark things and focus on the hope.

When I hear this, I wonder if these Christians are really want comfort or if they want stability. If they are asking to hear peace, peace when there is no peace. I wonder if these Christians are searching not for hope, but for the opiate of the masses. When spoken by the privileged, pleas of hope can sound like pleas for ignorant bliss. Let’s speak of hope, they say, because we have the luxury of choosing when we have to confront oppression.

When the people asking for hope live in middle- and upper-class comfort, it sounds like they are asking for permission to bury their heads in the sand. Continue reading

Shawn Mendes, Mercy, and Emotional Labor

I keep a shortlist of words that are used only in church: grace, atonement, sanctification, mercy. My conviction is that they won’t make any sense, theologically, to the average Christian until these words find a place in the day-to-day of our secular lives.

Shawn Mendes’ “Mercy” caught my hopeful attention, his soulful repetition of the word becoming almost prayerful. Which would be great, if Mendes was actually having a conversation with God about the girl in question, a la Beyonce on “Sorry“: “I pray to the Lord you reveal what his truth is.” Beyonce (along with Warsan Shire’s poetry) uses the divine, like a close friend, as a dialogue partner to orient her to her next move in her relationship.

Mendes uses distorted-divine language to deify his love and assign her total power over his body, relinquishing his claim to autonomy and responsibility for his own moral compass. We’ve never seen that one before, have we, Hozier?

In about three listens, I moved from hopeful about “Mercy” to skin-crawlingly creeped out. Of course this song comes from the same imagination who sings, “I know I can treat you better than he can/and any girl like you deserves a gentleman.” I think what I deserve is a little less patronizing tone and a little more trust in my own decision-making capacity. The theological importance of mercy comes from its relationship to power. Mercy can only be bestowed by the powerful. Mercy means receiving a moment of breathing room from someone who has the power to crush you entirely. Mercy means benevolence. Continue reading

What’s the Difference between a Safety Pin and a Bonnet?

The safety pins came and went quicker than the ice bucket challenge, and were laughed off the internet stage with vitriol usually reserved for, well… Donald Trump. On Sunday morning, I saw several safety pins at church. On Sunday afternoon, my newsfeed was filled with enthusiastic condemnation of the same.

Most of my queer, trans, nonwhite friends have been vocal and insultingly bitter about safety pins. They’ve also been witty and angry. I know their response was too aggressive for the mainstream moderate (at times, abrasive to me), but I can’t help but admire them. They’re my friends, after all, I feel where their pain comes from. I admire their focused anger, all their anger, how can I fault anyone for their anger at the triumph of sociopathy, racism, et. al, you know the list by now? Let us have our anger, in social networks and in the streets, in safe and democratic and uncomfortable ways. Perhaps the source of their anger, in part, is years of being told to “be less angry” by the same people who voted for Trump. Continue reading

What Changed on Tuesday was my Body

“We have to work harder,” I exhaled, clinging to my friend as I prepared to leave her apartment Tuesday night, the electoral count at 209-238. “Our friends are going to need us.”

“I know,” she said, “I know.”

I have a theological rationalization, a coping strategy, whatever you call it, and at most moments during daylight with friends I can insist we’ll get through four years of Trump with our uteruses in tact. That many people felt this way in 2008, and political reconciliation, and rational optimism. But it’s dishonest to say that’s what occupied my mind. I spent the day home sick (a metaphor of almost Ezekiel proportions), responding and sending a stream of texts to friends in different cities, as if checking their safety after an earthquake or flood. As I moved and tried to move on through Wednesday, I quietly made a list: not policy changes, although there were those, too. The changes my own body would make to compensate for what I know now about the country I live in. The most personal changes. Continue reading