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 EcoPalms.org, an ecumenical development program that sells palms to congregations in the United States and Europe.
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.
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.
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.