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

Screen shot 2017-03-23 at 5.16.34 PM

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.

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11 thoughts on “No More Palms, Please

  1. Well, there are numerous theological reasons to take “palm” literally.

    1) John 12:13 states so ( βαΐα τῶν φοινίκων, ramos palmarum). KJV also uses this accurate translation: “Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” “Klados” is used elsewhere, but John tells us palm branches were used at this event.

    2) The palm is a symbol of victory in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which therefore expresses the “triumphant entry” of Jesus into the City of God, not on a war horse or chariot but humbly on a donkey. This event parallels and fulfills the entry into Jerusalem of Jehu as King of Israel in 2 Kings 9.

    3) The palm is expressive of the victory of the saints (καὶ φοίνικες ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτῶν·, et palmæ in manibus eorum) in Rev 7:9

    4) The palm in the OT is an emblem of rejoicing at the beginning of the Sabbath in Lev 23:40 (φοινίκων, palmarum). So as Jesus enters the City, the palm symbols the fulfillment of the Feast of Booths, completing the memorial act of Moses and the Tribes in desert living in tents, and signaling the New Sabbath week culminating in the Pascha and Resurrection.

    5) The palm recalls the ornament of the Temple (1 King 6;29), and the Shekinah and the temple sacrifice are fulfilled in Jesus.

    Now you might have some extraneous, environmentally minded, economic, or other business reasons to not use palms. But this is quite different from saying that the palm has no theological, symbolic reason when it clearly does.

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    • Thanks for that background. I agree with you, to the extent that that makes a very strong case to take the palms’ theological meaninng seriously; but I believe we can take the palms’ theological meaning seriously without taking it literally. Can you imagine how the pilgrims might have celebrated Palm Sunday when they first arrived in New England? Throughout Christian history, we’ve made the most appropriate symbolic exchange when we don’t have access to the thing itself. Just because modern shipping practices has made it possible for us to have palms fresh and literally doesn’t mean that we have a theological mandate to do so. I don’t think care for the environment is at all extraneous to core Christian convictions.

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      • Pilgrims did not celebrate holidays or holy days. So there was no tree cutting for that reason. If you meant pilgrims as in travelers i.e. early European settlers but the same can be said of those peoples as well as most were Calvinists in belief and many believe that church “services” if not the church building itself were unnecessary. I know you may have just been saying that these people might just make do but, in fact, they would not use anything at all for this celebration but the Bible and each others good thoughts. Historical note: Most settlers in the American Mid-Atlantic and New England were Calvinists, including the English Puritans, the French Huguenots and Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York), and the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of the Appalachian back country. Nonconforming Protestants, Puritans, Separatists, Independents, English religious groups coming out of the English Civil War, and other English dissenters not satisfied with the degree to which the Church of England had been reformed, held overwhelmingly Reformed views. They are often cited among the primary founders of the United States of America. And Reformed meant things like vestments, “celebratory” means–such as stained glass to things like holy water, incense and palms. They sought “purity” (i.e Puritans) through word and action but particularly though discipline. The Pilgrims (actually different from the Puritans but still dissenters) didn’t even hold with having a church building but rather a place of congregation (i.e. they were Congregationalists or the beginnings of such). Sorry to rant on. The idea of not getting palms from Central America is perfectly fine as a method to preserve or at least pressure the palm growers there. On the religious side, many,many Christian communities do not use palms at all; they are a traditional symbol that can be replaced or even done without. My rant is due to being a historian, and this being a side of US history always presented incorrectly. 🙂

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  2. I guess I never thought about it, but this is a big deal on the east coast. Here in California, those who cannot find a neighbor with a palm tree can often just get them from the local Parks Departments. Most know that they can get rid of had to mulch palm branches if they time the trimming to be a few weeks before Easter.

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    • My congregation is still working out a system for this. Last year, we held an Easter Sunrise Service with a fire pit (outside, in front of the church building), and read about Peter’s betrayal of Jesus as well as the women arriving at the empty tomb. At one point in the service, people were invited to throw the branches from the previous week into the fire. The branches were not as dry as one might hope, but it worked well. We haven’t decided yet whether we’ll do it the same way this year.

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  3. I’m really glad for this piece for multiple reasons. I welcome the freedom to think outside the box of the way we’ve always done things. I affirm the environmental concerns which are well thought out, argued, and relevant.

    I’m also noting the theological hole where the significance of the things we use in worship gets discussed and thought about. For example, a parallel inquiry might be around wine and what type of bread we use for communion. Does it have to be wine? Well, no it can be grape juice, But why? Where are the limits? Can it be kool aid? Cola? Sweet tea? And as to bread is it leavened or unleavened, with or without gluten. Should baptism happen indoors or outdoors? In an artificial context or in an actual living body of water?

    I’m not sure what theological markers would help us discuss such things.

    That leaves me with noting that there is an ongoing conversation that needs to keep happening here around palms for Palm Sunday and much else.

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  4. Reblogged this on Reluctant Mysticism and commented:
    Spiritual practice isn’t practice if it isn’t practical on some level. Insisting on one faith emblem for traditional rationale at the expense of the quality of living of others renders my own spiritual discipline as oppressive. Some very good food for thought…

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