Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

No Palms for Palm Sunday?
distributed 3/317 - ©2017

We're only three days into the season of Lent, but I am running late in writing about Palm Sunday.

The way churches do the palm part of that day of celebration has some important environmental and social justice impacts. Ordering "EcoPalms" prevents rainforest destruction and provides important jobs. (The ordering deadline for 2017 is March 18)

The choices that we make about palms also provide a good model for how to live responsibly in our complicated and overloaded world. If we do palms well, we might be encouraged to make lots of other decisions that are creatively ethical.

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On the first Palm Sunday, as Jesus was entering Jerusalem, people waved palm branches because there were palm trees growing there. It was an easy way to join the celebration.

The Christian church has carried on the tradition of waving palms, but for many of us getting those fronds for our spring ritual involves far-away rain forests and international trade -- a lot of international trade.

In 1998, over 300 million palm fronds were sold in the United States. I'm not sure if all of those were for Palm Sunday, but a good-sized church might use 700 branches for their 3 minutes of symbolic waving. Churches spend up to $4.5 million dollars a year buying palms for Holy Week. Wow.

Unfortunately, many of those palm purchases involve eco-justice catastrophes.

Under the conventional market systems, controlled by huge floral wholesalers, those branches are harvested in Mexico and Central America. A contract system with low-paid local workers bases compensation on the volume of palm branches that they cut. The economic incentive is to cut lots of branches, stripping trees beyond a sustainable level, and cutting low-quality branches so that almost half of them are discarded. It is wasteful and damages the rain forest, and the short-term workers are not treated well.

When we're aware of the damage involved in their production, those are not the sort of branches that we want to wave as a tribute to the Prince of Peace.

The EcoPalm project tries to turn an eco-justice disaster toward positive environmental and economic outcomes. Operating in central Guatemala, only good-quality branches are cut, and only at a level that can be sustained by the forest. Indeed, that type of careful harvesting actually can improve the health of the palm forest. The workers are paid a decent wage for their labor, and the sorting and processing of the palms happens in the same communities, spreading the work to more people and over a longer period.

If your congregation buys palm branches for this annual celebration, I strongly encourage you to purchase them through EcoPalms. (Order soon!) Then, make a point of educating the congregation about the choices you've made to care for all of God's creation -- the plants, the forest, and the people.

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If you are going to buy palms, get EcoPalms. But think about not buying palms at all.

Is it really responsible to ship vast quantities of perishable greenery thousands of miles, so that church goers can wave a small branch during the processional hymn? To me, that seems to be a very questionable use of fossil fuels and carbon emissions, even if they are sustainably harvested.

The church where I am a member made a different choice a decade ago when our eyes were opened to the eco-justice implications of the palms. We used to get large bundles of the unsustainably-cut palms from a local florist. Now, we buy just a very few eco-palm fronds for display, and to burn for next year's Ash Wednesday. Members of the church are offered green ribbons tacked to a small stick, instead of tropical greenery.

Waving the ribbons gets us into the historical spirit of the celebration. Remembering why we're using these home-made palm substitutes also brings us into a spirit of resistance against the wasteful consumption of resources. (As a side benefit, we save a lot of money by re-using the ribbons every year.)

EcoPalms help a church make the fairly conventional environmental decision. How can I do what I am used to doing in the most responsible way? We need palms for Palm Sunday, so how can we buy fair trade ones?

The option of ribbons takes us to a different kind of question. What is the purpose of the palms, and how can we accomplish that with the most responsible impacts? That's an extended kind of question that we all need to be asking far more often, with many personal and social choices.

Many of the messages that we get about being environmentally responsible tell us to get the functionally equivalent "green alternative" -- the product that is fair trade, or most energy efficient, or organically raised. As we face the reality of a highly stressed ecosphere, a planet burdened by too many people with excessive demands, we also need to consider more dramatic substitutions. Ribbons instead of palms, a mug of hot water instead of coffee, tofu and beans instead of meat, the bus instead of a car, an open window instead of air conditioning.

At a time when "making America great again" seems to depend on using more fossil fuels and consuming more stuff, these choices about faithful responsibility are counter cultural. That's probably what faithful Christianity should be, most of the time.

The 40 days of Lent are a season for reflection and confession. May we dig deeply during this season to see how our actions and decisions tie us to the global web of life. And may we be creative in imagining new ways of living that a lighter on the planet, and at the same time are more joyfully intentional.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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