Last Fall, I spent ten intensive days studying permaculture with Chris Grataski–a theologically astute, justice driven, ecological designer. Sitting with a group of students around folding tables in a cramped upstairs classroom in my church, we had our minds opened to a whole new way of thinking about life and human relationships with the whole of creation. Chris offered many definitions of permaculture, but the most robust, if my notes serve me, was this: “Permaculture is a principled design discipline concerned with the cultivation of high-biodiversity human habitats where the needs and desires of the human community are met through serving the needs and desires of the non-human community.”
Chris went on to reflect theologically about the nature of the permaculture design philosophy, arguing that it is essentially kenotic, and more that, there is an underlying kenotic nature to the whole of creation. If we seek to serve our own ends, we end up with a world that is depleted and diminished; if we seek to make room for the life of others, for their own flourishing, then we will join in wholeness that is also health–our own humanity will come into its fullness.
I thought about Chris’s teachings and the permaculture design philosophy, as I began to explore the scriptures for this Palm Sunday. It is a strange Sunday for many of us, mixing two liturgical traditions into one. We have the “Liturgy of the Palms” with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem in celebration of Palm Sunday. Then, by the end of the service, we’ve moved to Christ’s passion in advance of Good Friday. How do we make sense of the whiplash of this Sunday? How do we preach at the intersection of Jesus the god/king come to set the world right and Jesus the suffering human who feels all of the abandonment and alienation of human life? The inclusion of the kenosis hymn of Philippians in the Revised Common Lectionary is a gift that provides us with a key for understanding.
I’ve found Sarah Coakley’s essay “Kenosis and Subversion,” to a be a great help in discerning the meaning of the kenotic act of Christ. In answering the objections of some feminist critics of the idea of self-emptying, Coakley agrees that there are parts of the tradition that “insidiously fuel masculinist purposes, masculinist vision of the subduing of the weaker by the stronger.” She means here particular ways in which early theologians understood the relationship of Christ’s divinity to Christ’s humanity.
To return to our agricultural metaphors, this idea reflects the practice of industrial agriculture. In industrial agriculture, the landscape is simply a place to play out human vision. Marshes are drained, creeks rerouted, rivers damned, hills made plane. It is human vision and mind that forms the earth, shaping and crafting it to human ends.
This is not unlike the view of Christ’s nature that “teetered towards the ‘docetic’” in Coakley’s reading; a view that saw Christ’s humanity as a thing more of appearance than actual weakness or limit, a view that saw his Passion as something more pretended than actual. It is as though the human body Christ occupied were simply a tool for a very present divine puppetry not unlike the landscape simply being a tool for industrial agriculture’s mix of chemicals and engineered seeds.
This dominating strain is also in view, I think, in the celebrations of the people during Jesus’s triumphal entry. While Jesus rode into Jerusalem as a deliberate sign of the servant king he is, it seems that some of the people saw him instead as a conquering warrior god/king who would vanquish the agents of oppression through violence. That Jesus failed to live into this vision offers much for our understanding of the whiplash that comes with the quick move to Christ’s Passion.
In the Passion we see the fullness of Christ’s kenotic form of life, the most poignant expression of his vulnerability. Though he could obviously have saved himself as voices from the crowd call for him to do, Jesus refuses the control and power of such an action, choosing instead to live into the full fragility of human life, even the suffering that brought ultimate alienation. In doing so, Jesus opened for us the possibility of new life, that our own minds might be as Christ’s own.
A permaculture garden, or farm, is a place of diversity, attention, and care. It is a place of continual work and astonishment that embraces the power of vulnerability. It is also a place of patience, which seems to be a common trait of all non-coercive paths. But when it begins to work, when the relationships of plants and animals, water and soil, that have been carefully cultivated begin to live into their flourishing, it is a far more resilient ecosystem than anything industrial agriculture could imagine.
In the kenotic path of Christ, we see such a path of resilience and more than resilience. In Christ’s powerful vulnerability the possibility of resurrection is opened for us all as we follow the one whose name is above all others, before whom every knee shall bow, not because of his violent victory, but because of his self-emptying vulnerability.