Occupy Rome: Politics, Ecology, and the New Testament Critique of Empire Part I

I apologize for such an elongated lapse of time since I have last posted. I must admit that I have found myself exceptionally frustrated and despondent with blogging due to the predominating lack of response to my contributions to this site. Often, posting feels like an exercise in futility. However, there remains something personally cathartic in the mere act of releasing something I have thought about, researched, and written about into the ‘world’ even if it is not read or interacted with by others. With that being said, below you will find the introduction from a paper written for one of my previous Graduate courses. The paper itself is a rather large document so I will be posting portions of it over the next several days to make it more easily digestible. Enjoy.

In the present social context of modernity, culture is, quite possibly, at its most Cartesian. The sociological realm continues to grow increasing dualistic. Cultural concepts are looked at dichotomously and thought through vacuously. Perhaps, nowhere is this seen more clearly then in religion and politics. Yet, when considering the New Testament and especially the environment in which it emerged, such a division between religion and politics within the world of the New Testament authors and their audience is an anachronistic separation. Religion and politics, within this first-century era, were inseparably enmeshed and intertwined. One of the many ways Rome promoted and solidified its ideological rule was through the ritualized proclamations of the imperial cult. Through the social inundation of civic religion Rome propagated its political agenda, offering a kind of political-theology. Even the Jerusalem temple and its priestly officials and authorities functioned as sanctioned upholders of Roman socio-economic polity, especially in the collection of rents, debts, and taxes. Rome was an invariably ever-present reality within the culture and context of the Near East and the Mediterranean. Therefore, every aspect of daily life held political and economic implications, as did every interaction and engagement with Rome. As such, the presentation of the New Testament as a depoliticized or apolitical text disengaged from the socio-politico-economic structures of the Roman Empire is erroneously parachronic. Thus, through the use of exegetical New Testament scholarship, socio-historical surveys, anthropological investigations, sociological analyses, and even ecological examinations, this paper intends to subvert anachronistic depoliticized and apolitical interpretations of the New Testament, and instead initiate a radical re-reading of the text. The goal of this ‘re-reading,’ however, is not to demonstrate how the New Testament can be read in a political way but, to show that the New Testament at its very core is always-already political, and is also always-already  ecological. Given the social realities of the New Testament context, (i.e. hierarchical Roman aristocracy, vast power and wealth disparities, and the unsustainable consumption of Rome) the New Testament is best understood as a first-century socio-political critique of the oppressive economic excesses and the exploitative ecological practices of the Roman Empire.

The political nature of the New Testament cannot be over-stated or over-emphasized. The New Testament’s political underpinnings often seem to be expressed in a subtle or implicit manner but, this is largely due to an unclear understanding of the social and cultural context in which it was written. Richard A. Horsley concedes that “religion was inseparable from political-economic life in Roman Palestine” (3). Horsley goes on to say that “Religion as a separate sphere is simply not attested in our sources for the time of Jesus, nor is such a separation evident in the Gospel sources for Jesus” (3). Similarly, Warren Carter states that “in the first-century world, no one pretended religion and politics were separate” (2). In the setting of the New Testament time period, and especially in the case of the Roman Empire, John Dominic Crossan highlights that both religion and politics “are ways of systemically constructing power” (349). Thus, the trajectory of this project is the examination of New Testament political and ecological contextuality. However, due to the limitations and constraints placed upon the space of the project, the analysis is far from exhaustive. While the project does aim to be thorough, the examination is more thematic than holistic, focusing upon key themes, ideas, figures and events within and surrounding the New Testament, rather than the entirety of the text. The intention, then, is to explore thematic strands within the Gospels, the authentic writings of Paul, and the book of Revelation in order to uncover a political and ecological activism deeply embedded within the New Testament.

For instance, the event that could be said to be the thematic impetus of the New Testament and Christianity, itself, is also one of the most politically charged events of the New Testament writings; the crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, theologically speaking, the crucifixion of the historical Jesus was not only the catalyzing moment for the first-century Christ followers; it also remains the most operatively significant theme of modern-day Christianity. Yet, when studied sociologically and anthropologically, the event of crucifixion is unavoidably and undeniably political. Richard A. Horsley makes clear that “Insofar as crucifixion was the form of execution that the Romans used for political agitators in the provinces, Jesus must have been executed because he was at least thought to be a rebel against the Roman Imperial order” (1). Likewise, Warren Carter affirms that “People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system” (x). It is, then, inarguable that Jesus was executed as both a “political actor” (Horsley, 1) and a political dissident. It seems that just as there has been a long tradition of depoliticizing the Bible, so too has the figure of Jesus been depoliticized and presented as an apolitical spiritual/religious leader. Yet, Horlsey plainly states, “a Jesus who was only religious cannot have been historical” (3). Thus, the vision of Jesus as an itinerant ‘preacher’ disengaged from the politics and economics of his context is problematic and inaccurate. To situate the figure of Jesus accurately he must be recast as the leader, or founder, of a politically orientated social movement depicted in the New Testament writings.

Yet, what is to be said of the ecological? If the political orientations of the New Testament often go unnoticed then, that which is most ecological within the text goes unconsidered all the more. With such an oversight in mind, and with the goal of producing the most efficient and effective analysis possible within the brief space allotted to the project, this paper will seek to explore those thematic aspects of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry, Paul’s letters, and Revelation that reflect both a political critique and an ecological concern.


Published by duanetoops

Husband, father, fledgling Buddhist, struggling meditator, writer, and content creator. He has a BA in Religion, has taken the Precepts and Refuge vows in the TsaoTung Chan lineage, and is currently completing an MA in Humanities.

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