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

This is the fourth in a series of exerts from a paper I wrote which attempts to offer a reading of several New Testament texts as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire. You can find the first here, the second here, and the third here.

If Jesus is responsible for founding the social movement that would eventually become Christianity then, Paul is responsible for its systematization. Whereas Jesus could be likened to being a revolutionary activist, Paul could be said to be more of a political philosopher. Theodore Jennings suggests that “Paul may be read as developing a messianic politics that stands in contrast to the political order of Rome (1). Jennings bases this proposal upon the fact that “Paul is concerned with the most basic issues of political thinking” (3). As a result, Paul’s language is emphatically and explicitly political, especially in reference to Jesus. Rather than down-play the execution of Jesus by crucifixion, Paul emphasizes it, making it his mission to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). Crucifixion was a dramatically threatening and intimidating means of coercively establishing social and political control, preserving and maintaining Roman hierarchical aristocracy and elitist dominance (Carter, 135 & 139). To be crucified was a fate bespoke to brigands and set aside for “rebels…and others that threatened the Roman order” (Carter, 135).  Crucifixion, then, was a publically performative event that perfectly enacted and encapsulated the politics of Empire. Thus, as Carter proposes, “To proclaim ‘Christ crucified’ as Paul did was to announce a politically threatening message” (135). Yet, if this were not enough Paul pushes the political negation of imperial sovereignty further. Paul constantly refers to Jesus with titles such as Lord, Savior, and Son of God. These titles are not religious in nature but, extremely political. Even in the political usage, Lord, Savior, and Son of God were not used or applied ‘generally’ but, had very specific imperial applications. John Dominic Crossan explains that titles and descriptions such as Divine, Lord, Son of God, Savior, and Redeemer were not “ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, or even extraordinary titles applied to special people in the East,” these phrases belonged specifically to Caesar (28). In other words, Crossan continues, Paul and the early Christ followers “were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant,” which was nothing short of “what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason” (28). Crossan elaborates elsewhere stating that “to proclaim Jesus as Son of God was deliberately denying Caesar his highest title and that to announce Jesus as Lord and Savior was calculated treason” (11). By applying the authoritative titles of the Empire to one crucified by the Roman state, Paul systematically subverts the very institutional hierarchy of Roman order, denigrating the structures of Rome’s power, dominance, authority, and control.

In all of the Roman political terms Paul uses he subversively reappropriates their meaning, applying them not to Rome or to Caesar but, to the bottom-up eco-political eschatology enacted in the person of Jesus, and Parousia, the word Paul uses to refer to the presence and arrival of Christ(1 Cor. 15:23, 1 Cor. 16:17, 1 Thes. 2:19, 1 Thes. 3:13, 1 Thes. 4:15, 1 Thes. 5:23, 2 Thes. 2:1),  is particularly eschatological in the Pauline appropriation and meaning. Parousia bears with it an air of offciality. As Crossan makes clear, Parousia refers to “the arrival…of a conquering general, an important official, an imperial emissary, or, above all, the emperor himself” (167). Yet, the Parousia, to which Paul refers, is the coming arrival and presence of the messianic age, that is, the initiation of the ‘new creation’ (Gal. 6:15 & 2 Cor. 5:17). The new creation is “a this-earthly or a this-worldly” (Crossan, 134) eschatological transformation of the socio-political and socio-ecological order “in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness” (170). Paul too, like the Markan writer, stresses the all-encompassing totality of the new creation through further connotations of Genesis, paralleling Adam and Jesus. For Paul, what is witnessed in Jesus is representative of a kind of second Adam (Rom. 5:12-21). The Pauline Adamic reference and comparison is extremely significant eschatologically and ecologically, because of its political universality. Theodore Jennings explains that “In Hebrew adam speaks of the earth, the earthling made of earth, of the solidarity of earth and earthling” (131). Here, adam is the full cooperative coexistence and interdependent cohesion of ecology itself. The redemptive and transformative social restructuring of the ‘second’ adam and the consequent new creation is “a redemption of the whole earth,” for all of creation, “and thus to all creatures” (Jennings, 131). The new creation is a universality that is at once an ecological totality.

However, while Jesus focused upon the rural village communities of the countryside, Paul placed his attention upon the capitals cities within the major provinces of the Roman Empire (Crossan, 146). Paul enacted his anti-imperial campaign in the very face of Rome. Thus, Paul was also a first-hand witness to the devastating effects of Roman urbanization. “After military conquest,” writes John Dominic Crossan, “the imperial program was Romanization by urbanization for commercialization” (13). The urbanization process, as carried out by Rome, sought to further the supremacy and dominance of the Empire through the establishment of a globalized “monoculture” (Crossan, 185). In the effort to urbanize, globalize, and commercialize, Rome sought “to subdue topography and dominate nature” (187). As a result, urban provincials and other exploited city-dwellers of lower class and status were subjected to the wiles of Rome’s urbanizing globalization. Warren Carter concurs stating that “Urban life for nonelites” was racked by “floods, fires, food shortages, contaminated water, infectious diseases, human and animal waste, ethnic tensions, and irregular work” (11). The urban environment was harsh and unforgiving. Paul could see “environmental inequalities as products or at least reflections of social power relations” (Holifield, 641). The commercialized consumption that fueled the Roman Empire’s campaign for global urbanization produced a tyrannical subjugation, politically, economically, and ecologically. “Paul’s essential challenge,” then, Crossan concludes, “is how to embody that radical vision of new creation,” especially within an urban context (xi). Paul’s question was how to be in the world but, not of it, how to not “conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2), how to collectively enact a political eschatology that is simultaneously an Urban Political Ecology? Paul’s answer was the ekklesia (ecclesia or ekklsia).

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3 responses to “Occupy Rome: Politics, Ecology, and the New Testament Critique of Empire Part IV

  1. Pingback: Occupy Rome: Politics, Ecology, and the New Testament Critique of Empire Part V | The Alchemist's Imagination

  2. Pingback: Occupy Rome: Politics, Ecology, and the New Testament Critique of Empire Part VI | The Alchemist's Imagination

  3. Pingback: Occupy Rome: A Bibliography | The Alchemist's Imagination

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