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

This is the sixth and final installment 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, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.

While Paul’s political thought countered the systems and structures of Rome through the subversive re-appropriation of imperial language and the insurrectionary ekklesia, the book of Revelation offers a direct critique of Rome’ exploitative excesses in politics, economics, and ecology (Rev. 13 & 17). “The Book of Revelation,” explains John Dominic Crossan, “is, first of all, a linked and interwoven attack on the empire of Rome, the city of Rome, and the emperor of Rome” (218). Revelation as an eco-political critique of imperial ideology may seem to be a strange assertion, especially given the enigmatic and highly symbolic orientation of the book. The reputation that Revelation has garnered as a text most predominately concerned the apocalyptic end of the world has become deeply ingrained in modern culture and society. Yet, it must be clearly understood that the Greek word apocalypsis, from which the word apocalypse is derived, translates to quite literally mean a ‘revelation’ (i.e The Book of Revelation), “a lifting of the veil,” according to Robert Jensen, “a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity” (Jensen). Similarly, David J. Hawkin writes that Revelation is “about ‘revealing’ the true state of affairs about the present,” unmasking “those unconscious motives which bind a society to its cultural aspirations and theoretical arguments” (163). Revelation, then, is most accurately understood not as a prediction of the end but rather, an unmasking of the social realities of the present time and context in which it was written.

As an agrarian empire and a military superpower, Rome was not only exceedingly exploitative to people but also, equally abusive to nature and the environment. Richard Horsley highlights that when Rome conquered an area “Roman armies devastated the countryside, destroyed villages, slaughtered or enslaved the people, and crucified those who resisted” (31). In many cases, Roman legions would salt the fields of conquered territories to deliberately insure that “nothing would grow there again” (Hawkin, 170). Even when not at war Rome was environmentally destructive in its endeavors. John Dominic Crossan points out that the Roman built roads perfectly “expressed the Roman outlook on the world,” as the roads “did not meander along the contours of geography, but…cut across…natural obstacles” (187). Literally, anything that stood within the way of Roman expansion, including nature, was forced into submission through the expression of brutal might.

Even Roman commerce and industry were thoroughly unsustainable. Rome consumed agricultural commodities and natural resources as greedily as it conquered territories and expanded its borders (Rev. 18:12-13). David J. Hawkin notes that “Countless species of animals were wiped out” due to Rome’s prolific consumption of animal derived luxury items such as Ivory, pelts, skins, and feathers, as well as the vast amounts of animals slaughtered only for the purposes of entertainment in sport hunts and in amphitheater fights (170). Likewise, given that the primary Roman means for fueling its operations was wood, Rome would often deforest its conquered territories (Hawkin, 169). As Hawkin depicts, “Whole forests disappeared…large areas were devastated by mining, the air was polluted and the water made unsafe for drinking” (170). Donald Hughes concurs; pointing out that Rome “inflicted scars on the landscape that can still be seen, from the quarries of Pentelicus to the mining pits of Spain” (112).  Revelation is, then, rife with symbols and references to Rome and its ecologically destructive practices.

Revelation’s descriptions of the Four Horseman are clear references to Rome. The white horse, the rider to whom “a crown was given” and who “went forth conquering,” (Rev. 6:2) represents, what would seem to be, the impermeable and insatiable power of Rome (Hawkin, 164). The red horse whose rider had been “given a great sword” and who took “peace from the earth” (Rev. 6:4) alludes to the Pax Romana (Hawkin, 164), that is, ‘peace’ achieved through brutal militaristic conquest. The black horse rider held “a pair of balances in his hand” (Rev. 6:5), an image indicative of Rome’s immense wealth disparity and economic imbalance (Hawkin, 164-165). Finally, the pale horse whose rider had been given power “over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Rev. 6:8) is the “ecological catastrophe” brought about through the mismanagement and exploitative practices of the Roman Empire (Hawkin, 165). The writer of Revelation makes clear that famine, war, and death are all consequences of the misappropriation of Roman conquest.

Yet, the critique of Rome within the Book of Revelation is at its most critical, political, and ecological within the alternative it offers to Rome; New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). The New Jerusalem is the structural negation of Rome. One could propose that New Jerusalem is the ‘new creation’ eschatology of Jesus and Paul capitulated into state form. Barbara Rossing writes that “New Jerusalem is the antithesis of toxic…Rome’s imperialism, violence, unfettered commerce, and in justice” (144). The New Jerusalem arrives when “the old order of things has passed away” and all things are made new (Rev. 21:3-4). Among other things, in the New Jerusalem the corrupt and oppressive temple, loyal to Rome, has been done away with (Rev 21:22-27). In culmination of the eschatological ecology, Revelation harkens back to Genesis, describing the New Jerusalem as the complete restoration of Eden (Rev. 22:1-5). The “river of the water of life,” runs through the middle of the city, and unlike the polluted waters of the empire this river is clean, pure, and “clear as crystal” (Rev. 22:1-2). To either side of the river are trees bearing a multitude of plentiful fruit, always ripe and ready for harvest (Rev. 22:2). Both the water and the fruit are freely given to all who come (Rev. 22:17). Thus, David J. Hawkin concludes that the book of Revelation sees the redemption of human beings and the redemption of nature as inextricably linked” (163). Revelation is, then, the New Testament eco-political-critique of Empire at its most symbolic.

In the wilderness scenes of the Gospels one can see the initiation of a ‘new creation’ eschatological ecology. In Paul one can find a re-appropriation of Roman political language that subverts the normative structures of imperial application. In Paul one also witnesses the formation of socio-political collectives and assemblies (ekklesia) aimed at embodying the politics of the ‘new creation’ ecological eschatology through communal reciprocity. Finally, in Revelation one finds a direct, and highly symbolic, assault on the ideology of the Roman Empire with its political, economic, and ecological exploitation. Throughout the examination of the New Testament, particularly focusing in upon the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the Book of Revelation, thematic threads of its political and ecological impetus have been made explicit, demonstrating through the anthropological, sociological, and ecological analysis of its context that the primary focus of the New Testament is as a first-century socio-political treatise critiquing the oppressive economics and ecology of Rome.


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).