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

This is the fifth 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, and the fourth here.

Ekklesia, as John Dominic Crossan makes clear, is “the standard Pauline term for a Christian community” (165). Modern interpreters of the Bible have normally translated ekklesia as ‘church’ (Crossan, 165). However, translating ‘church’ from ekklesia is not only conceptually anachronistic, it is also a less than accurate description of what ekklesia meant in the first-century Greco-Roman world and what Paul, himself, had in mind. An ekklesia was not primarily a religious community, nor was its predominant focus of religious orientation. Ekklesia is yet another profoundly political term. “[T]he ekklsiaaterion,” Crossan continues, is “where the entire adult male citizenry joined in an assembly” (47). Thus, ekklesia, Crossan elaborates, “originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions” (165). An ekklesia was a “democratic deliberative body,” the collective assembly of a Greek city’s free-male citizens organized around political governance rather than religiosity (47). Yet, in Paul’s continued subversion of Roman imperial polity, the ekklesia created by Paul were representative of a political radicality. The ekklesia Paul championed were more radically democratic and radically egalitarian. In the Pauline ekklesia there was “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). In other words, the ekklesia of Christ followers severed all class divisions and antagonisms, offering a radical equality that broke down all barriers within the social (male/female), the political (slave/free), and the religious (Jew/Greek).

Paul seems to have understood that “Cities are…ecological entities, which have their own unique internal rules of behavior, growth, and evolution” and that “Like other ecosystems, cities are not the sum of their constituents” but are instead, “key examples of ermergent phenomena, in which each component contributes to but does not control the form and behavior of the whole” (Alberti et al. 1170). Thus, Paul’s goal, Warren Carter writes, was to create “rival assemblies,” rival ‘cities’, or rival ekklesia (92). Paul’s aim was to create politically orientated collectives that sought to communally embody the eco-political eschatology presented in the figure of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The Pauline ekklesia were not beholden to Roman ‘law’, or imperial politics but, were faithful to charis (“grace”/generosity/hospitality/charity/forgiveness/love), that is, the reciprocal sharing of communal resources in a sustainable and egalitarian manner (Rom. 6:14). The ‘Christian’ ekklesia functioned as, what Hakim Bey might call Temporary Autonomous Zones, or “islands in the net” (81). The ‘Christocentric’ ekklesia of Paul were seditiously defiant to the social relations and power structures of Rome, and could be likened to what Bey describes as “a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination)” (70). Ekklesia, in this regard, were, then, autonomous, self-governing socio-political collectives forming in spaces at the fringes and margins of culture, and within the crevices, cracks, and fissures of the Empire. As such, the Pauline ekklesia were non-hierarchical, non-authortarian, communities in opposition to the formalized systems of imperial control, who offered alternative methods of eco- politico-economic engagement.

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Ecology of the Incarnation: A/theology, Ecocriticism, and the Gospel

A few months ago was involved in a discussion in which I was being asked to explain my commitment to veganism/vegetarianism. Throughout the course of the conversation I focused primarily upon ecology but, peppered my dialogue with religious, or more specifically Christian symbols, rhetoric, and language. Although, I did my my undergrad in Religious Studies, I am something of an outspoken atheist/non-theist/post-theist, a fact my conversation partner was all too aware. Needless to say my extended reliance of ‘Gospel’ language struck my associate as odd and questioned the intentionality of it use in our dialogue. Below is a bit of my explanation and response. I welcome your thoughts. Enjoy!
My use of gospel language is both intentional and habitual. This is indicative of my background and my residual framework. It still is something of a lense through a view things. But, there is something else going on that is intended. I remain sympathetic to not only the gospel language but, the impetus of what I believe the gospel tradition to be. Ecology, has, for me, allowed for a methodological bridge to discursively and dialogically reconcile my Atheism and my latent Christianity into something of a reflexive union. It provides me ethical practices but, it also opens the door for my atheistic ethicality, rooted in philosophic materialism (i.e. reality comprised of matter and energy), to have an enriched significance through an ecological or ecocritical partnership with Christian symbols.
For example, the incarnation, the idea that God became man, the Word became flesh, is the utter embodiment of God. This is the most philosophically materialistic of any of Christianity’s theological concepts or ideas, as its operative significance is wholly hinged upon divinity merging completely and bodily with ‘earthenness’. Here, God becomes indistinguishable from ‘creation’ and is kenotically self-emptied into the world and into matter. The ousia specific and essential to the incarnation “is not only specifically human, it is also creaturely” (10, *my emphasis added). This is because, as Sallie McFague makes clear, “the model of the body includes all life-forms, indeed, all matter on our planet,” and thus, the “body is a model that links us with everything in the most intimate way” (17). Thus, the modus operandi of the incarnation is not ‘God’ become ‘man’, this would be a diminution of the radical and revolutionary potentiality of the incarnation as its severely limits its scope.  Instead it is God become ‘creaturely’. The incarnation is ecology. This means that the applicability of the concepts and ‘ideas’ of incarnation, redemption, even resurrection do not and cannot stop at the door of the human. It does and must extend down to literally everything ‘earthen’. The orphan, the widow, and the stranger is synonymous with the sow, the calf, and the hen, the land, the water, and the air, dispossessed and disenfranchised. Who are ‘the least of these’ equated as the disguised ‘Christ’ anything and everything in need, ravaged by the wiles of empire, and voicelessly defenseless;  the ground hungry and needing something to eat, thirsty and needing something to drink; the environment itself as a stranger, or what Timothy Morton aptly calls “strange strangers”, needing to be invited in; the land stripped naked and yearning to be clothed; species in prison and sick needing to be visited. Who is my neighbor? All of the above and more.
Here, I’m trying to extend the circle of care and concern wider than simply our own species, realizing that the human/non-human/animal dichotomy is a false binary. Here, I’ve often quipped that I am religious but not spiritual. Although this is stated with a bit of sarcasm it is quite evocative of my position, I am devout, not in the way of a commitment religious institutions, dogma, or doctrine, but in the way of being devoted to the rigorous routinization of  ‘ritualized observances’ (terms used loosely) of moral and ethical praxis. This to me is essential to any and all philosophies, how is it lived out? Where, when, how, and what does it look like with boots on the ground, and carried through to their fullest conclusions? If it doesn’t translate into practical application and the alteration of one’s engagement with what Husserl referred to as the “life-world” I greatly question its validity and usefulness.
Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Print.

McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Print.