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

This is the second 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 and the second here.

Obviously recognizing that the conflict “inherent in the fundamental political-economic religious structure” was “between the Romans and their client Herodian and high priestly rulers on the one hand and the ordinary people on the other” (Horsley, 28), and  with the oppressiveness of the elitist aristocracy ever-present within village environs, Jesus’ primary focus was the poor (Matt. 25:34-36, Mark 10:21-22, Mark 12:41-44, Luke 4:16-19, Luke 6:20-21, Luke 11:39-42, Luke 12:16-21, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 16:19-25, etc.). As such, Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is found performatively opposing, scathingly speaking out against, and constantly clashing with the temple and its officials (Matt. 23, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:45-47, etc.). Jesus demands social, economic, and political justice. Jesus denigrates the authority of the temple-state, the client kings, Caesar, and the Roman Empire, itself, because of the exploitative and oppressive practices of inequity. Jesus treasonously calls for “the direct rule of God” (the Kingdom of God) over and against the rule/kingdom of Caesar, he demands adequate sustenance, and commands the “cancellation of debts” (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) (Horsley, 3). In fact, the word used in Greek for ‘kingdom’ (basileia) is also translated as ‘empire’, and was ordinarily the word used for the Roman Empire (i.e. to speak of the ‘Kingdom’ or basileia of Heaven/God is to speak of the Empire of Heaven/God) (Carter, 94). Yet, perhaps, where the Gospels best symbolically illustrate the depth of the political and ecological nature of Jesus’ movement is in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3:13-16, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22) describe a very similar scene as the initiatory moment Jesus’s ministry. The Gospels introduce John the Baptist, who is, himself, an objector to the political-economic structures of the Roman Empire. John, in rejection of the systemic violence of imperial civilization, has withdrawn from society to live in the desert, where he is found ‘preaching,’ openly criticized not only the scribal and pharisaic members of the priestly elite but, also, and especially, the Herodian client king. John has drawn a crowd out into the wilderness to be baptized at the Jordan River. A midst the crowd is Jesus, who has, himself, come into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The imagery of the ‘wilderness’ and the ‘Jordan’ is highly evocative and deeply symbolic, especially in reference to Israel’s past. The wilderness and the Jordan specifically allude to one of Israel’s greatest moments of liberation, the Exodus. Warren Cater notes that both the wilderness and the Jordan are “associated with God’s deliverance of the people from tyranny in Egypt,” a message well-received by a people who are in desperate need of deliverance from the tyrannical oppression of Rome (30). Randall L. Kohls notes that “Israel’s…life as a partner with Yahweh begins in the wilderness, and…it was in the wilderness that Israel was born a nation” (65). Thus, part of what the Gospel writers seem to be suggesting in their depiction of John, Jesus, and the crowd gathering in the wilderness at the Jordan, as Kohls goes on to explain, is the initiation of a brand new Exodus, “the starting point for a new history,” and “a fresh start reminiscent of the deliverance from bondage in Egypt,” that is, the renewal of Israel (68). Yet, what the Gospels depict as transpiring here in the ‘wilderness’ is even more deeply political. John is calling for repentance and offering forgiveness and salvation outside of the temple and without the temple-state officials, negating their hierarchical authority. Given that the high priestly elites, loyally aligned with Rome, profited from the ‘sale’ of forgiveness and salvation via temple taxes, tithes, and the commerce of sacrificial ‘offerings,’ what John is doing is politically subversive. Kohls points out that “by declaring the possibility of forgiveness apart from the temple, John is undermining the system that is functioning in Jerusalem” (69). The Gospel writers seem to be subversively suggesting that salvation is not to be found at the center, “the hub,” the temple, the state, but rather, “at the margins,” in the ‘wilderness’ (Kohls, 69). What is being offered is a radical egalitarian democratization. What is performed in the wilderness at the river Jordan is nothing other than a political protest against the corruption inherent within the temple-state.

Yet, the significance of the ‘wilderness’ is doubled down and is not only political but deeply ecological. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus retreats into the wilderness for forty days, where he encounters trials and temptations (Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). Many exegetes have simply interpreted this vignette of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness as representing little more than a time of preparation and another allusion to the Exodus. However, theologically, symbolically, and especially ecologically, there is far more still to be mined.

In Mark 1:13 the Gospel writer offers a simple four word phrase that may be the key to unlocking and understanding not only the richness of the scene but, perhaps also the entirety of the New Testament’s political-ecological program. The Markan author writes that Jesus was “with the wild animals”. The phrase “with the wild animals” in Greek, ēn meta tōn thēriōn, expresses a filial togetherness, a close kinship, an inter-relationality, a “harmonious coexistence” as M. Eugene Boring makes clear (48). Such a peaceable cohabitation and interdependence between Jesus and the wild animals in the wilderness directly alludes to the mutual interconnectivity found within the Garden of Eden depicted in Genesis, announcing a new beginning, not only a new beginning or renewal of Israel but, the renewal of creation, a whole ‘new creation’ in opposition to the disharmony of imperially oppressed people and “devastated…countryside” (Horsley, 31). Richard Bauckman writes that “Jesus in the wilderness enacts, in an anticipatory way, the peace between the human world and wild nature that is the Bible’s hope for the messianic future” (Bauckman, 76).  In other words, what is being proposed is a radical revamping of society and civilization, a ‘messianic’ call to begin to live into a new political reality of an eco-political eschatology, a kind of ‘utopian’ eschatological expectation of “the righting of all wrongs”, including those done to nature itself (Bauckman, 124). The Gospel writer is illustrating the performative enactment of a realized eschatology within the restructuring of a fully immanent totality (i.e. politics, economy, and environment).

The eschatology expressed within the wilderness scene (both the Baptismal episode at the Jordan and Jesus “with the wild animals”) is the New testament at its most politically ecological, as it affirms that ecology “signifies not nature, but relation” (Bryant,*my emphasis added). The implications are found in “not only extending the range of human participants in political decision-making, but also taking full account of nonhuman participation in the assembling of the social” in an effort “to recognize that nonhumans are already involved” in the social assemblage (Holifield, 653). The social is not a binary opposition to nature but, an emergent event within nature. There is no outside of nature. Everything is always-already ecological. As such, the political ecology of the eschaton’s ‘new creation’ is both a pronouncement and a protest, it is, as Marx might say, “in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). There is a conscious awareness of present conditions but, is scathingly and subversively critical of them rather than complicit with them. An eschatological eco-politics, thus, proceeds dialectically, because, as Marx elsewhere explains, it “includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state…and is in its essence critical and revolutionary” (Marx, 17). Yet, the revolutionary impetus of the radical politics inherent within the eschaton’s ‘new creation’ may find its clearest expression in the letters of Paul….

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

This is the second 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 Roman Empire was aristocratic and hierarchical (Carter, 3). A population as miniscule as a mere 2-3 percent held all authority, leaving the other 97-98 percent of the inhabitants to be severely oppressed and exploited with no hope of social or economic mobility (Carter, 3). Renowned sociologist Michael Mann accurately concludes that “the Roman landholding elite was about as ‘classlike’ as any group in any known society, past or present” (270). Thus, what may be most important to note concerning the scope of understanding the New Testament as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire is the fact that Rome was an “agrarian empire” (Carter, 3). Warren Carter explains that Rome’s “wealth and power were based in land,” that is, Roman political-economic life was primarily founded upon land ownership, and specifically the profiting from the “production, distribution, and consumption” of agricultural goods and/or commodities (Carter, 3). The primary means of doing so was through Rome’s collection of taxes, tributes and rents, which were also routinely paid in agricultural goods (Carter, 3). In other words, the Roman aristocracy roughly consumed about 65 percent of agricultural production, meaning that the agrarian peasantry of fishermen and farmers were forced to surrender “20 to 40 percent of [their] catch, crop, or herd” to Roman elites, a heavy burden on both the people and the land (Carter, 3).

Richard A. Horsley explains that the agricultural communities whose land and labor were exploited by the Roman Empire were comprised of “many families” who “lived and worked in hundreds of self-governing village communities scattered across the countryside” (28). Reigning directly over these villages and communities was the local and regional representatives of Rome, that is, client kings or client rulers, and the priestly aristocracy of the Jerusalem temple-state, who imposed further taxes, tributes, and tithes upon the villagers (Horsley, 28).  These village communities where deeply and generationally tied to each other and to the land, however, due to the severity of the taxes and tributes imposed upon them by Rome, and Roman installed client kings and temple-state authorities, many villagers were unable to survive on the crops that remained after such steep tributary payments and such burdensome taxation (Horsley, 28). As Horsley points out, “indebtedness thus became another source of revenues for the elite,” as villagers were forced to take out high-interest loans from “officers of the state” in order to maintain subsistence (28). In many cases the loan-borrowers could not repay the loans and were forced to turn over their ancestral lands to the temple-state and became little more than either tenant farmers or day-laborers. Within such desperate communities and a midst such impoverished villagers is where Jesus’ ministry and work took place, and it was in this social context in which the New Testament author’s wrote.