I recently completed a series of Blog posts( here, here, here, here, here, and here) taken from a paper I wrote for one of my Graduate classes. The paper sought offer a reading of the synoptic gospels, the letters of Paul, and the Book of Revelation as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire. I utilized a plethora of sources which I thought I’d share here should any of you be interested.
Alberti, Marina, et al. “Integrating Humans Into Ecology: Opportunities And Challenges For Studying Urban Ecosystems.”Bioscience 53.12 (2003): 1169-1179. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 May 2015.
Bauckham, Richard. Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011. Print.
Bryant, Levi Paul. “Thinking at the Edge of Apocalypse.” Larval Subjects. Larval Subjects, 24 Jan. 2015. Web. 19 May 2015.
Boring, M. Eugene. Mark: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. Print.
Carter, Warren. The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006. Print.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.
Hawkin, David J. “The Critique of Ideology in the Book of Revelation and its Implications for Ecology.” Ecotheology: Journal Of Religion, Nature & The Environment 8.2 (2003): 161-172.Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 May 2015.
Holifield, Ryan. “Actor-Network Theory As A Critical Approach To Environmental Justice: A Case Against Synthesis With Urban Political Ecology.” Antipode 41.4 (2009): 637-658. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 May 2015.
Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. Print.
Hughes, Donald J. Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print.
Jennings, Theodore W. Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013. Print.
Jensen, Robert. “Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical is the New Normal.” Yes Magazine. Yes Magazine, 24 May 2013. Web. 19 May 2015.
Kohls, Randall L. “The Gospel Begins in the Wilderness: An Examination of Mark 1.1-15.” International Congregational Journal10.1 (2011): 61-73. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 May 2015.
Mann, Michael. The Sources of Social Power: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.
Marx, Karl. “A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right.” Selected Essays. Amazon Digital Services, 2006. Kindle Edition.
—. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Das Capital). Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle Edition.
New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.
Rossing, Barbara R. The Choice Between Two Cities. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1999. Print.
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.
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.
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).
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….
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.