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.


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.

The Sustainable Mapping of Ideology

In her article, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” Gillen Wood demonstrates that “It is the character of modern consumer society to promote the idea that nothing is connected” (Wood). The orientation of such a societal structure is entirely individualistic and atomistic. However, Wood writes that “Sustainability, by contrast, teaches that everything is connected,” as such, “sustainability is truly the science of everything, from technical strategies for repowering our homes and cars, to the ecological study of biodiversity in forests and oceans, to how we think and act as human beings” (Wood). In this regard, Wood does well to note that “Sustainability is a human and social issue as much as it is ‘environmental'” (Wood). Thus, as Wood describes, the primary and most predominant obstacles  to realizing, actualizing, and achieving global sustainability are psychological, social, and ultimately ideological.

George I. Garcia and Carlos Gmo. Aguilar Sanchez explain that ideology is “the generating matrix that regulates the relation between the visible and the invisible, the imaginable and the non-imaginable, as well as the changes/shifts in these relations” (2). Garcia and Aguilar Sanchez propose that ideology is comprised of “three basic moments: ideology in itself, as a series of ideas; ideology for itself, in its materiality (ideological State apparatuses); and ideology in and for itself, when it enters into operation in social practices” (3). Indeed, the ‘psychologically’ “inherited mental frameworks that reward us for the normalization and simplification of complex realities” and the socially constructed “economic and institutional arrangements designed to protect us from material wants,…risk, shock, disorder and violent change” are the very building blocks of ideology ‘in and for itself’ (Wood). Here, the fragmentary self-ishness of modern Western consumer consciousness is nothing short of being ideologically hegemonic. The work of ideology is to provide “an idealised vision of a ‘society’ that cannot really exist” (5). This is expressed and articulated most clearly in the operative practices of consumptive civilization, implicitly promoting the idea that we can continue our current way of life and go on consuming at our increasing rate without experiencing or causing any disastrous or catastrophic effects, suggesting that there is simply no direct correlation between our societal practices and ecological crisis.
Sustainability and Deep Ecology function as radically subversive social critiques of ‘ideology’. Both sustainability and deep ecology emphasize the fact that “we live in a world characterized by connectivity” and that we must adapt our thinking to a complex, connected model of the world and our place in it,” expanding the boundaries of the self, initiating the ‘complete’ integration of personality and consciousness, and adopting a relational ‘total-field’ image of the world (Brennan and Lo). In this way, each and every one of the efforts of sustainability and deep ecology seek to actively engage in “the long and difficult process of de-normalizing” and disrupting the ideological underpinnings of consumeristic society (Wood), awaking us to the “traumatic limit” and the “true horror of the Real” which urges us to activity (Garcia and Aguilar Sanchez, 5-6).
Brennan, Andrew and Yeuk-Sze Lo. “Environmental Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward N. Zalta. Stanford University, 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Garcia, George I. and Carlos Gmo. Aguilar Sanchez. “Psychoanalysis and Politics: The Theory of Ideology in Slavoj Zizek.” International Journal of Zizek Studies 2.3 (2008). Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
Wood, Gillen. “Sustainability: Ethics, Culture, and History.” Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation. Eds. Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkin. cnx.org. Connexions, 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

Ecofeminsim and the Act of Theoretical Praxis

I recently completed a philosophy course in Environmental Ethics. It was immensely insightful and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Below is a short essay I wrote in response to Janis Birkeland’s article “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice,” which was included in the book, Ecofeminism: Animals, Women, Nature, addressing the relationship between theory and practice. I have attached a pdf of Birkeland’s original article directly below. I encourage you to read her text and then, my reply and response. I hope you enjoy! Please feel free to comment! I always greatly appreciate your feedback.

Ecofeminism_Linking Theory and Practice


In his book, Ecology without NatureTimothy Morton writes the following:

From an environmental point of view, this is not a good time…The sky is falling, the globe is warning, the ozone hole persists; people are dying of radiation poisoning and other toxic agents; species are being wiped out , thousands per year; coral reefs have nearly all gone. Huge globalized corporations are making bids for the necessities of life from water to health care. Environmental legislation is being threatened around the world. What a perfect opportunity to sit back and reflect on ideas (10).

While Morton’s comments have a note of sarcasm, Morton assuringly suggests that, in fact, “there could be no better time” for reflection (10). Indeed, Morton implores that we “must reflect – theorize, in the broadest sense,” especially “Since ecology and ecological politics are beginning to frame other kinds of science, politics, and culture, we must take a step back and examine some of ecology’s ideological determinants” (10). Morton highlights that while “There is an ideological injunction to act ‘Now!’, there is a futility and a toxicity in the ‘act now’ imperative (117). In this way, Morton points out that “There is a meme that theory is the opposite of practice (117), however, this is a pathological fragmentation and a false binary. “If we value life,” as Janis Birkeland explains, “then we must transform the cultural and institutional infrastructure – our frameworks of thinking, relating, and acting” (15). To do this we are then “tasked with slowing down, using our minds to find out what this all means” (Morton, 117). In short, we must practice theorizing.

In this regard, as Janis Birkeland demonstrates in her essay, “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice, ” from the book Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature, an ecofeminist paradigm can help us to redress the historical split between experiential/individual and critical/institutional orientations,” which, “On a practical level,…can enable us to link environmental theory and practice,…to develop new strategies for social change” (16). This breaks the dualism that arbitrarily rests between theory and practice. Theory, then, is neither the enemy nor the opposite of practice, nor is practice the antithesis of theory. Theory is practice and practice is theory. Theorization is a kind of activism. It is an activity. Theory is a form of political demonstration and “political analysis” (Birkeland, 18). It is the necessary means in which to “uncover our ‘blind spot,’ or what we are denying,” that is “what we are trained not to see” (32).
“[U]ltimately,” then, “theory is not supposed to make you a ‘better person’ in any sense. It is supposed to expose hypocrisy,… to examine the ways in which ideological illusions maintain their grip” (Morton, 12).
Birkeland, Janis. “Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice.” Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, and Nature. Ed. Greta Gaard. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. Print.
Morton, TimothyEcology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print.
—. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

The Pathology of Boundaries…

I recently completed a course in Environmental Ethics. It was incredibly helpful and insightful as I have become increasingly concerned with ecology in both my thought and practice, especially since transitioning to Veganism almost nine months ago. The move to become vegan, itself, was motivated and brought on by a deep and thoughtful engagement with Aldo Leopold‘s Land Ethic from his work A Sand County Almanac, as well as Peter Singer‘s Animal LiberationBoth texts were required reading for a class I was taking at the time, Contemporary Issues in Philosophy. I also happened to be reading Daniel Quinn‘s novel Ishmael during this period. It, too, was quite influential in guiding my decision to become more environmentally focused and thus, to take up the vegan lifestyle. As such, the impetus of my current research and work is centered upon exploring the wider implications and intersections of ecology, philosophy, the humanities, and culture/society. This transition, itself, is something I hope to write about further in future posts.

Below you’ll find a short essay I wrote for the Environmental Ethics course previously mentioned. In this assignment I was asked to briefly reflect upon and respond to Leopold’s Land Ethic from the aspect of Reason, Emotion, or Physical Activity. I hope you enjoy it! Please feel free to comment and respond! I would would excitedly welcome your feedback!

In his editorial introduction to Hegel’s 1827 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Peter C. Hodgson writes that the impetus or the “main theme” of “Western consciousness” is “the individuality of all things” and that this is especially and most accurately true of “human beings” (45). Individuation, separation, categorization, dissection, and fragmentation, these are but a few of the main ideals that form the basis for Western philosophy and Western psychology. From Social Contract Theory to Self-help and beyond everything is hinged upon the idea of the isolated, independent, and absolutely autonomous ‘subject’. Western consciousness has created a pathological sense or conception of ‘self’, i.e. the subjective I, the Cartesian cogito. Here, even the ‘self’ fails to be a unity but is divided into dichotomous dualisms and false binaries, mind/body, body/soul, or, as illustrated within the forum prompt itself, the clear-cut distinctions between Reason/Emotion/Physical Action.

This also leads to a pathological sense of species/nature which forms the backdrop for not only the way in which humans relate to themselves and to each other, but also to the world and the planet as a whole, i.e. humanity as separate and distinct from each other and humanity as above, opposed to, and/or ultimately separate from the biosphere. This is precisely what Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethics seeks to cure and correct. Leopold writes that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it” (171). As such, the land ethic, first and foremost, is developmentally psychological in orientation and methodology. It is at once, as Charles Starkey demonstrates, “a psychological theory of moral development and ecological rationality that advocates a shift in the way that environmental problems are conceptualized and approached” (149) and “a developmental change in cultural psychology… that expands the domain of the moral beyond that of human beings, so that nonhumans are afforded moral consideration” (159). Leopold reinvigorates the the fact that “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (171). With this comes the realization that “all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (Berry, 16). As such, the ‘self’ too must be envisioned as an integral whole both internally and externally, an undivided self unmistakably part of the land, responding with Reason, Emotion, and especially, with Physical action. Of what avail are Reason and Emotion if they do not spur one to action? As Marx famously concludes “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” (574).
Sallie McFague makes clear “We do not have bodies…We are bodies” (16). We are not containers compartmentalized into separate isolated areas of Reason, Emotion, and Physical activity, each one caged off and uncontaminated by the other. We are none other than our material reality, that is, mind, reason, emotion, as a culmination “evolved from” and “continuous with our bodies” (McFague, 16). So, too, should we approach the biotic community, recognizing that we are “evolved from” and “continuous with” the Land.
Hodgson, Peter C. Editorial Introduction. Lectures of the Philosophy of Religion, One-Volume Edition: The Lectures of 1827. By G. W. F. Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1-71. Print.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Marx, Karl. The German Ideology, Including Theses on Feuerbach. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998. Print.
McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Print.
Starkey, Charles. “The Land Ethic, Moral Development, and Ecological Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 45.1 (2007): 149-175. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Nov. 2013