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 John, in rejection of the systemic violence of imperial civilization, has withdrawn from society to live in the desert, where he is found ‘preaching,’ openly criticized not only the scribal and pharisaic members of the priestly elite but,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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The Dialectical Materialism of Apocalyptic Eschatology

In what may be one of the most quoted passages amongst the works and writings of Karl Marx, Marx writes in his introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, that “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). “Religion,” Marx continues, “is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions” (3). “It is,” Marx says, “the opium of the people” (3).

Marx’s description of the religious endeavor, in many ways, also serves as an appropriate description of the functioning of both Eschatology and Apocalyptic literature. Both are imbibing means of giving “expression of real misery,” utilized in giving vivid voice to “the oppressed creature.” The Eschaton and the apocalypticism, as it appears within the narrative and writings of the Kethuvim, serve as what Marx called “the sentiment of a heartless world,” and “the spirit of spiritless conditions.” John Edgar McFayden seems to sympathize with a similar summary suggesting that “the apocalyptic writers derive the future from the past and present, and make it an object of consolatory hope” (273). McFayden goes on to say that “with the apocalyptic writers the future is the brilliant counterpart of the sorrowful present, over which it is to lift them” (273).

A common feature in exilic/post-exilic thought is the revelatory realization of the immense incongruence and inapplicability of the ideas of retributive justice in the everyday workings of the world. Weeping by the waters of Babylon brought with it the all too real and cutting knowledge that the wicked more often than not go unpunished and the righteous all too often are down trodden, oppressed, exploited, and cast asunder. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “The caged bird sings of freedom.” Thus, with their brows bruised by the heels of their oppressors the Hebrew people begin to dream of the future, looking to a time when justice will roll down like a river, when the righteous will be raised to the right hand of God, when, as Marx has written, “the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain” will be plucked, “not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain, and break the living flower” (3). In this way, the apocalyptic/eschatological vision became the “opium of the [Hebrew] people” (3), as it was a way in which to self-medicate, dulling the pain and trauma captivity and oppression.

Yet the purpose apocalyptic vision of the eschatological imagination is twofold. Restating Marx, “Religious misery is in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). There is not only expression of misery but, also protestation. Perhaps then, when Marx further suggests that “The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness” (3), the demand of Marx most resembles that of the Hebrew apocalyptic literature in that “The demand to abandon the illusions about their condition is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions” (3). It is equal parts consolation and critique, as it only truly consoles via its critique of illusory consolation. Thus, continuing this parallelism of a kind of Marxian Dialectical Eschatology, when Marx describes the task of philosophy in the historical realm, he is at once elucidating that of the eschatological, in that “The immediate task of philosophy [/eschatology] when enlisted in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its unholy shape, now that it has been unmasked in its holy shape” (4).

There is, therefore, something of a paradoxical negation at work within these systems.

[It] includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary (Marx, 17).

In this regard I would also suggest that the description of the Eschaton as “the ultimate fate of individuals persons: death, posthumous, heaven, hell, and resurrection” (Harris, 250), does not fully grasp the full expression of that which is eschatological. There is a profound “this-worldliness,” an immanent rather than a simply transcendent functionality available within the eschatological undertaking.  It is not simply talk of “End Things” but it too serves as a critique of the functions of the world, a critique of power, politics, economy, and authority. Perhaps one could say that that which is most purely apocalyptic is the apocalypse that tears away the very fabric of apocalypticism. Likewise, perhaps that which is most truly eschatological is the Eschaton that ruptures and breaks apart the very framework of eschatology. Perhaps, prodding further still, that which is most fully messianic is the Messiah that not only disrupts but, utterly destroys the very structures of messianism.  This is the eschatology of the everyday, which “defies the perverse reading of eschatology as some triumphant End of History where the divine trumps the human” (Kearney, 11).“Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics” (Marx, 4).

Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.

Kearney, Richard. “Epiphanies of the Everyday: Toward a Micro-Eschatology.” After God: Richard Kearney and the Religious Turn in Continental Philosophy. Ed. John Panteleimon Manoussakis. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2006. Print.

Marx, Karl. “A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right.” Selected Essays. Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2006. Kindle Edition.

—. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Das Capital) . Amazon Digital Services, 2011. Kindle Edition.

McFayden, John Edgar. Introduction to the Old Testament . Amazon Digital Services: Public Domain Books, 2004. Kindle Edition.