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.

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

I apologize for such an elongated lapse of time since I have last posted. I must admit that I have found myself exceptionally frustrated and despondent with blogging due to the predominating lack of response to my contributions to this site. Often, posting feels like an exercise in futility. However, there remains something personally cathartic in the mere act of releasing something I have thought about, researched, and written about into the ‘world’ even if it is not read or interacted with by others. With that being said, below you will find the introduction from a paper written for one of my previous Graduate courses. The paper itself is a rather large document so I will be posting portions of it over the next several days to make it more easily digestible. Enjoy.

In the present social context of modernity, culture is, quite possibly, at its most Cartesian. The sociological realm continues to grow increasing dualistic. Cultural concepts are looked at dichotomously and thought through vacuously. Perhaps, nowhere is this seen more clearly then in religion and politics. Yet, when considering the New Testament and especially the environment in which it emerged, such a division between religion and politics within the world of the New Testament authors and their audience is an anachronistic separation. Religion and politics, within this first-century era, were inseparably enmeshed and intertwined. One of the many ways Rome promoted and solidified its ideological rule was through the ritualized proclamations of the imperial cult. Through the social inundation of civic religion Rome propagated its political agenda, offering a kind of political-theology. Even the Jerusalem temple and its priestly officials and authorities functioned as sanctioned upholders of Roman socio-economic polity, especially in the collection of rents, debts, and taxes. Rome was an invariably ever-present reality within the culture and context of the Near East and the Mediterranean. Therefore, every aspect of daily life held political and economic implications, as did every interaction and engagement with Rome. As such, the presentation of the New Testament as a depoliticized or apolitical text disengaged from the socio-politico-economic structures of the Roman Empire is erroneously parachronic. Thus, through the use of exegetical New Testament scholarship, socio-historical surveys, anthropological investigations, sociological analyses, and even ecological examinations, this paper intends to subvert anachronistic depoliticized and apolitical interpretations of the New Testament, and instead initiate a radical re-reading of the text. The goal of this ‘re-reading,’ however, is not to demonstrate how the New Testament can be read in a political way but, to show that the New Testament at its very core is always-already political, and is also always-already  ecological. Given the social realities of the New Testament context, (i.e. hierarchical Roman aristocracy, vast power and wealth disparities, and the unsustainable consumption of Rome) the New Testament is best understood as a first-century socio-political critique of the oppressive economic excesses and the exploitative ecological practices of the Roman Empire.

The political nature of the New Testament cannot be over-stated or over-emphasized. The New Testament’s political underpinnings often seem to be expressed in a subtle or implicit manner but, this is largely due to an unclear understanding of the social and cultural context in which it was written. Richard A. Horsley concedes that “religion was inseparable from political-economic life in Roman Palestine” (3). Horsley goes on to say that “Religion as a separate sphere is simply not attested in our sources for the time of Jesus, nor is such a separation evident in the Gospel sources for Jesus” (3). Similarly, Warren Carter states that “in the first-century world, no one pretended religion and politics were separate” (2). In the setting of the New Testament time period, and especially in the case of the Roman Empire, John Dominic Crossan highlights that both religion and politics “are ways of systemically constructing power” (349). Thus, the trajectory of this project is the examination of New Testament political and ecological contextuality. However, due to the limitations and constraints placed upon the space of the project, the analysis is far from exhaustive. While the project does aim to be thorough, the examination is more thematic than holistic, focusing upon key themes, ideas, figures and events within and surrounding the New Testament, rather than the entirety of the text. The intention, then, is to explore thematic strands within the Gospels, the authentic writings of Paul, and the book of Revelation in order to uncover a political and ecological activism deeply embedded within the New Testament.

For instance, the event that could be said to be the thematic impetus of the New Testament and Christianity, itself, is also one of the most politically charged events of the New Testament writings; the crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, theologically speaking, the crucifixion of the historical Jesus was not only the catalyzing moment for the first-century Christ followers; it also remains the most operatively significant theme of modern-day Christianity. Yet, when studied sociologically and anthropologically, the event of crucifixion is unavoidably and undeniably political. Richard A. Horsley makes clear that “Insofar as crucifixion was the form of execution that the Romans used for political agitators in the provinces, Jesus must have been executed because he was at least thought to be a rebel against the Roman Imperial order” (1). Likewise, Warren Carter affirms that “People got crucified not because they were spiritual, but because they posed a threat to the Roman system” (x). It is, then, inarguable that Jesus was executed as both a “political actor” (Horsley, 1) and a political dissident. It seems that just as there has been a long tradition of depoliticizing the Bible, so too has the figure of Jesus been depoliticized and presented as an apolitical spiritual/religious leader. Yet, Horlsey plainly states, “a Jesus who was only religious cannot have been historical” (3). Thus, the vision of Jesus as an itinerant ‘preacher’ disengaged from the politics and economics of his context is problematic and inaccurate. To situate the figure of Jesus accurately he must be recast as the leader, or founder, of a politically orientated social movement depicted in the New Testament writings.

Yet, what is to be said of the ecological? If the political orientations of the New Testament often go unnoticed then, that which is most ecological within the text goes unconsidered all the more. With such an oversight in mind, and with the goal of producing the most efficient and effective analysis possible within the brief space allotted to the project, this paper will seek to explore those thematic aspects of the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry, Paul’s letters, and Revelation that reflect both a political critique and an ecological concern.

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.