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

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).

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Protest of the “Nones”: Religious Disavowal as Social Critique

Due to the incredulous pace of my normative work-a-day life, between wife, kids, work, school, and all that comes with them, there is often an immense gap between the event in which an idea for a post is sparked and its actual construction. The negative of this is that sometimes the post verges upon being outdated before it is ever published, however, interestingly enough, what often occurs as a result of this delay is that the initial event and the originating idea begin to correlate and connect themselves to other unpublished thoughts and events that otherwise may have appeared to be unrelated. This writing is certainly one such example. With that in mind, I hope you will excuse the fact that portions of this writing are based on news stories that are now almost a month or so old. Yet, I hope you will alos still see the relevancy that they still maintain. Enjoy!

A few months back I was reading a fantastic book by Jenifer Michael Hecht called Doubt.In this work Hecht offers an in depth historical overview of the greatest doubters of the world throughout the ages. There were so many elucidating passages that years worth of blog posts could be composed of all the impacting snippets.
One such passage that was particularly striking came from a section of the book highlighting the work of Fredrick Douglas. Here Hecht quotes a portion of a speech Douglas gave in 1852 entitled “The Meaning of Fourth of July for the Negro.” Douglas states the following:
The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors…. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by these Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!
Douglass then goes goes on to say that the antislavery movement will cease to be an antichurch movement as soon as the churches join the antislavery movement. So far, he howls, “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
These words penned by Douglas are stirring to say the least and they have remained stored in the back of mind since I read them. Douglas’s critique gets to the very heart of the way in which many religions, and Christianity in particular have blatantly betrayed the tenets of its own tradition, favoring power, exploitation, and oppression over compassion, equality, and justice. In his own words this is precisely why the antislavery movement was also an antichurch movement, because the church had failed to stand on the side of the antislavery movement, choosing instead to remain complacently tucked into the deep pockets of the powerful. Though slavery has been abolished his words are no less cutting, no less poignant, and no less relevant. The church has continued to neglect its duty to serve those that are the refuse of a greedy capital driven society, choosing instead to continue its apathetic stance within the comfort and security of consumeristic civilization.
The prick of Douglas’s commentary became all the more clear when I came across a news article several weeks ago describing how activists from the Occupy London movement chained themselves to the pulpit in St. Paul’s cathedral. It seems that during a Sunday service on the anniversary of the forced dismantling of the Occupy encampment formerly located outside the cathedral, four women dressed in white entered St. Paul’s and chained themselves to the historic pulpit. Written upon a white umbrella held by one the protestors were the words “throw the money changers out of the temple.” Simultaneously similar signs and banners were held outside of the cathedral. Surely such measures would have pleased Douglas, as it seems to be a performative enactment of his brand of  protesting a/theology.

If this were not enough of a correlation, when the Occupy encampment was forcibly removed by legal means the protestors released a statement “accusing the cathedral authorities,” in Douglasian fashion, “of neglecting their Christian duty by siding with the rich and powerful.” The Occupy activists stated, “In the fight for economic justice, Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, but you invited them and instead evicted us.” Rather than unite with those that could very well be they’re greatest allies the Church once again chose to align itself with the elite idols of the empire. In a centuries old occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome the church continues to hold the hand of its captors, embracing tyranny, inequality, injustice, and playing the part of a harlot, going to bed with capitalism.

Is it then any wonder that a group that is on its way to becoming the fastest growing, and the second largest, religious affiliations is a group that adamantly claims no religious affiliation. This demographic known as the religious “Nones” now account for one in five American adults. One article also points out that “Now, more than one-third of those ages 18 to 22 are religiously unaffiliated. These ‘younger millennials’ are replacing older generations who remained far more involved with religion throughout their lives.” These under-thirty individuals have no interest in identifying themselves religiously and no desire to “label themselves in any way when it comes to their faith or lack thereof.” They do not see themselves as being a part of any religion. While “Nones” are not necessarily antagonistic towards religion(many do in fact think that churches as well as religious and faith based communities can and do make positive contributions to society), the common consensus voiced by 70% of the “Nones”, however, is one that remains suspicious and distrustful of religious institutions, stating that they “believe…religious institutions are too focused on money, power, rules, and politics.”
In an interview in September of this year even former Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini himself stated that “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous.” Martini went one to say that “The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change.”
This seems to sharply coincide with Gallup poll findings which indicate that U.S. confidence in religion is at an all time low and that most Americans believe religion is losing clout. Its seems now that some 56% of Americans express having little to no confidence in religious institutions. Though this should come as no surprise, especially given the rapid and dramatic rise of the “Nones”, it seems remarkable when compared to the statistics of just seven years ago when 50% of Americans believed that the influence of religion was on the “upswing.” Yet, as one reviews the near five decade span of this question being posed, one will unavoidably see the indication of a distinct downward trend. This could be indicative of not only a further move into a post-Christian and post-ecclesiastical world but, potentially a movement towards a post-religious world.

Perhaps then, revisiting the critique of Fredrick Douglas, Occupiers, Activists, Millennials, Protestors, and “Nones” will all cease to be anti-church movements when the church becomes part of anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, and anti-corporate movements, joining the fight against the social and economic inequality and injustice rather than supporting the systems and structures that perpetuate and uphold oppression and exploitation. I would venture so far as to say that those who oppose the church and other religious institutions will cease to do so when the church begins to oppose itself, dialectically negating its own structures and traditions and in essence becoming anti-church itself.