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.