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

This is the fifth 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, and the fourth here.

Ekklesia, as John Dominic Crossan makes clear, is “the standard Pauline term for a Christian community” (165). Modern interpreters of the Bible have normally translated ekklesia as ‘church’ (Crossan, 165). However, translating ‘church’ from ekklesia is not only conceptually anachronistic, it is also a less than accurate description of what ekklesia meant in the first-century Greco-Roman world and what Paul, himself, had in mind. An ekklesia was not primarily a religious community, nor was its predominant focus of religious orientation. Ekklesia is yet another profoundly political term. “[T]he ekklsiaaterion,” Crossan continues, is “where the entire adult male citizenry joined in an assembly” (47). Thus, ekklesia, Crossan elaborates, “originally meant the citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions” (165). An ekklesia was a “democratic deliberative body,” the collective assembly of a Greek city’s free-male citizens organized around political governance rather than religiosity (47). Yet, in Paul’s continued subversion of Roman imperial polity, the ekklesia created by Paul were representative of a political radicality. The ekklesia Paul championed were more radically democratic and radically egalitarian. In the Pauline ekklesia there was “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). In other words, the ekklesia of Christ followers severed all class divisions and antagonisms, offering a radical equality that broke down all barriers within the social (male/female), the political (slave/free), and the religious (Jew/Greek).

Paul seems to have understood that “Cities are…ecological entities, which have their own unique internal rules of behavior, growth, and evolution” and that “Like other ecosystems, cities are not the sum of their constituents” but are instead, “key examples of ermergent phenomena, in which each component contributes to but does not control the form and behavior of the whole” (Alberti et al. 1170). Thus, Paul’s goal, Warren Carter writes, was to create “rival assemblies,” rival ‘cities’, or rival ekklesia (92). Paul’s aim was to create politically orientated collectives that sought to communally embody the eco-political eschatology presented in the figure of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27). The Pauline ekklesia were not beholden to Roman ‘law’, or imperial politics but, were faithful to charis (“grace”/generosity/hospitality/charity/forgiveness/love), that is, the reciprocal sharing of communal resources in a sustainable and egalitarian manner (Rom. 6:14). The ‘Christian’ ekklesia functioned as, what Hakim Bey might call Temporary Autonomous Zones, or “islands in the net” (81). The ‘Christocentric’ ekklesia of Paul were seditiously defiant to the social relations and power structures of Rome, and could be likened to what Bey describes as “a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination)” (70). Ekklesia, in this regard, were, then, autonomous, self-governing socio-political collectives forming in spaces at the fringes and margins of culture, and within the crevices, cracks, and fissures of the Empire. As such, the Pauline ekklesia were non-hierarchical, non-authortarian, communities in opposition to the formalized systems of imperial control, who offered alternative methods of eco- politico-economic engagement.

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(dis)Placing Christian Origins

Last week I re-blogged a terrific post from the Blog “Living the Kingdom” entitled “How Not to Be a Good Christian“, which you can read here or here.  This essay outlined many of the most common failings, discrepancies, and area of in-congruence that have now become firm attributes and characteristics that have been historically perpetuated in what could be considered the dominant or mainstream occurrence of Christianity. This struck accord with me personally as the impetus of this essay is substantially similar to the locus of my own musings and positions that are specific to this very subject. Several such blog postings that I’ve written on this topics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

After re-blogging this post began to receive some interesting feedback from one of my Facebook friends. He raised a very intriguing question, which incited an intriguing dialogue that I thought it would be both beneficial and significant to the conversation to share. Below you’ll find his questions and comments followed by my response. I hope you enjoy!

In the book, The Monstrosity of Christ Paradox or Dialectic by Davis on page 5 he asks by identifying the displaced origins of Christianity, displaced by accommodating empire values, can we wrestle about the meaning of Christianity and its practices in a real way. Clearly much of the practice of Christianity today has more to do with capitalism then Jesus. So are the doors and windows open to discuss what is the original meaning and what practices would that lead to today?

You bring up an excellent point and a particularly great book! This is an intricate and complex argument that is rife with nuance and subtlety, which I have continually devoted thought and consideration to in much of my studies and written explorations. This is not to say that I have come upon any satisfactory conclusions but, rather deeper and more probing questions that are increasing sociological.

Certainly even referring to the movement of the Early Christ followers is utterly anachronistic as imparting such a modernistic understanding brings with it a well-spring of presuppositions and preconceived notions that are contextually inaccurate and inapplicable. The Early “church” (for lack of a better term) was far from systematic, uniformed, or even unanimous, which only complicates matter more but, is still extremely indicative of this precise “displacement” and incongruency.Obviously, what we see in this initiating community is anything but institutional and may be far more representative of what Hakim Bey referred to as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, that is a space formed on the fringes of a society, created within the crack and crevices of a culture, a veritable blind spot within the Empire, in which there is an utter refusal to conform to the systemizations or hierarchies of the state. These T.A.Z.s, as Bey calls them, are in the world but not of it, so to speak. They are spaces not intended to be concretized or grounded into permanence, their operative significance is their grass-roots orientation and their ability to mobilize. They are not revolutionary in that they are not seeking to overthrow the presiding powers, replace them with new systems, and or garner control. Although they are socio-political, they are simply seeking to subvert, to elude formalized structures, and to unblock those places where culture has become blocked.
Thus, to answer your question, I do think that the doors and windows are open to discuss the original meaning but to do so in order to find the practices that it would lead to today, I think it must take place outside the religious institutions, as these the formal structure would only stifle the creativity of the query, for I do not believe the answers will be found in tradition, liturgy, orthodoxy, or even the sacred but, in the dirt, in the profane, in the secular, in the mundane, through that which is existentially thematic.