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.

Advertisements

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).