Nature Against Empire

chedAn excerpt from Ched Myers‘ must-read article “Nature against Empire: Exodus Plagues, Climate Crisis and Hardheartedness.” Digest this taste-tester and then spend time with the entire piece, where Myers weaves together climate science and our sacred Scripture. Join Ched and other theological animators at the 2019 Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute in February.

British theologian Michael Northcott’s important 2013 Political Theology of Climate Change argues that our modern worldview offers no frame of reference for the “politics of slow catastrophe” stalking our history through ecological catastrophe.  He shows how traditional cosmologies, including the Bible, saw climate as political.  That is, the actions of nations influenced the health of nature; when people behaved badly, the earth behaved badly back.  Modernity, however, banished that notion as superstitious and unscientific.  Humans and our technologies are now in control, we believe, while nature is depersonalized, demystified and at our disposal.  That paradigm may have “worked” for a few centuries, but now we are realizing that nature seems to be biting back.

As eco- philosopher farmer Masanobu Fukuoka put it somewhat more whimsically, “If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”
Northcott rightly uses the term “climate apocalyptic,” but doesn’t draw much on that tradition of literature in our scriptures.  Apocalyptic discourse in the Bible is not about predicting God’s cataclysmic destruction of the world, as so often assumed in popular culture.  Rather it expresses the fierce imagination of those who long for the end of destructive oppression by the imperial state.  After all, for the poor, the “end of the world” is already and forever being visited upon their communities by soldiers and fortune hunters and police.  Apocalyptic as a literature of resistance arose in antiquity first during the era of Persian, then Hellenistic, then Roman domination of the Mediterranean world, regimes which brought profound changes to traditional lifeways.  Powerful elites ruled ever more cruelly, extracted resources more deeply, imposed slavery more widely, and fought unending wars more mercilessly.  All of this made life more miserable for peasants, as well as for outlying pastoral and Indigenous peoples caught in the vortex of expanding States.

The Greek word apocalypsis means “unmasking or unveiling.”  It has to do with a kind of vision that is able to see through the dominant stories of empire—the grand fictions of entitlement and sovereignty, militaristic triumphalism, seductive myths of grandeur, and severe orthodoxies of law and order.  Apocalyptic seeks to lift what Morpheus, in the 1999 film The Matrix, describes as “the world that has been pulled over our eyes”: the propaganda of empire that masks the truth, distorts what it means to be human, and hijacks history.  Apocalyptic, in contrast, seeks a “double unmasking,” by:

  • stripping away the layers of denial and delusion that keep us distracted, in order to expose realities of personal and political suffering and injustice—that is, to see the world as it really is from the perspective of the poor and victims of violence; and then
  • transfusing our dulled and dumbed-down imaginations with visions of the world as it really could and should be from the perspective of divine love and justice.  The possibilities of a different way of being are revealed, or at least glimpsed, in apocalyptic visions.

This imaginary is best represented in our N.T., of course, in the writing of political prisoner John of Patmos.  The Book of Revelation is highly symbolic, full of bizarre signs and codes.  But these are not unintelligible when understood in historical context.  Take for example perhaps his most familiar image: the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Rev 6).  The symbolism of John’s Cavalry from hell is much debated, but it’s likely that the white horse represents the conquering power of the Roman Empire that had consigned the dissident John to prison.  What follows inexorably from the project of empire are three companion horses: the red horse of militarism, the black horse of economic stratification and oppression, and the pale horse of the death that follows.

I have elsewhere correlated these horsemen to Martin Luther King’s famous triplets of American empire (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech).  Here I want to focus instead on the curious last phrase alluding to death coming by “pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Rev 6:8).  Here John envisions nature going toxic, becoming a destroyer rather than a nurturer of life.  This revolt of the earth is something the ancients saw only through a glass darkly.  But it has become the defining feature of our own historical moment: the interlocking ecological crises of climate change, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and species extinction.  It is this last “horseman” that piques my curiosity as we try, like John the Revelator, to see through the veil—even when it’s painful, or depressing, or potentially paralyzing—in order to be bearers of good news in these hard times.

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