The Roman Empire, Christianity, Colonialism and Ecology

I have just given a paper at a conference on Ecotheology.

Not a term many people have heard of, perhaps. The premise was: what does religion, by which they actually, it turned out, meant Christianity, say about caring for the planet. Well, folks, Christianity itself says absolutely nothing.

I put in an abstract and then presented a paper on what the Bible says about ecology and our role on the planet. They had a keynote speaker doing the same thing. All of her quotes were from the Bible. I went to other sessions where the Christian speakers explained John the Baptists idea of immersing in water (I asked where he got that idea from) and appreciation of nature. And I heard some young women talk eloquently about Black Lives Matter (BLM) and being activists for change. But none of them addressed the elephant in the room: Christianity. So I did. I think that maybe is our role; to talk truth to power. Against the colonialization by the Romans on one side and the Ottomans and their predecessors on another side, my tiny place has not given in. We did not convert. We could not stand up against the medias of the days and their lies, fake news, conspiracy theories and insults because the Christian and Muslim colonialists owned everything, but still we persisted. We were dispersed from our homeland and still we persisted. How annoying.

And then our texts are taken, plagiarised (and this was a supposedly academic conference) and used to give legitimacy and to de-legitimise us. They are renamed, something you do to slaves. Supercessionists and supremacists call them theirs. They take them and misread them and misappropriate their contents and call them by new names: The Christian Bible (I kid not) and The Old Testament (akin to Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe) some quaint writings which have been superseded by Romans and Arabs. Thanks boys.

There is nothing in the Christian texts about ecology or care for the planet. All of it is in the Hebrew texts, the TaNaKh (Torah, the Five Books of Moses; Nevim, the Prophets and Khetuvim, the writings such as Psalms and Proverbs). Do take a look!

Used and abused

So my talk swung it round, but of course I am not sure they were ready to hear it; really hear it rather than merely listen in that polite White Western Supremacist way. How they loved the People of Colour (about 5 of them in the 225 attendees) at the conference. Look how inclusive we are, seemed to be on their lips. But the angry Jew, insulted and abused for 2000 years and still here was a definite no no. The angry Jew who stood up and said get off my culture, get off my texts, get off my land and get off my neck was a real no no.

And in their talks about how Christianity is aligned with nature they quote Psalms, written by that shepherd David. They take my culture and texts and exclude me by their supremacy. It is not White Western Supremacy that is the problem folks. It is Roman-Christianity.

So here is the problem and the solution to our ecotheological crisis because you cannot make the planet better without a belief that the planet deserves better.

The Problem

Colonialisation. It has been an ecological disaster. You have grown your needs (foods, energy) on other peoples lands. Some of those crops should not have been there anyway. You are looking all the time for Growth rather than Enough. You are seeking Surplus. Treating all land as if it is there just for your needs with a total disregard for the environment.

Imperialism: Forcing your ideas onto others. Proselytising and forcing conversions to your beliefs and having no regard for others opinions and beliefs. Mission and ministry.

All of this results in pollution, deforestation, destruction through this culture of colonial claims. Much of this is Christian culture, but unfortunately it is seeping into Islamic culture too, perhaps merely as a reaction to Christian Imperialism, but still, not good.

The claim that this is Judeo-Christianity is total bunk. It is Roman-Christianity.

Over 50 years ago (!) in 1967 Lynn White Jnr wrote a paper in the eminent journal Science (155; 1203-7) on ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’. The ecological crisis is based on “the orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature”. The Christian doctrine of creation sets the human apart from nature, advocates human control of nature and implies that the natural world was created solely for our use (Gen 1:28). In the Christian Middle Ages, according to White, we already encounter evidence of attempts at the technological mastery of nature and incipient exploitative tendencies that come to full flower in scientific and technological revolutions of later eras. Christianity, White concludes, “bears a huge burden of guilt for environmental deterioration”

It starts with the Greeks, continues with the Romans, with a pushback by the Ottomans.

The Empires of Old

And it continues to this day :

The predominant cultures on the lands

Now I have seen the Monty Python Film ‘The Life of Brian’ so I know what the Romans did for us, underfloor heating, roads and transport etc. I am a scientist so I appreciate the Academy to a limited extent. The Sciences have improved the lives of many. I am grateful for clean water and aseptic techniques. My Desert Island luxury would be a flush lavatory. But this has come at a price. We are alienated from each other and from nature. We think everything can be man made (even the weather) and everything has to be subject to man-made evidence. The Humanities have gone down that route too, measuring the unmeasurable. Due to this, Arrogance prevails. Christianity has arisen in the midst of the Roman Empire. Indeed it is a Roman Religion. It has Romans gods and Roman sacrifices of a human and has that human elevated to a god (just like the Emperors) and then his flesh is eaten and his blood drank each week in a re-enaction of human sacrifice. This is all totally abhorrent to Judaism.

Death and the Afterlife have become more important than life. Meekness, which is easier to rule over than a stiff-necked Israelite, is promoted. A disregard of the material world which is reduced to one of Sin and Shame results in this ecological disaster. How can you care for the planet if you have these attitudes?

There seems to be a love of suffering, especially other peoples in Christianity. A victim culture. This is not the view from the Bible. Poverty does not make you virtuous, it makes you poor. There is nothing noble is poverty or suffering. We are not trying to hold you there, so why should anybody think it fine to hold other people in this bad place? Suffering and poverty are not where we are meant to be. The Divine does not want that even if humans force it on others. We vote for Joy, please.

The Romans were a clever bunch. They were very worried about Judaism and the possibility of it infiltrating the West. So they took some bits of it (Jesus) and changed it, making the Jews the butt of the joke. And that is how it has remained.

Our books have been claimed, misread, misappropriated and merely used to give authenticity to a supremacist reading (no longer the Israelites, now Jesus and now Mohammed). The people whose book is it have been oppressed, insulted, lied about, fake news items told, conspiracy theories invented, racially stereotyped and their land claimed by all and sundry. The people we share this with are other indigenous peoples, not the West or the East. And yet we persist. Unlike many invaded peoples we kept telling our story, the real story of creation, why the world is , why we humans are here and how to heal the planet. Listen and hear this small voice in the desert.

So I am at a conference where none of them have actually read the Torah but keep quoting from it. A bit like reading Romeo and Juliet and thinking the story is about Verona.

In Judaism, before the world/universe was created Wisdom and Repentance were created. Now if you are completely righteous you are already wise and do not need repentance. But we are not completely righteous (although there seems to be a lot of smug self-righteousness around) so we need wisdom and repentance to exist otherwise we cannot stand. The Divine then looks into the Torah (Chumash; Five Books of Moses) and creates the world. We are meant to be in a relation with the Divine; a partnership, not a domination. Ecology is Holy. We are meant to be completing creation. Of course, we never succeed in this work, but we are still meant to do it.

The Solution

So let’s start at the very beginning (apparently, it is a very good place to start). Beresheit bara – In a beginning created— Yes, A beginning not The beginning. Perhaps the Divine had a few attempts at this experiment. In some sources it is about 974 attempts (or some other very specific number which is rather wonderful). In some, I imagine, Adam and Eve did not eat from the forbidden tree and so there was a perfect Shabbat, Shalom, completion. But completion goes nowhere, or as the poet says, a completed garden is a dead garden. If you have Shalom, which means completion, you have perfection and that is that. In some versions perhaps Adam and Eve ate from the tree and in that day they did die. Do you want a Midrash that may help here (and you can look up Midrash, there is Prof Google on the planet now- do the work).

An example: Circumcision. Males are born spermless. They are not fully developed and have to complete this during maturity. Females are born with eggs. Males also have foreskins, a bit like webbed feet I suppose. Some people do not lose the webbing between their toes in utero and have to have it cut at birth. Well, we see the foreskin in that way. Get it? Removing it is part of the act of being in partnership with the Divine; pledging your child to that covenant. Covenants are partnerships. Each gets something from it otherwise it is merely domination or forced conversions. Think about it.

Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi and the Dalai Lama

Asks Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi ‘Why did the Divine make such a botch of things that he had to destroy most of creation and start again with Noah?’ Sideways Midrash reply:

In a phrase of Abrahams: ‘The Divine of my youth’ Can also be read : ‘The Divine in His youth’ . The Divine used to be younger and made mistakes. ‘When the Divine was younger’. The Divine learns from us, the Divine evolves, is evolving, creating. The Divine is the creator, the creating.

We are always beginning. All the time the Creator is Creating. We are meant to try to complete it (and fail) but at least try.

‘We are not obliged to finish the work, nor are we allowed to shirk from doing it’ (Pirkei Avot -Ethics of the Ancestors)

Having a Creator gives authenticity and authority to creation. Having a Righteous Creator where Justice and Mercy play equal parts gives morality compared to the Roman and Greek gods who are whimsical and cruel. But you have pretended that we have a different Divine to the one we have and that our Divine is cruel because bad things happen. We do not know the mind of the Divine (My ways are not your ways….) so we make up stupid things to fill the gaps. But most of us could not find our way round the Periodic Table of the Elements, yet we use the internal combustion engine and watch television and read from computers. Make the connection, please.

Our place in creation: we were created last. Why? Well says Tosefta Shanedrin 8:4 written around 189 CE (Before Darwin) so that you don’t get haughty (great word). A gnat preceded you in the act of creation and no, I do not really know the role of the gnat in the scheme of things. Also, of course, so that humans could eat. No trees and plants, no food. No Sunshine, no trees and plants.

All flesh is grass

(Isaiah 40. 8th Century BCE)

The Divine has created a place for us with everything we need as a gracious host. We need to be better behaved guests.

What is our role in the creative process? This is where colonial Roman-Christianity gets it all wrong.

Beresheit/Genesis 1: 26-28

Firstly, in Genesis 1, they are created together, male and female. Sort of back to back like a Janus figure, unaware of each other. The word Adam comes from Adamah, which means Earth. We are Earthlings. Our bodies come from the earth and our bodies shall return to it.

But it is the word Dominion that is a real problem for us on the receiving end of colonialism. It has been used to make the fittest into the meanest, cruelest, bullyish, scared nasty little boys.

This is what has been done with the word Dominion

There has been great progress in moving some social, political and economic areas forward recently with Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #metoo as leading examples. Unfortunately, most of them have been given impetus by appalling events such as the murder of George Floyd. Bullies, scared nasty boys, part of the Dominant culture.

Dominion

What have we done with the word, dominion? Well In Genesis Rabah 8:12, a commentary on Genesis written 2000 years ago, Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Ya’akov of K’far Chanin discuss having dominion over the fish in the sea etc. Rashi, the brilliant explainer of text, writing in the Middle Ages makes this clear (Pashat) for the rest of us. The Hebrew ְיִרְדּוּ

This can be read (from right to left as in carving) as RDOO meaning to have dominion over, or it can be read YRD, to go down. If we merit we rule, if we do not merit we are ruled over by the beasts and cattle.

Our role becomes a Moral Code from a Moral Divine. The Divine looked into the Torah and creates from Wisdom.

Partnership

There is a second version of creation (no we did not miss it when we included it). It sums up the first days and then does a little explanation:

The second version that the Name (Ha Shem) speaks

Although everything has been created here in this version it is not growing or being. Rashi again: Creation is in a state of Terem (Not Yet). There is Not Yet life, because there has not yet been rain and there is no humanity to work the ground, to CARE for the plants etc. The plants and animals want humans to intercede between the vertical and the horizontal. The first prayer is for Rain. Only Humans Pray. Our prayers take creation from potential (terem) to actual.

Rab Judah said : To enjoy anything of this world without a blessing is like making personal use of things consecrated to heaven, since it says: ‘The earth belongs to HaShem and the fullness there of.’ Psalm 24

Rab Levi contrasted two texts. It is written: ‘The earth belongs to HaShem and the fullness thereof’, and it is also written, ‘The heavens are the heavens of HaShem, but the earth hath He given to the children of men!’

There is no contradiction: in the one case it is before a blessing has been said. •Berakhot 35a:21 Talmud (90BCE Mishnah redacted c 189CE, Gemera c 500 CE)

Our prays move the use of the material world from the Divines to us. Thank you.

This is a very different reading. We are needed to allow creation to proceed down here, in this universe. Not domination. Partnership with the living earth and with the Creator. Not sin, but creativity.

And while I am here I might as well go into the other contentious issue, Israel, on which everyone has an opinion.

The Land

Firstly, it is the other name of Jacob (Ya’akov) the grandson of Abraham (Avraham), the child of Isaac (Yitzak). After Jacob wrestles with the Divine he is given an additional name. This happens a lot in Genesis. The name is Israel- man who struggles with the Divine. Not meek and mild and full of fundamentalism, a mere distortion, but a human that is in partnership on that ladder. A name, a person, a place, a space.

Secondly, we have our prayers sited in Israel for 3000 years, before the exile. Everyday

The Shema is said twice a day including this part

The land of Israel, promised by the Divine to the children of Jacob is not like the surrounding lands. No big rivers like the Nile, Euphrates or Tigris. Just the tiny Jordan, more a stream than a river. The entire land of Israel is the size of Wales, which is why you can’t find it easily among those Red and Green blocks of colour on the map above. The land of Israel relies on rain and dew. So for 3000 years we pray for it. For the last 2000 years we have a prayer the Amidah, said three times a day which in summer says : Causes the dew to descend and in winter says: Causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall. Our spiritual practice is, like most indigenous peoples, connected to a land, a place and our place in creation. Of course the colonialists don’t know that, which is why the Chinese can throw the Buddhist Tibetans from their sacred land and the Western Christians can throw the Aborigines from their sacred lands and the Native Peoples of the Americas from their sacred lands. The Muslims tend not to throw people from their lands, but force conversion on them instead, removing the sacredness of a specific place to make it a universal adherence.

How can you care for the planet and for life if you do not appreciate your very small role in it and have disdain for the material world? You need to see the sacred in it.

 ‘Know that when a person prays in a field, every blade of grass enters into their prayer and helps them, giving strength to their prayer’   Rabbi Nachman of Breslov  (1772-1810)  Likutei MohaRan 2:11

All festivals are tied to the land, to agriculture and to place. The section of Deuteronomy above ends with a very important Mitzvah (commandment) you shall eat and be satisfied and praise the Divine.

We make a prayer for everything, for waking up, for washing, for going to the lavatory, for food, for water, for bathing, for clothing, for praying!

Our festivals celebrate moments in our history, such as the Exodus from Egypt, our acceptance of the Torah, the first fruits from the land each year, the act of creation each week (Shabbat) the fragility of our lives, our gratitude for them and our attempt to improve ourselves each year. The Torah is a guidebook/self-improvement manual when read correctly. There are more than 10 commandments. There are 613 and about 26 of them apply only to the land of Israel. We have adapted to diaspora, but we cannot fully be ourselves on a foreign land. It is not about colonialism. Our colonialism is a field, two trees and a donkey, rather than Kashmir (huge), Tibet, chunks of India (Pakistan and Bangladesh) etc. And the West Bank is the size of the county of Dorset.

Palestine is the Roman (and later Christian) name for Israel. The Romans have acted as slave masters renaming places (and later the British Empire, Ceylon, for example) just as colonialists rename slaves. All Palestinians were Jews. There were no Christians at the time and no Muslims either. Nor does Jesus or Mohammed appear in the Bible- really, I have been asked that! Colonialism knows no bounds.

While many People of Colour (POC) have taken on the religions of their oppressor/invaders/ colonisers, we haven’t. How very annoying. But on this tiny land is the place where our seasons run with our prayers. It is not random.

Partnerships– what is all of our role here on Earth, all of our roles? You may not have realised this: Adam and Eve are not Jewish. They are not Christian or Muslim even if our creation story has been taken and distorted. Adam and Eve and ‘merely’ Human. They are created this way so that every one of us can say the universe was created for us, us human beings, each one of us human beings. It is why we think life, especially human life, is so precious. We can break most of the rules of Torah to save life, any life. Which is why you see Israelis going in to disaster areas. That, of course, gets distorted in a wicked evil way by colonial bullies who pretend we are going to harvest organs (three day old rotted organs, really? How stupid and cruel ) or that we are doing it for show. The media pretend that we are murderers, the people that brought you all these holy commandments. I see the IG and Tweets. But it is the trolls and conspiratorial greedy people out there, the bullies and cowards that are the problem. The colonialists, not us. All humans are from Adam and Eve and therefore have the same role.

The Role

Our role is to bring Holiness down here onto Earth. The heavens, by default, are holy. We, all of us, are meant to be in the Image and Likeness, to make holiness here. The Divine is Hosting us here and not only should we be good guests, caring for the place that has been created for us to enjoy, to live in, to eat in, to sleep in, but we should reciprocate. We should invite the Divine to our place. Host a dinner at the least. Stop being a Schnorer – a terrible thing to be. The Shnorer is the person who, if you are each paying for what you ate in the restaurant, eats meagerly, but if you are splitting the bill eats and drinks the most expensive and the most amount and then complains about the bill. You spend you life subsiding the schnorer. Don’t be one; be generous, there is enough for all of us. It is a good thing to be generous; it is righteous. I should add that there is a huge difference between being righteous and being self-righteous (holier than thou). Don’t fall into the latter smugness!

Ha Makom– this means the place, but it is also another word for the Divine. In fact, the whole Torah is the name of the Divine. We are meant to create a place for the Divine to visit. The Israelites did this in the desert of Sinai. They built the Mishkan (Tabernacles). The Mishkan is from the word Shekhinah, the in-dwelling presence of the Divine that is in all people, a presence that Jewish mystical tradition also imagine as the feminine aspect of the Divine. She came into exile with us when we left the Garden. Clean your homes. Clean your streets. Wash yourselves. Prepare for the visit. Put your own food on your own table, but please, stop putting my food on your table, or even on my table and then claiming the place as yours and throwing me out of my home.

The Mishkan

Ecology and Holiness

You cannot have this unless you appreciate the planet as holy, not sinful, just to be endured. Did you really think the Divine created it for suffering? You have a very cruel G-d if that is the case. That is not the one we have. Treat this place with respect. Gratitude and appreciation. If you do not know your way around the Periodic Table of the Elements and have a grasp of atomic theory, then try prayer. We have written many you can use if you need. We have a prayer for everything. You do not need to reinvent the wheel. I do not like hearing about John the Baptist and his amazing idea of Baptism- wow where did he get that idea from? We have mikvehs. We still do. We still use them. We still celebrate the festivals. We still have a Sabbatical Year (yes, that is where that idea comes from) when we rest the land (Exodus 23). Do look.

Our particular role seems to be to tell you this and hope you will hear. We are all, every one of us, to do holy.

We are all meant to be stewards on the planet in partnership with creation, not in domination over each other. As we say in Mussar, which is a guide to developing good character (and yes, psychotherapy comes from it) “No less than my place; No more than my space.” Acknowledge mine and keep to yours.

Addendum- further help if interested

1 Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary- this is split into the weekly portions that are read along with their companion Haftorah (from Nivim or Khetuvim) published by JPS originally but now by the Rabbinical Assembly. It is in Hebrew and English with essays in English. Really worth a read

2 Before you say that the God of the Old Testament in fierce or whatever and tell me about original sin, which we don’t believe in, perhaps you should read Exodus 32:10 (just after the sin of the Golden Calf!).

We recite this quite a few times a year and we call this:

The 13 Attributes of Mercy:

– The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful before a person sins! Even though aware that future evil lies dormant within him.

– The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray.

– God (El)–a name that denotes power as ruler over nature and humankind, indicating that God’s mercy sometimes surpasses even the degree indicated by this name.

– Compassionate (rahum)–God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty does not put people into situations of extreme temptation, and eases the punishment of the guilty.

– Gracious (v’hanun)–God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed.

– Slow to anger (ereh apayim)–God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent.

– Abundant in Kindness (v’rav hesed)–God is kind toward those who lack personal merits, providing more gifts and blessings than they deserve; if one’s personal behavior is evenly balanced between virtue and sin, God tips the scales of justice toward the good.

– Truth (v’emet)–God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him.

– Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations (notzeir hesed la-alafim)–God remembers the deeds of the righteous for thebenefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring (thus we constantly invoke the merit of the Patriarchs).

– Forgiver of iniquity (nosei avon)–God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner repents.

– Forgiver of willful sin (pesha)–God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him the opportunity to repent.

– Forgiver of error (v’hata’ah)–God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.

– Who cleanses (v’nakeh)–God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving, wiping away the sins of those who truly repent; however, if one does not repent, God does not cleanse.

3 Our God is the same one Jesus prayed to, but I don’t think it is the one Christians pray to (God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost). We are monotheists and do not do idolatry or images of God. We also do not pray to our prophets and they cannot be blasphemed as they are not God.

4 Blood Libel. If you read the Torah (our foundational text) you will see that we do not make human sacrifices. It is absolutely abhorrent. We also do not drink blood, any blood, and have a way of sacrificing animals for food that drains all the blood. Jesus would have known that.

Matzos, unleavened bread, were made first in the Exodus story, about 2000 years before Christians existed and 2500 years before Muslims existed, so I doubt Moses was making Matzos with the blood of Christian or Muslim children (just for the deeply stupid out there).

None of us make Matzos using blood as we don’t eat blood, any blood (black pudding is the most non-kosher of foods).

Christians, on the other hand, eat the flesh and drink the blood of their God each week, an idea most of us think is really yucky on many counts. Perhaps a Roman way of being and certainly not a Jewish one.

5 There are other commentators on the Tanakh (Bible) such as Heschel, Buber, Sacks, Steinslatz, Soloveitchik, R Nahmun, Rav Kook, Arthur Green, . Do try reading some of these before saying what is in the Tanakh and what it means.

6 There are many good websites such as My Jewish Learning. Don’t go to Christian ones or others before reading the people that practice it otherwise you are doing colonialism and bad Western anthropology.