Empire, Agriculture and the Gospel

The story of the garden is usually thought of as the story of original sin. Fashioning the Garden story into sin that we passed from generation to generation, Augustine left us with the doctrine of original sin. Is the story of the Garden about original sin?

Wes Howard-Griffin says that it is not. The story was written after the people had experienced exile to Babylon, in effect after they had been thrown out of the Garden. In Babylon they encounter a rich and varied agricultural society that used intricate canal systems to water the crops. On the way to Babylon, they saw many nomadic peoples who seemed to be thriving. They were hunters and gathers. The nomads did not know the surpluses of Babylonian agriculture.

“The development of the surplus agriculture that benefited Babylon” was thus seen as a “punishment for disobedience to the divine command issued in the Garden.” (26)  Howard-Brook continues:

Agriculture “was the biggest fork on the road of human existence.” It was the cause of the cultural phenomenon we call “history.” As Paul Shepard notes, the “rise of centralized authority—monarchies, clerical hierarchies, bureaucracies, trade networks, military units—was the heritage of agriculture.” (25)

Surplus agriculture, if I am reading Howard-Griffin correctly, made empire possible. Crops, surplus, storage, protection of surplus are all components of empire. Genesis will go on to show that the cities that developed around surplus agriculture were sources of sin and pride—the tower of Babel.

Empire leads to choices that are counter to what God wants. Today surplus agriculture has taken on global dimensions. We have lost all contact with the food we eat and its sources. I recommend Just Food for a thorough analysis of the havoc wrought by the agricultural revolution and modern farming and food distribution practices by conglomerates. This all leads to a system where the least among us do not have access to safe, healthy and nutritious food and we all have lost contact with the soil and the growers of the food we eat.

A close reading of the garden story would call us back to developing a connection between us and the land and the food we grow and eat. Thus, the emphasis on eating local, farmers markets, and community gardens.

Jesus likewise challenged empire. Rome had a practice that worked quite well to keep the people “happy.” The strategy was circuses and food. Hmm! Circuses entertained the people and kept them from thinking about how they were dominated by the empire. Can we think of football games, baseball, games, hockey games, NASCAR, PGA golf as modern day circuses? We may these days, be falling short, on the food strategy as more and  more people do not have enough to eat but we still have WIC cards and free school lunches.

Jesus rejects empire and all its vicissitudes in the temptation story. The story is a rejection of empire. The emperor provides bread but we do not live by bread alone. Jesus’ feedings of the crowds was a political act. Jesus rejects magic—quick fixes—and worldly dominion.

The account of Jesus’ temptations in Matthew tell us about liberation. In rejecting bread, Jesus is rejecting consumerism and materialism (empire). We do not live by bread alone. We are sustained with each breath by the overwhelming love of God. In rejecting power and dominion, Jesus is challenging dominative power. Jesus calls people to community, not to domination over others. In rejecting magical displays, Jesus is teaching us that we must trust in God and God alone. Governments and government leaders cannot give us the ultimate security. The change we believe in as Christians comes slowly.

Jesus came to proclaim the reign of God. Jesus came to set the oppressed free and to liberate the captives. Jesus came to welcome all to the table. Jesus, after having been baptized by John in the desert, went into the desert to prepare for his mission:

Jesus left the desert stage on which the preparation was being enacted, and moved out into the land of Israel to proclaim and act out the salvation which was already being offered with the arrival of God. . . . his itinerant life in and around the Galilean towns would be the best symbol of the arrival of God [the Kin-dom], who was coming as a Father to establish a fuller, more just life for all his children.

Jesus also moved away from John’s prophetic manner and strategy. He replaced the austere life of the desert with a festive life style. . . . The time had come to offer meals open to everyone, to welcome and celebrate the new life that God was instilling in his people. Jesus offered a banquet to be shared by all, and made it an expressive symbol of people embracing the fullness of life that God willed for them. (Jose Pagola, Jesus: An Historical Approximation)

Jesus irrupted into Galilee. He announced to the poor and downtrodden, which were the vast majority of his people, that God was with them. God was now present and would take away their pain and suffering. God would deliver them from political and religious oppression. The hungry were being filled. The naked were being clothed. The homeless were being sheltered. The sick were being healed.

As disciples, we continue the proclamation, the deliverance, the healing. We must reject consumerism and materialism as we usher in the Kin-dom. Jesus warned us that we cannot serve God and mammon. We try to have it both ways. Jesus says it will not work. We have to make a choice—God or mammon? In rejecting mammon, we must mindfully examine our complicity in human misery. Does our comfort come at the expense of people in sweat shops, child labor, mindless destruction of resources? Does our nourishment come off the backs of underpaid and often mistreated migrant workers? If so, we are serving mammon.

We reject power over. We reject patriarchy. We reject dominative power. Jesus is bringing us into communion, into an awareness of our common unity as children of the Creator, however we name the Creator. We reject any injustice to people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or national origin.

We reject magic and quick fixes. As children of God, we take the long view. We reject destruction of rain forests to serve our craving for beef. We reject “drill now” because it is short-sighted. Our pilgrimage is for the long haul. Our love relationship with God develops slowly over time:

It is more ordinary for the spirit to learn contemplation from God not in a sudden flash but imperceptibly, by very gradual steps. As a matter of fact, without the groundwork of long and patient trial and slow progress in the darkness of pure faith, contemplation will never really be learned at all. (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions, 1961. p 233-34.)








Yes, Jesus was totally Inclusive, but in over 2000 years,

we have perfected and refined His message.





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