|Reading The Gospel of Matthew Ecologically in Oceania
-Elaine M. Wainwright-
Oceania as Context for Reading
In the Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age, of 29 July, 2009, Adam Morton reported on those believed to be the first climate change refugees, the people of the Carteret Islands, seven tiny volcanic atolls belonging to Papua New Guinea and situated almost 100 kilometres north east of Bougainville in the South Pacific Ocean 1 These refugees are in the process of leaving their homes, their islands, and being set up on Bougainville land acquired by the Catholic Church for their use. Scientists are aware that the situation is complex and that geological factors other than climate change may be affecting the islands causing them to sink as well as sea levels to rise. But those rising sea levels together with the changes in temperature, violent storms, tsunamis and other effects on/of the ocean are some of the factors that scientists demonstrate are the result of rising temperatures caused by human emissions of CO2’s into the atmosphere and its inability to escape The lifestyle of some in our world is having a catastrophic impact on others with the peoples of Oceania or the Pacific bearing the burden in untold ways and the ocean itself and its complex ecosystems and species being changed and destroyed. Climate change is, therefore, one of the most urgent global concerns whose effects are devastating and urgent for the small island nations located in the Pacific or the region of Oceania as it is becoming known, for their ocean contexts and for all Earth constituents of whatever life-form in the region.2
It is from this region as an Australian biblical scholar currently working in New Zealand that I seek to undertake an ecological reading of the Gospel of Matthew. I join other scholars in the region who are undertaking similar interpretive tasks from a variety of perspectives. Oceania is the place of origin of the Earth Bible project, a five volume set of collections of essays overseen by a team of scholars located in Adelaide, Australia, and directed by Norman Habel.3 The Team developed six Ecojustice Principles to guide ecological readings of biblical texts4 and invited a range of international scholars to read selected texts from across the two testaments guided by these principles. Among those texts selected, only two focus specifically on Matthean gospel texts, my own article in Volume 1, “A Transformative Struggle towards the Divine Dream: An Ecofeminist Reading of Matthew 11”5 and that of Adrian M. Leske, “Matthew 6:25-34: Human Anxiety and the Natural World” in Volume 5.6
The work of the Earth Bible Team was continued through Norman Habel’s establishing a Consultation on Ecological Hermeneutics at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, beginning in 2004. Out of this consultation emerged Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics, a volume edited by Norman Habel and Peter Trudinger, the co-chairs of the consultation, and published in 2008. No studies of the Matthean gospel appeared in this volume. During this decade, however, other important ecological readings of biblical texts began to appear in the region. Robert Barry Leal undertook a study of wilderness in the Bible with particular attention to the experience of wilderness in an Australian context.7 He did not, however, specifically develop an ecological hermeneutic. Anne F. Elvey does so as she reads selected Lukan texts from an ecological feminist perspective.8 I sought to integrate an ecological with a feminist and postcolonial perspective in my study of women healing in the Graeco-Roman world9 and to develop eco-feminist readings of specific texts.10. Ecological issues have also been taken up in the region by theologians and this is evident in the work of Ilaitia S. Tuwere,11 Ama Tofaeono,12 Winston Halapua,13 Nicola Hoggard Creegan,14 Neil Darragh15 and Dennis Edwards16 to name but some. It was no surprise, therefore that the inaugural meeting of the Oceania Biblical Studies Association held in Auckland in July, 2010 in conjunction with the theological society, Waves of the Moana, chose as its the theme “Climate Change in Oceania: Biblical and Theological Responses.” Also at the 2010 meeting of the Society for Asian Biblical Studies, Dr. Nasili Vaka’uta delivered one of the keynote addresses with a focus on reading eco-wise in Oceania.17 Biblical scholars in the region are beginning to undertake ecological readings of biblical texts and traditions with particular attention to their context in Oceania, a context that is experiencing quite profoundly the effects of climate change and global warming. It is within this context that I place an ecological reading of the Gospel of Matthew.
Reading Matthew Ecologically
Undertaking such a task has entailed developing a framework for reading that I can only outline here. I have been significantly influenced by Lorraine Code’s Ecological Thinking. In her work, she demonstrates the need for a new social imaginary if we are to address the ecological crisis and it is that new or emerging imaginary that she calls ecological thinking. She envisages such thinking as working against the instituted social imaginary of mastery in all its forms—human domination of human and all other life-forms constituting Earth or the anthropocentrism which characterizes so much current thinking and practice. It requires, therefore, a hermeneutics of suspicion or a critical appraisal of all forms of domination that has been so prevalent in Earth’s history. But such a critique will not, in itself, bring about transformation. Code herself goes on to add the significance of what she calls ‘reconfiguration’:
The instituting imaginary is a vehicle of radical social critique: it requires thinking and acting away from received conceptions of knowledge, subjectivity, responsibility, and agency, from positions located squarely within the power-infused rhetorical spaces where knowledge making and knowledge circulating occur; determining how reconfigurations might be proposed, innovative hypotheses articulated and tested in and for that climate, that place, positioned as it is in relation to other places and climates.18
As a critical and reconstructive epistemology, ecological thinking shares characteristics with other critical epistemologies such as feminism and postcolonialism or as Code suggests:
“[it] emerges from and addresses so many interwoven and sometimes contradictory issues—feminist, classist, environmental, postcolonial, racist, sexist—that its implications require multifaceted chartings.19
Its focus, however, is Earth and all its constituents and the function of power within the relationships among all Earth’s constituents including the human but within the broader web of relationships.
The particular lens that I have chosen to enable ecological thinking to function within a process of reading the biblical/the Matthean text is habitat. For Code, ecology is a “study of habitats both physical and social”20 in a way that shifts the nature/culture divide of the epistemology of mastery. She defines habitat as a “place to know” such that “social-political, cultural, and psychological elements figure alongside physical (and I would add material) and (other) environmental contributors to the “nature” of a habitat and its inhabitants at any historical moment.”21 But habitat, will always be limited—limited by human perspective, human worldview/s as well as limited by Earth itself which is always beyond, always more than our knowing.22 This tension will characterize the use of habitat as a key interpretive category, noting that habitat is more than place but also that place will be explored in new ways in dialogue with emerging critical theory and from an ecological perspective. Habitat and in-habitants (the more-than-human which includes the human together with all Earth’s constitutents) are inseparable such that ‘habitat’ can function as a key interpretive lens for reading ecologically.
Biblical studies has long been concerned with the interrelationships of text and context, and their relationship within the complex process of text production and text interpretation or meaning making.23 For an ecological reading attentive to not only the reciprocity of text and context24 but to the complex web of author/reader in/and context, habitat will be significant in order to re-turn the reading process toward Earth. In this, Code reminds us again that habitat itself is not just place in its materiality but place in which materiality is inextricably linked to:
ethologies, genealogies, commitments, and power relations that shape the knowledge and subjectivities enacted there; the intractable locational specificities that resist homogenization or suggest novel connections; the positionings available or closed to would-be knowers; the amenability or resistance of both human and nonhuman entitites to being known.25
The biblical methodology that best facilitates an ecological reading for me is socio-rhetorical. Habitat can function as interpretive key within an analysis of the text’s inner texture (its characters, plot, setting, rhetorical features and other aspects of that inner texture). Similarly, in relation to the intertexture both behind and in front of the text,26 habitat provides an important ecological lens. Vernon Robbins names the third texture of his socio-rhetorical model the social and cultural texture.27 Within an ecological reading, I am suggesting that this third texture be called the ecological texture. It will include analysis of those social and cultural features that are generally seen to constitute the human community as these are encoded in the text. But this analysis will be extended to recognize all Earth relationships and their dynamics as these too are encoded in the text. The socio-rhetorical reading that I am proposing, therefore, uses ‘habitat’ as interpretive key within a reading of the inner texture, intertexture and ecological texture of the Matthean text.
The term I use in order to highlight the complex reciprocity of author-text-reader in/and habitat as place to know and place from which to know in an ecological reading is inter-con/textuality.28 It is not only concerned with relationships between texts but also between texts and contexts as these are encoded within texts. It will also include the interweave into this reciprocity of the multiple aspects of habitat and the shift in consciousness necessary to hear those aspects of Earth encoded in the text. This is necessary because these interrelationships have been silenced by previous readings so that they are almost forgotten by readers. Or, more seriously, they have been erased and so an ecological reading seeks to hear the erasures that the text evokes.
In an inter-con/textual reading, habitat, in all its diversity of the embodied, materially and socially related Earth beings, of social, temporal and physical locations, of their histories and genealogies and of their power relations, functions as inter-con/text. It is woven into the texture of the text. The reader will need to listen for the re-mark which Timothy Morton describes as a kind of echo in the text that makes readers aware that there is but a “hair’s breadth” between foreground and background in a way that leads to “questioning the genuine existence of these categories.”29 Ecological readers will be attentive to that echo which takes us to the hair’s breadth between habitat as background and foreground, which breaks down the binaries while not collapsing the categories themselves into a singularity that destroys the very diversity of eco-systems.
In concluding this theoretical section, I want to emphasize that the ecological reading I am proposing is one that can be used when interpreting any text. If ecological reading is limited to texts that highlight Earth, then it will be seen as peripheral. I am arguing here that it is integral to a reading of all texts. In this regard, then, our reading and interpreting of biblical texts will contribute, in its turn, to the shaping of the new and emerging social imaginary that Code calls ecological thinking.
Reading Matt 4:1-11 Ecologically
In a previous study, I characterized the movement within Matt 3-4 under the title “From Wilderness to Waterfront”. In the process of reading Matt 3,30 it emerged that both John and Jesus move from wilderness to waterfront with an additional waterfront to wilderness movement by Jesus (3:13-4:1). Also, given that the Jordan River flows through the wilderness of Judea, the boundaries between the two are somewhat porous in some parts of the text until Jesus moves to a new waterfront, that of Capernaum (Matt 4:12-13). Inter-con/textually, however, both wilderness and waterfront characterize Matt 3 and Matt 4.
Reading the reference to ‘wilderness’ in 4:1 inter-con/textually with Soja’s theory of first-, second- and third-space,31 it can evoke that area extending west from the lower Jordan River and the Dead Sea into the hill country at the level of firstspace (or perceived space). From the very outset the narrative is characterized by its material location. The text does not, however, give readers any glimpse of Jesus’ interaction with the space that is the wilderness/desert as it did in relation to John (3:4). Rather, it points to the fact that Jesus did not eat of the sustenance that the desert can provide as he was fasting. Reading through the lens of the re-mark, one recognizes the “hair’s breadth” between background and foreground and the possibility of bringing the firstspace appropriation of wilderness/desert to the foreground which opens up to at least imaginative exploration of the wilderness in interaction with Jesus and he with it. This also allows for a reading of wilderness that is not idealized by the human community but rather as that place with all its diversity of habitat/s and Earth constituents in which Jesus fasts.
The fast of Jesus in the desert and its contrast with Matt 3:4 may alert the ecological reader to the process of desertification that is resulting from climate change in the twenty-first century, aware at the same time that first century inhabitants of the region of the Jordan acted in a range of ways in relationship with their desert/wilderness environment. In Oceania, desertification processes are most common across much of the land mass of Australia but now land degradation is also visiting the once exceedingly fertile islands of the Pacific.32 The text can be read intertextually with this world in front of it as well as that behind it.
Robert Leal summarizes the intertextuality that seems most appropriate to the Secondspace understanding of Matt 4:1, conceiving wilderness as the place of divine encounter in which discipline, purification and/or transformation take place often as a result of the harshness of the environment in relation to human habitation.33 Thus the reference to wilderness can function geographically and metaphorically. It is a space that has its own particular eco-systems but a place that can be harsh for those of the human community who have not learnt to live there.34 As such it is conceived of as a place of encounter with the divine and with the diabolos and so it is the spirit who has been characterized earlier as “holy” (1:18, 20; 3:11) and “of God” (3:16) who leads Jesus into the wilderness.
Reading the erēmos/wilderness or desert through the lens of Sojo’s thirdspace, it can be seen as a site of marginality but not a marginality that is “imposed by oppressive structures” but is rather a site that “one chooses as a site of resistance”.35 It is a place where Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights. In this way he is characterized intertextually through the lens of the prophet and mediator of a covenant with the divine, namely Moses and Elijah (Ex 34:27-28 and 1 Kgs 19:8). Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights and Ex 34:28 goes on to say “he neither ate bread nor drank water,” the sources of food and drink which the Earth gives for the sustenance of the human community. Elijah journeys for forty days and nights on the strength of the food and drink that he is given in the wilderness. Thus fasting can be read inter-con/textually as a symbol not only of human reliance on divinity but also on Earth. The abstaining from food brings an awareness of this—Jesus is hungry (4:2).36 The mediator of the covenant between divinity and humanity or the prophet of God with/in whom God is with God’s people (Matt 1:23) or the beloved in whom God is well pleased (3:17) must know this reliance, the hunger that comes from the choice not to eat nor to drink for a period of time.37 Jesus has been lead into this marginal or liminal space not as a location imposed on him but a space that he clearly embraces and from which resistance will be possible.
This resistance becomes manifest as one reads the account of the three tests or temptations that Jesus faces (4:3-10) through the lens of Soja’s first-, second- and third-space. The firstspace location of the 3 tests differs. The wilderness or desert remains the perceived space for the first test and in it, Jesus experiences hunger as a result of his fast. The test offered to Jesus is to change stones into bread, to intervene in Earth’s processes and the delicate interrelationship between the human and other-than-human Earth elements. Jesus resists the challenge. Reading his response from a third- or resistant space and an ecological perspective, one can hear him affirming Earth interrelationships and their interconnectedness with the divine. The alla or ‘but’ in the phrase “the human one/the anthrōpos shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (v. 4) could be interpreted as opposing the sustenance of human food with the sustenance of God’s word.38 Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, however, offer an alternative way of understanding the connective: the other side of the matter, but yet.39 The human one must be in right relationship with both Earth elements and with God.40 The response of Jesus also resists the diabolic proposal to manipulate Earth’s elements for one’s own satisfaction or gratification providing a challenge to contemporary readers in a world where such manipulation is contributing to ecological degradation in multiple ways.41
The firstspace location of the second test is the pinnacle of the temple in the city of Jerusalem. Already in Matthew’s gospel, Jerusalem has been portrayed as the centre of political power with Herod’s building programme providing it with the built environment of a royal city.42 It was also the religious centre given the location of the temple within the city. This temple had been reconstructed by Herod using the massive stones that can still be seen on the site. But the temple also bears all the ambiguity of this reconstruction by Herod whose use of power and the material was in opposition to claims of divine presence. Some of this ambiguity is already woven into Matt 2:1-12, in which Jerusalem was contrasted with Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. The devil’s taking of Jesus to the ‘holy city’ and placing him on the ‘pinnacle of the temple’ evokes these first- and secondspace connotations inter-con/textually as Jesus is represented as having it all within his extraordinary purview. Place and power with all their political, social, cultural and religious connotations play within the ecological texture of the text constituting habitat.
Jesus’ claim on power is being tested in this second temptation by the diabolos or tempter in the context of the intersecting web of power functioning in this text. The tempter places Jesus in a position of oversight of all the visual symbols of Herod’s political and economic power resulting in the transformation of material resources into the city below him. He then challenges Jesus within the framework of the challenge/riposte functioning between them. In the first such contest, Jesus bested the tempter with his citation of the scriptural text, Deut 8:3. The tempter then throws out the challenge of a different text to Jesus: Ps 91:11a, 12. This is a psalm that uses multiple imagery to evoke God’s assurance of protection and it is interpreted literally by the tempter, challenging Jesus to throw himself down and to expect extraordinary divine intervention to counteract his human action. Jesus interprets divine power very differently. He cites Deut 6:16 and its prohibition against tempting God and in doing so evokes the intertext Ex 17:1-7 and the people’s ‘testing’ of God at Massah and Meribah.43 There the people trust neither God nor Earth to provide them with water to drink along their wilderness journey and yet it is the intersection of the power of both that will sustain them. This is the reliance that must not be tested, not some self-initiated challenge to God’s care as put before Jesus by the tempter. Oceania readers will recognize that the complex web of relationships in relation to water, evoked by the intertexture of this verse, has been broken by climate change either as this relates to the ocean to which they are intimately related,44 or to the much needed water in the larger islands of Australia and New Zealand.
Power emerges even more explicitly in the third temptation whose location is the top of a very high mountain from which “all the kingdoms/basileias of the world” are visible. Intertextually, the tops of high mountains are the abode of divine power: of the gods of those with whom Israel contested (Deut 12:2), of Israel’s God (Ez 20:40; also Moses and Elijah encounter God on the mountain height of Sinai or Horeb—Ex 34; 1 Kgs 19); and of the gods of Rome who, as Warren Carter says, “were thought to reside on Mt. Olympus.”45 From this place of divine power, the tempter shows Jesus “all the kingdoms/basileias of the world” as noted above. These “basileias of the world” are the political, economic, social and religious centres which are being offered to Jesus with all the “honor …, fame, recognition, renown … (and) prestige46 that accompanies them. Already in the narrative, however, John the Immerser has proclaimed that the basileia of the heavens is at hand (3:2) and that there is one coming after him who will carry on the task of eschatological prophet (3:11-12). Jesus has been intimately linked with John by way of John’s baptizing of him to fulfil all righteousness or right ordering and according to McVann’s interpretation, Jesus is thereby initiated as just such a prophet by way of the ritual process which he, McVann, identifies in Matt 3-4.
The price offered to Jesus for these kingdoms with all their political, social, economic and religious power is that he fall down and worship Satan, recognizing in the tempter divine power and honouring this power with his homage. Jesus once again speaks from the thirdspace of the mountain top, a third word of resistance—only God shall be worshipped, only God will be given the homage of one’s life. Jesus has shown himself to be “beloved Son” (3:17) to be faithful son (4:3 and 6) unlike Israel who was also called ‘son’ or ‘firstborn son’ (Ex 4:22-23; Deut 8:5; 14:1 and Hos 11:1 already cited in Matt 2:1547).
While the first two tests of the beloved one point to the web of right relationships that connect the divine, human and the other-than-human, the third test, which purportedly challenges the power that characterizes the basileias of the cosmos, in fact breaks the web. It focuses only on divine power or the divine/human interrelationship presented as cultic service.48 Earth is excluded at this climactic point in the pericope as are divine-human relationships imaged in ways other than power. This alerts the attentive ecological reader to the exclusion of the female from this entire narrative. Jesus, the tempter (4:3) and God (explicitly in 4:10 but implicitly throughout by way of pronouns) are all gendered male. The ecological reader will need to take up the space of resistance given to Jesus in the text and to read against the grain of this gendering, bringing into the imaging of God, at least, echoes of Sophia or of the female divine imaged as dove from 3:16-17.49 It will also be necessary to carry the web of relationships which function in Jesus’ successful negotiation of the first two tests into that of the third.
The ecological reading of the opening pericope of Matt 4 has demonstrated that attention to the material in its interconnectedness with both the human and the divine offers ways of both reading the text anew in the light of ecological thinking and of informing the emerging social imaginary that Code calls ecological thinking by way of these new readings. Subtle movements between inner, inter- and ecological textures of the Matthean text allowed new meanings to emerge in front of the text but always taking account of the inter-con/textuality within the text. Such readings are both informed by and inform Oceania’s ecological readers, aware as I am of the multivalent relationships of peoples, nations and ecologies within the region. They open the way for the engagement of other readers from contexts different to my own to come into dialogue with these readings and to produce others that together may lead to new ecological praxis in the region.
Elaine M. Wainwright 1.10.2010