The wilderness was not a place that good Romans went. In the view of Roman imperial cosmology, the wilderness was a place full of savage people to be subdued and conquered. The Augustus of Prima Porta statue, imaged here, shows precisely this view. The heavens come into alignment and the Gods look down in delight as the Parthian king surrenders to Rome. On either side, mourning barbarian women are curled in positions of submission. This is how Rome viewed the wilderness — the worlds of barbarian people and wild animals outside the boundaries of Roman control, and only fit into the Roman imagination once they had been subdued. This was the drama enacted regularly in the arena, where wild animals and foreign persons were slaughtered before adoring crowds.
Imperial propaganda spoke of Augustus as the savior of the world, who would bring a new age of peace and prosperity to Rome. A calendar inscription from the town of Priene even proclaims that the birth of Augustus marked the “beginning of the gospel.” Augustus had a gospel; he spoke of himself as good news and a savior, because he would conquer and subdue the unruly and untamed wilderness and usher in an era of peace.
But Mark’s gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, begins with an exodus of people out of the cities and provinces of Roman control and into the wilderness. They are led by John the Baptist, a man who is fed not out of Roman granaries but by wild honey and locusts. According to the Roman cosmology, which Augustus literally embodies in the Prima Porta statue, anyone going out into the wilderness is suspect. Those who feed themselves rather than eat the food extracted from colonies through conquest are dangerous. The wilderness is the seat of chaos, the source of subversion. Right at the beginning of Mark the counter-imperial message is right up front. Jesus is part of a movement that operates outside of Roman control.
As we move into advent, the political message of this passage is clear. When Jesus breaks into the world he does so from the margins, from the unexpected places, from the places that no sensible person would ever venture. The true savior of the world is not the one who wields military might but the one who has the courage required to step outside of the prevailing power structure, to move into wild spaces full of creative energy and to begin to see the world with a new set of categories than the ones inherited from culture.
Of course Jesus did not stay in the wilderness, and neither can we. Our journey may begin when we extract ourselves from the “known world” and venture into the wilderness, but the real work begins when we re-enter our old spaces imbued with the new perspective separation brings. Students at UC Berkley had stepped into the wilderness of the Occupy Movement, lived in a space outside the norms of the world they grew up in. For the first time they were given permission and space to question things that had been givens their entire lives. In light of these new emerging ideas and burgeoning sense of community, they sat down on their campus seeking concessions from institutional power, and they were doused with pepper spray.
Lt. Pike of the UC Berkley Police and Augustus of Prima Porta are two images of how the world responds to the voices emerging from the wilderness. But in my sacred scripture there is the story of one of those wilderness voices: Jesus, the man of Nazareth, the Christ who teaches that Caesar’s peace is a lie. As we enter Advent, Mark’s gospel calls us out to the wilderness where we turn away from the world as we know it, where we have space to imagine a new future for our planet, and where we truly believe that this new world is coming. This wilderness is the only place where we can hear the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
John Allen is a Protest Chaplain at Occupy Wall Street. He is a Master of Divinity Student in New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Davidson College. He is an ordination candidate in the United Church of Christ Metropolitan Boston Association.