Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Order

  1. Review

    This book is timely. In his introduction, the author, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, points out that since beginning of America we have thought of ourselves as a biblical people who hold to the "covenantal principles of social-economic justice." Today, however, many Americans sense a growing discrepancy between this identity and the position and policies of their country in the world. He suggests that many Americans are beginning to think that we are "analogous to imperial Rome" which is unsettling for those who are "reflective about Christian origins." For the mission of Jesus was among a people who had been conquered and subjugated by the Roman Empire.

    On the other hand, many Christian people would not find that unsettling, given the standard profile of a "depoliticized" Jesus who is concerned about individual salvation and unconcerned about the political and economic realities which impact the lives of people. But the author writes, "Since September 11, 2001, however, we can no longer rest comfortably with such domesticated pictures of Jesus. We can no longer ignore the impact of Western imperialism on subordinated people and the ways in which peoples whose lives have been invaded sometimes react."

    This book is provocative. It is the reality of a "disordered world" and a domesticated and depolticized Jesus that drives the author to develop a portrait of the historical Jesus in the context of empire. He makes the case that Jesus pursued his mission in Galilee under political, economic and social conditions determined by Roman imperialism. He begins with a chapter describing the years of protest, resistance and rebellion against Rome and its client rulers, which was "deeply rooted" in the principle of exclusive loyalty to the Mosaic covenant in which "religious and political-economic dimensions are inseparable." Various forms of these movements against Rome were active in the time of Jesus and "clearly prefigure" him and his movement.

    It is in this context that Jesus began and lived his mission and ministry. In drawing a portrait of Jesus in historical context, Horsley uses the Gospel of Mark and "Q" (the source behind the parallel teaching of Jesus in Matthew and Luke that they did not get from Mark). He emphasizes that the teaching of Jesus focused on the Kingdom of God, a metaphor used to point to the judgement of God against the oppressive rulers of Israel in Jerusalem and Rome and the renewal of the people in village communities according to the Mosaic covenant.

    In the midst of social disintegration in Galilee, Jesus began his mission for social renewal focused on the local village community, inspired, and patterned after the Mosaic covenant of Israel. Horsley describes the covenant to which Jesus summoned the people.

    In economic relations they must return to the "principles of mutual sharing and cooperation" as described in Deut 15:7-11. In the area of social interaction, they must return to dealing with interpersonal conflicts described in Lev. 19:17-18. Finally, they must develop and maintain justice in their social relations, described in Jer. 31:27-34. These principles of covenant renewal are evident in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Horsley writes, "Appealing to these traditional values and principles of just and cooperative political-economic relations, Jesus called people to take control of their lives in a social revolution." If Jesus had been "merely religious" why was his prophetic condemnation of oppression and injustice resisted by the rulers of Rome and Jerusalem?

    Horsley points out that those who promote a domesticated and depoliticized Jesus have trouble explaining why Jesus was crucified. But those who see Jesus in historical context understand the execution of Jesus as the end result of his opposition to the imperial order of Rome and "an inspiration for many to persist in their desire to sustain an alternative society."

    Concluding his book, Horsley provides a survey of the history of the rise of the American empire and its present political and economic scope, which has many similarities to the Roman empire. He is convinced that it is our task as Christians, individually and as church, to "discern more critically our own situation and roles in the current new world disorder" and to explore the implications of Jesus and the Gospels for the renewal of America devoted to social justice.

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