Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder Paperback – 1 Nov 2002
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About the Author
Richard A. Horsley is Professor of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Top Customer Reviews
Interestingly, Horsley tops and tails his little book with comparisons between empire today (especially in US terms) and the Roman empire of the first century - asking enormous questions about how the message of Jesus might be appropriated in our contemporary context. You may not agree with it, but these are fascinating questions that are not frequently asked.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
None of this is new.
In the last twenty pages of this book, however, Professor Horsley draws disquieting social, economic, political, military and religious parallels between imperial Rome and an imperial United States of America. With irksome clarity and courage, he points out that ancient Palestinians resisted Western imperialism by every means possible, including terrorism, and that some of their Middle Eastern descendents appear to be doing nothing more than following that example.
After September 11, 2001, this is not the book to read if you wish to be comforted, or rest cozily in your Western preconceptions. However, if you wish to be challenged intellectually and spiritually, this is a good book to read. If you wish to be disturbed and forced to think, read this book.
Like much of the contemporary Jesus scholarship, Richard A. Horsley's "Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder" is written to be provocative. Building on his earlier studies on Jesus, the region of Galilee, and the cultural clashes with Roman authority, Horsley focuses on how Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God relates to power politics between societies. What will most likely make the reader cringe, is Horsley's next move to draw social, political, and cultural parallels between authoritarian Rome and the United States of America. Horsley compares the rebellion of Jesus and the Israelites against the Roman Empire with present day cultural exportation leading to the global uprisings against capitalism, democracy and the United States which is often initiated by individuals from the Middle East.
Richard A. Horsley is the Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. He is the author of numerous books including: "The Message and the Kingdom" (Fortress Press, 2002); "Jesus and the Spiral of Violence" (Fortress Press, 1992); and "Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee" (1996). He is also the editor of a similarly titled, "Paul and Empire"; Horsley's introductory material in that 1997 anthology offered a synthesis of academic Pauline studies which depicted Paul as an anti-imperialist, in opposition to the all pervasive influence of the Roman empire.
Controversy is not new to this author, nor are the radical concepts found in "Jesus and Empire", indeed much of his work suggests a secularization of biblical material. Richard Horsley authored "Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs" in 1999, which was widely applauded by academic scholars, in which he diminished the religious elements of Jewish life while highlighting the sociopolitical factors. Thereby suggesting that Israelites were a gypsy-like band of peasants who had established an utopian society in hills of Palestine. Jesus was depicted as typical of the many "prophets and messiahs" working toward political and societal change.
According to Horsley, he began writing the latest book following some of the terrorist attacks on the United States to help Americans figure out why many people in the Middle East have a propensity to perceive the United States as a threat. He observes that in modern times the biblical elements of the American identity have waned. Then Americans experienced the rude awakening of a new world disorder. After September 11th there was a surge of patriotism marked by American flags and "God bless America." Time has passed and now Horsley thinks it is necessary we ask, "Why?" America, Horsley argues, caused the death of infants and children through its sanctions against Iraq. America violates the holy ground of Islam by establishing military bases in Saudi Arabia. America trains leaders from Latin America who return home to massacre their own people. Horsley's most recent work answers the question, "Why do they hate us so?" "Jesus and Empir"e contains six short yet unsettling chapters: Roman Imperialism: The New World Disorder; Resistance and Rebellion in Judea and Galilee; Jesus in the Politics of Roman Palestine; The Kingdom of God as Condemnation of Roman Imperialism; Jesus' Alternative Social Order: Community and Cooperation; and finally his epilog, The Empire Strikes Back. Regrettably the work does not have a topical index.
While his parallels seemed to be stretched, and the connections he makes may be disconcerting, there is solid value in this little book. Horsley reminds us of the need for accurate historical analysis since the fullest picture of Jesus demands understanding his original context. "Jesus and Empire" forces the reader to think by bringing to the forefront our unseen cultural assumptions. As a Catholic, I appreciate Horsley's urging Americans to set aside their individual perspective of Lone Ranger Christianity to see Jesus as a member of a community. The Christian faith grew through communities, and thus the actions of members must be understood not as an individual achievement but rather as a corporate message and purpose. Furthermore, Horsley observes that Americans think of Jesus solely as a religious figure frequently failing to take into account the political nature of his message to free the oppressed. Horsley reminds us that the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus is not only a spiritual or future place, but rather a present call to his followers to make a difference here on earth.
Horsley is most successful when he abolishes the myth that Jesus or his fellow Jews had any notion of separation of religion from state. Such an idea would have been incomprehensible nonsense at the time, as alien as the theocratic government of Iran is to modern day Americans. There was no such separation: renewal of the covenant meant the renewal of political life as well as economic and social life. Horsley uses the gospel of Mark and Q (by way of Luke) as evidence for his argument. Juxtaposing these documents with the Israelite covenantal tradition, he lays out his evidence from both the actions and speeches of Jesus as understood by his original audience. Jesus proclaimed "blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the mourning; woe to the rich, the full, and the laughing." He was turning the social, political, and economic reality upside-down. His was a harsh judgment of the status quo represented by the imperium of Rome and the collaborating high priests. The raw evidence in its context demonstrates that, similar to other popular prophets of the time, Jesus posed a great political threat to Rome. His crucifixion, his teaching to the rural poor, his denunciation of the Jerusalem elites, and his exorcisms all point to this antagonism towards Rome. Exorcisms? Jesus exorcised "2,000 demons" named "Legion" who possessed two men, cast them into a herd of pigs who rushed headlong into the sea, drowning. His hearers would understand. A "legion" was a 2,000-strong Roman military garrison, symbolically cast into pigs, an unclean animal to Jews, and thrown into the Mediterranean Sea whence they had come, vanquished. Just as Yahweh had thrown the enslaving Egyptians into the Sea of Reeds and drowned them as they pursued the liberated Hebrews. The advantage of Horsley's approach is that it coheres with the Israelite tradition of the divine being on the side of the oppressed and against their rulers, makes sense of his crucifixion (a distinctly Roman execution), and comprehends his teachings. His resurrection confirmed to his disciples that God was not on the side of the strong and powerful, but the poor, weak, and oppressed. In their view, God had the final word.
His arguments make sense, even if they are incomplete. It has been said many times that scholars always find a Jesus that coheres with their own personal political, economic, and/or social ideology. I have generally found this to be true. I have generally determined that they all reveal some truth but obscure the whole truth. It is a noble attempt, bringing a revered, but ancient figure into the modern world and fashioning a model that is intelligible to a postmodern, educated, and sophisticated culture. Ultimately, none of them can do so. Jesus was a 1st century Jewish prophet, he was not a 21st century anything. To a very large extent I believe that his essential person is unintelligible to us today. I see Jesus not as a 21st century economic liberal or a 21st century moral traditionalist, but something combining both of these elements, in an intensified form. Jesus prohibited divorce (a key insight to his moral worldview) and called for the renewal for a communal (read: communist), egalitarian economic and social life featuring mutual sharing and generosity towards friend and enemy alike. Our postmodern society has separated these ideas into vastly different paradigms and placed them on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The society Jesus lived in didn't separate economy from morality. It was all one, unitary understanding of what the covenant of the Creator entailed. We wonder why it can be so hard to understand Jesus and his sayings: two millennium, language, culture, political structure, history, social structure and institutions, and religious tradition all separate us. No wonder the difficulty; he can just barely be translated.
The final section is the disturbing and thought-provoking end. Is America the new Rome? Exploiting Middle Eastern peoples, supporting corrupt regimes, waging pre-emptive war to advance our ideology of economic prosperity for our own people, just as Rome extracted the money of peasants to build glorious cities for their elite? Terrorism, both ancient and modern, as the response of the poor and powerless towards outside meddling in their own countries affairs? The argument isn't perfect but it is compelling, especially given our recent adventures in Iraq where it is all but concluded that there was no WMD, no imminent threat. I have thought extensively lately about messianism in general, and observed that all empires see themselves in messianic terms, bringing peace, justice, prosperity, and order to the world. Rome saw themselves as such, and there is no arguing that America doesn't also. But God did not agree! What would Jesus say to us?
If Jesus were to somehow return, he would not go to Tel Aviv, but to Ramallah.
No conclusions can ultimately be drawn, but it certainly stimulates considerable thought.
Horsley begins by pointing out problems in U.S. religious attitudes. Since the Puritans, the U.S. has seen itself as a new Israel in a new promised land; however, it has acted more like Rome in its arrogant expansion and ethnocentrism. Typical U.S. views of the Bible are skewed in four ways: they separate the political from the religious; they reflect the individualism in U.S. culture; they analyze Jesus' statements as isolated sayings; and they use scholarly concepts like "apocalyptic" while denying the judgmental dimension of Jesus' discourse. Horsley continues to challenge these depoliticized views of Jesus in subsequent chapters.
In chapter one, Horsley demonstrates how the Roman Empire destroyed, subjugated, and terrorized other lands and peoples in its expansion to become the only superpower in the Mediterranean world. The Pax Romana was harsh and chaotic for the subjugated peoples. Romans practiced enslavement, genocide, torture such as crucifixion to deter rebellion, and agricultural taxes that put peasants deeper into debt. The emperor cult was superimposed on local religions-religion and politics were intertwined.
In chapter two, the author traces the Jewish tradition of rebellion against foreign domination, from the exodus through prophetic condemnation of abusive kings and priests to the Maccabean revolt. The apocalyptic writings in Daniel and 1 Enoch, Sicarii counterterrorism, popular protests such as the standards incident with Pilate and the peasant strike, and appearances of popular messiahs are later examples.
In chapter three, Horsley critiques modern Western "historical Jesus" approaches. The post-Enlightenment, intellectual bias rejected the supernatural parts of the Gospels, leaving some isolated sayings of Jesus as the only authentic elements. Horsley argues that we must view Jesus' cultural context, including class and regional divisions (e.g. Galilee vs. Judea), and we should not dissect the story of Mark or series of speeches in Q, thereby losing the integrity of the message.
Chapters four and five are Horsley's weakest link, in my opinion. In chapter four, Horsley asserts that Jesus, in continuity with past prophets and liberators, asserted his people's independence from Roman rule, through his emphasis on the reign of God in his words (in Q) and in his actions (in Mark). In chapter five, Horsley states that Jesus promotes replacing unjust imperial rule with a just, covenantal community that lives out the reign of God. I agree that Jesus' ministry did have a subversive political component, but that was not its totality or primary purpose. Horsley's interpretation of exorcisms as primarily political actions against the rulers (pp.100-02), for example, seems far-fetched. Likewise, his statements that "Jesus is healing the illnesses brought on by Roman imperialism" (109) and Jesus' forgiveness of sins was for "freeing up the life energies that had previously been introjected in self-blame" (110) distort these events.
In the epilogue, he compares the Roman empire in which Jesus and his contemporaries lived with the current U.S. empire in terms of rise to power, military and economic subjugation of other peoples, and the rebellions that such imperial policies inspired in its victims. I agreed with most of his points here, but if this is his conclusion, he spends too little space (only the second half of the epilogue) establishing it. He doesn't take the time to adequately explore the many differences between Roman and U.S. imperialism. For instance, the U.S. killed its native Americans or confined them in reservations; it didn't use them as local ruling representatives as the Romans did in Galilee. Another example is that opponents of U.S. imperialism are allowed to criticize U.S. leaders and policies, unlike ancient Rome. Overall, Horsley gives valuable alternatives to traditional views on Jesus, Rome, and politics, but his ending arguments could be much stronger.
The last part of the book compares the Roman Empire with the American Empire in a way that should make us middle-class Christians in the West very uncomfortable. The people Jesus associated with were more similiar to Nicaraguan's in the 1980s, Iranians under the Shah, etc. suffering under the Pax Americana than to us. We are the "Romans" benefiting from the spoils of the Empire.