Like much of the contemporary Jesus scholarship, this book is written to be provocative and challenging. 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 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. Horsley authored Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs in 1999, which was widely applauded by 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 Empire 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. Horsley urges 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.