In the Shadow of Empire

Richard Horsley, editor, Westminster John Knox, 2008

My most recent fad in biblical reading is on the perspective of empire as key to understanding the biblical text. ‘Issues of imperial rule and response to it run deep and wide through most books of the Bible’ (p 7). There is the double need: to see the theme of empire in order to understand the biblical text, and to see the nature of our response to that theme in our own culture and story. ‘The principal biblically based celebrations of both Christian churches and Jewish synagogues all focus on imperial oppression and G-d’s deliverance of the people. Passover commemorates the exodus from hard bondage under the pharaoh in Egypt. Hanukkah celebrates G-d’s deliverance of the Judeans struggling to resist the first attempts by a Western empire to suppress the Israelite-Judean traditional covenantal way of life.

Christmas celebrates the birth of a peasant child as the true ‘Saviour’ of a people who had been conquered and laid under tribute by Caesar, whom the whole world had already acclaimed as the ‘Saviour’ who had brought ‘peace and security’ to the world. It also commemorates the Roman client king’s dispatch of counterinsurgency forces to massacre the innocents in order to check the deliverance movement before it got started. Good Friday and Easter remember Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Roman imperial rulers followed by his vindication by G-d as the true Lord and Saviour, as opposed to the imperial ‘lord’ and ‘saviour’. In the Shadow of Empire traces this theme closely in the stories of Jesus, in the writings of Paul, and in the books of Matthew, Acts and Revelation.

—Vern Ratzlaff, pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada