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Jubilee's Roots:
Jesus and the Domination System

by Ross and Gloria Kinsler

In his book, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, William Herzog explains the domination system that was the context for Jesus’ ministry. Roman rule in Palestine was primarily a system for the extraction of tributes, in which the ruler obtained 25% of total income, the tiny ruling class (1 or 2% of the population) absorbed another 40%, and the peasant majority, who actually produced most of the wealth from the land, was left almost destitute.

Elites then as now constructed reality

to justify their right to power, wealth, and privilege while using it simultaneously to explain the subsistence of the masses ... to mystify the ways in which they extracted their wealth from the so-called surplus of the peasants and rural poor who produced it and then accumulated it for the purpose of status display and conspicuous consumption .... Insofar as peasants and other exploited groups accepted this thematic universe and internalized its judgments, they were participating in their own oppression. (P. 28)

In his parables, according to Herzog, Jesus was not primarily concerned with piety or theology. Rather he told those stories to expose the system of exploitation and break the cycle of exploitation and poverty.

The parables reveal

the workings of exploitation in the world of their hearers. The focus of the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class.... as part of the liberation praxis of Jesus’ ministry. (P. 3)

Herzog makes a devastating critique of the way in which some preaching and teaching in our churches has distorted our understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

If Jesus had been the kind of teacher popularly portrayed in the North American church, a master of the inner life, teaching the importance of spirituality and a private relationship with God, he would have been supported by the Romans as part of their rural pacification program. That was exactly the kind of religion the Romans wanted peasants to have.... The one thing about Jesus that can be known with certainty is that he was executed as an enemy of the state and the Temple ... on the charge of subversion. (P. 27)

—from Jubilee Workbook #1 (unpublished), "Biblical Faith" section

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