Jesus vs. Caesar

For People Tired of Serving the Wrong God

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Joerg Rieger
  • Nashville, TN: 
    Abingdon Press
    , April
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Christians engage with worldliness, they may face struggles and tensions, often dividing people into two groups and oppressing others in the name of God for having different identities, faiths, and ideas about God and spirituality. Probably this is what has led to the popularity of Christian realism, arguing that Christians should have a balance of power and political responsibility between the kingdom of God and earthly powers to be realistic. In Jesus vs. Caesar, Joerg Rieger critically engages with the Christian realism of Augustine, Martin Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others. Rather than having a realistic view on the world, he argues that Christians should distinguish the tension between the genuine teaching of Jesus and malignant religious system in Christianity.

Rieger draws attention to the tension between Jesus and Caesar in his five-chapter book. He argues that “a fundamental tension at the heart of Christianity . . . is not between religion and atheism or between the sacred and the secular, as it commonly assumed. . . . It is the tension between faith that is life-giving for all—not just a few—and faith that is not” (1). In short, Jesus represents the life-giving way that saves people, while Caesar signifies malignant religion that serves a false god to dominate others with the power of empire.

In the first chapter, Reiger claims that atheism is not the opponent of Christianity. Rather, “a nuanced understanding of atheism reflects the fundamental struggle at the heart of Christianity between false gods and the true God” (14). He points out that Roman philosophers regarded Christians to be atheists because Christians did not serve the empire’s god. Instead of supporting the top-down way of the Roman Empire’s power, the early Christians believed in Jesus, who embraced bottom-up power to embrace common and weak people. In this respect, Jesus’ way of life aimed to pursue deep solidarity among people to fight against the oppression and power of the empire’s false god.

The second chapter deals with the relationship between religion and politics. Rieger thinks that the conflict between God and Caesar matters in all areas of life because distorted understandings of God and Caesar penetrate all different political relationships. He points out that that Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God, arguing that Jesus used the political term kingdom (Greek basileia) to show that the way of Jesus refuses the way of Caesar, exchanging top-down oppressive power in all political areas of life. Rieger claims that Jesus offers a relational power that rebuts the forces of empire in all areas of life.

In the third chapter, Rieger investigates the materialism of religion. According to Rieger, Jesus’ ministry does not suggest Christians leave the material world. Instead, it asks them to transform it. For Rieger, the tension between Jesus and Caesar does not come from the tension between material and spiritual, because the tension is about what kind of material and spiritual realities one values. Consequently, the point of Jesus’ teaching is how one can pursue sanctification in material reality and be transcendent for an alternative way of life here and now.

Rieger in the fourth chapter argues that economics and faith are not separated because wealth is “a matter of theology” (77). Wealth has a close relationship with the powers that lead people to be wealthy. According to Rieger, however, Jesus’ community fights against the false god of wealth because it teaches the importance of forgiveness of debt. He says that the community of Jesus holds a deep solidarity to counter “Caesar’s strategy of divide, conquer, and collect” (88). The logic of Jesus provides an alternative way of life to overcome the logic of wealth.

In the fifth chapter, Rieger talks about the importance of interreligious dialogue. He believes that Christianity “is made about an embodied way of life rather than an isolated idea” (95). This implies that the truth of Christianity can be found in the ongoing process of struggle and resilient suffering. According to Rieger, because Christianity has plural forms and open-ended shapes, it leads Christians to dialogue with others to work together against evil. As a result, advocating interreligious dialogue, he claims that people of faith should learn and embrace one another to struggle together against evil.

I very much appreciate Rieger’s book because it gives a fair observation on the relationship between Jesus and malignant religion. The book leads the reader to fight against the false image of God, while highlighting the love and forgiveness Jesus embodied. This book reflects on the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer to fight against new imperialism and capitalism today. According to the author, the true revelation of God happens when Christians rebut the temptation of top-down power and pray for God’s kingdom. For Christians, the good news is that the power of Jesus’ discipleship will always be with them to fight against the power of oppression, although the power of empire continues. Thus, the book asks Christians to keep discerning and fighting against the oppressive power of Caesar.

Even though this book accurately names the tension between Christianity and malign religion, its most significant failing is that it does not offer a deeper discussion behind its own theology. Also, it does not suggest any specific application to everyday life. Despite these weaknesses, this book is recommended for those who struggle with the tensions between Christianity and false religiosity. Because the book is written in plain language, it is not difficult to follow. In addition, it offers questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter. Thus, it would be suitable for a small-group reading to have a fruitful discussion about the relationship between Christianity and malign religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heejun Yang is a PhD candidate in philosophy of religion/theology at the Protestant Theology Faculty at the University of Münster.

Date of Review: 
April 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joerg Rieger holds the Cal Turner Chancellor's Chair in Wesleyan Studies and is Distinguished Professor of Theology in the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University. Before that he taught at Perkins School of Theology. His Ph.D. is from Duke University and he is an ordained elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church.


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