Fishing with Superpowers

Fishing with Superpowers

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NRSV)

In his upcoming book Postcards from Babylon Brian Zahnd observes that the original Jesus movement was not a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die—it was a countercultural way of public life. It threatened the religious and political establishment because it actively “challenged the dominant myth that Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the nations and a divine right to shape history” (Zahnd). There is no doubt that—as Roman contractors—Peter, Andrew, James, and John knew what was at stake if they followed Jesus.

Under Roman occupation fish were claimed as revenue for the empire.[i] By closely regulating fishing through licensing, quotas, and taxation, Rome maintained its control over vital food supplies.[ii] Rome established an economic and political monopoly[iii] that benefited the social elite at the expense of subjugated masses—people whose very survival depended on the natural resources seized by the empire.

Rather than resist, some chose to profit from the oppression of their own people. Peter, Andrew, James, and John appear to have shrewdly involved themselves in the Roman hegemony by purchasing a contract to operate a commercial fishing enterprise.[iv] They obtained the right to fish the sea in exchange for a quota of fish and taxes on their catch and transportation.[v] While collaborating in imperial injustice ensured they made a decent living, socially, “fishmongers” were considered on par with “moneylenders”—they were publicly despised as greedy thieves.[vi]

No doubt these Roman contractors were very aware of the subversive nature of Jesus’ preaching about the in-breaking kingdom of God. No doubt they realized they personally had a lot to lose—the imperial system was their bread and butter (providing them with economic security). Yet, in spite of the immense risks and sacrifices involved, Peter, Andrew, James, and John shifted their allegiance from Caesar to Christ. Together they formed an alternative community that challenged the status quo, resisted imperial abuse and oppression, and emancipated their neighbors[vii] by powerfully announcing and enacting the revolutionary news of God’s in-breaking kingdom.

Surely these first followers of Jesus would wholeheartedly agree with Zahnd when he argues, “If Christianity is not seen as countercultural and even subversive within a military-economic superpower, you can be sure it is a deeply compromised Christianity.” Stanley Hauerwas warns:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Community Of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic)

So, is our Christianity merely a pietistic religion of private belief about how to go to heaven when we die or is it a countercultural way of public life? 

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i Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2005), 120-121.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

Out of Touch in La La Land

Out of Touch in La La Land

“… Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned…” (Matthew 4:12-17)

At 4:30am on January 17, 1994, a 6.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Shaken citizens woke up in darkness—power had been knocked out citywide. In the minutes that followed 9-1-1 dispatchers received multiple calls from alarmed residents reporting a strange phenomenon. A sinister silvery cloud, which appeared to be glowing, streaked across the night sky over the city. That cloud turned out to be the Milky Way (the galaxy we live in). They had never seen it before because the city lights had always block it out (so much for “City of Stars”).

Ironic. At one time Angelinos went up to the Griffith Observatory to be in awe of the heavens. Today we mostly go up to admire ourselves, looking down rather than up. The light of our civilization blinds us to the light of the universe. It’s strange when you think about it. Maybe we’re more out-of-touch with reality than we think in “la la land.”

I wonder how those in Galilee of the Gentiles felt about being characterized as out of touch—“sitting in darkness.” How could that be? They had the “light” of their religious heritage and the “light” of the Roman civilization! Rome gave them the world—peace, stability, and seemingly endless economic opportunities. If anything, they had too much light! Yet, as good as things might have seemed to some, their “light” was blinding. Christ came as a great light, offering true enlightenment to humanity. 

Today, American Christians inhabit another enlightened civilization. We’re fond of our nation’s religious heritage and we raise the torch of liberty for the world. But could we actually be the ones sitting in darkness? Is it possible that the light of our culture is blinding us to the truth? Jesus warned his first followers to beware—this is a real possibility:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

Could Americanized Christianity be blinding us to Christ? Think about it—it wasn’t to pagans, but to Bible believing people, that Jesus came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, Ian Mobsby argues:

The problem with many contemporary expressions of church is that at their heart they are consumptive—conforming to the values of business and the global market. Many churches are unaware that this practice colludes with empire, division, privilege and an oppressive view of the world. This worldview is maintained by simple dualistic thinking that does violence to creation [including humanity] by demeaning it to the status of a commodity. (The Gospel After Christendom, 105)

Maybe American Christianity is more out-of-touch with reality than we realize.