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?