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In Mark’s gospel Jesus calls to Galilean fishermen, “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:17-18, personal translation)
Last week I was reminded of the hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing. Although this hymn has been around for quite some time in a minority of hymnals, Pete Seeger popularized it in the folk music of the 60’s. Seeger incorporated an additional verse from Doris Penn (from whom he’d learned the song) and modified the lyrics to have broader reach, much like we today can speak of “the reign of love” where the gospel writers used “kingdom. I want to share with you Seeger’s version as we begin this week.
“My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
What through the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it live’th.
What through the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it give’th.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?”
(For a live version of Seeger’s rendition, see Pete Seeger: How Can I Keep from Singing? – Live, 1982)
These lyrics inspire me to keep believing change is possible: another world is possible. Faith communities characterized by a different set of values than what I was raised with are possible. Societies that are just, safe, and compassionate are possible.
And this leads me to our text about fishing this week. I briefly shared in Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories how the Hebrew prophets’ original use of the “fishing” metaphor in the gospels was more political than religious. During the Christian Revival era in the 1950-60s here in the United States, “fishing” language was popularized and transformed to mean bringing people into the Christian faith.
But Jesus’ audience, especially the working, fishing people of Galilee and Judea, would have had a different association with this metaphor. Consider again how this metaphor is used by the Hebrew prophets:
“I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16)
“The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2)
“Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f)
This language of catching the big fish was used as a symbol of disrupting and overturning unjust power structures both within Israel and within gentile empires. As Doris Penn wrote, “How can I keep from singing? When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, And hear their death-knell ringing.” I love how Myers sums up the Jewish background of this fishing metaphor: Jesus might have been using this language with the fisher folk in our text.
“Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10)
The fishing metaphor is a way to denounce injustice against the vulnerable, and looks forward to social change. This impacts those who endeavor to follow Jesus today in relation to Christianity’s complicity in unjust power structures. As Guitierrez writes, “The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order” (Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition, p. 69) Christianity has often been used to legitimize unjust established orders like patriarchy, white supremacy, slavery, colonialism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
In each of the synoptic gospels, what finally got Jesus executed was his overturning tables, challenging the established order of economic and political injustice being bolstered by religion. That’s still happening in Christianity today.
What I also find intriguing about the Jesus stories is that although this is a story of overturning unjust structures of power and privilege, it is also a story about alternative ways of doing so. This is a story of alternative “fishing” methods, if you will. From Jesus’ teachings on reparations, nonviolence, and wealth distribution among the poor to the stories’ ending with a resurrection after a violent death, the stories about Jesus are stories where resurrection is the means of overthrowing the crucifying power of evil and injustice.
As I’ve said so many times before, the Jesus story does not say that the cross was Jesus’ saving work. If anything, the cross was an attempted interruption of Jesus’ saving work and was overcome through the resurrection. The resurrection reversed everything accomplished by Jesus’ execution, and it did so as an alternative, life-giving method of overcoming the evil and unjust use of the violence of a cross.
Speaking of unjust structures of power and privilege being overturned in this story, Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglass in her book Stand Your Ground, Black Bodies and the Justice of God reminds us:
“[God’s power] is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is a resurrecting power. Therefore God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death negating, life-affirming force.” (pp. 182-183)
The Jesus story does not overturn injustice, hierarchies and exclusion by adding death to death.
Douglass goes on to quote Audre Lorde:
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in Sister Outsider, p. 12)
We need more than temporary solutions. We must not underestimate how much damage mitigation temporary solutions can accomplish as we work for more lasting change. Ultimately, we must work to end structures that kill marginalized people. Methods that may have worked to keep us alive at one stage of our human evolution, enabling some to survive at the expense of others, must give way to life-giving methods whose goal is the inclusion, survival and thriving of all.
We can evolve further.
The challenges in our text this week are:
The gospel, the good news, is about the potential for change in the status quo.
This should cause us to question and let go of the status quo if we benefit from it, rather than continuing to give the established order continued religious legitimization.
The gospels also challenge some of the means and ways that unjust established orders are changed and overthrown.
And lastly: a change in the status quo must not end in adding death to death. It must overcome death.
It must be an overthrowing, a reversal, a rejection of death that results in life and respect for the sanctity of life of all. It must be a refusal to let go of life and life for all.
As I shared last week, if the language of “gospel,” “Jesus,” “God,” “heaven,” or other Christian terms are associated in your experience with abuse, call them love instead. Seeger had to change the lyrics of the hymn we began with this week from “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” to “Since love is lord of Heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?” and that’s okay. (More blood has been shed in the name of “Christ” than almost any other name in human history. I would have changed the word “lord,” too.)
What we are talking about is the reign of love as our established social order. And if the word “love” is also associated with abuse in your experience, we are still working toward a world that is just, safe, equitable and compassionate for you and for us all.
“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will show you how to catch big fish.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark 1:17-18)