By Jim Perkinson, a sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mk 1:14-20, January 21, 2018, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church (Detroit, MI)
I am not a fish person—which is why I volunteered to preach this Sunday, where the lessons focus on fish, in the stories of Jonah and the whale and of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee called to become “fishers of humans.” To “catch” the significance of the latter, we need to reel in the former carefully. Though not included in the lectionary, the heart of the Jonah story turns on the following verse:
And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jon 1:17).
The text is clear. Jonah was saved by a fish. But we need to go slow, since we often read it the other way around—that Jonah was saved from a fish. So in the interests of getting us hooked on the story-line, I want to string out three pieces of bait.
The first is a popular fish-proverb, revised for today’s reality of rampant privatization:
Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day;
Teach that person how to fish, and you feed them . . .
Be savvy here—
. . . until the owner comes;
Organize that person with others to challenge the claim of private ownership in favor of a re-opening of “the commons,” and you increase the number of people who can be fed from those waters.
But we shouldn’t stop there. Urban gardeners integrating a system of aquaponics in with their vegetable-growing (circulating the water through a plant-animal nitrogen cycle) might add:
Ask that person, “What feeds the fish?”, and you begin to make it possible to feed the next generation.
Mindful of native cultures around the globe, I go one step further:
Initiate that person into the world of fish-spirits, and you open up the ultimate question of our planet: “What is feeding for? Why is life created such that everything is both eating and being eaten?” (Perkinson, 171-172).
A second offering: looking at many Eastern Orthodox icons of Jesus being baptized by John, there is even faint hint of this latter proposition. Often down in the Jordan depths, swirling around Jesus’ feet, we see not just water, but little fish-creatures, depicting the spirits of the Jordan and the Mediterranean, respectively.
And thirdly, the late 2nd century Libyan Christian theologian, Tertullian, once wrote:
But we, the Christians, are little fishes after the type of our Great Fish, Jesus Christ, born in water.
Jonah was saved by a fish. But I am not a fish person by nature—my taste buds do not naturally pine for cod and pike, sardines or smelt. I have, however, taken over a fish place as a settler colonist—inheritor of waves of French, British, and American Revolutionary imposition upon, and conquest over, Algonquian- and Iroquois-speaking peoples here, where the river goes around. They were fish people—Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatomi and Wendet/Huron alike—allowing themselves to be schooled continuously by the original dwellers on this bend of water, teeming floodplain, throbbing and humming and keening with life, buffalo and bear enjoying berry and pear, stags and goats mixing with geese and turkey cocks, swan and raptors and water fowl of all kinds, nuts and fruits and forest, attracting song bird and game and hawk, and all of it convened by the sinuous flow of water and raucously dense migrations of fish, presided over by an eight-foot long, 136 million-year-old Grandmother Being known as sturgeon, observer of the coming and going of dinosaur-cousins and asteroid upheavals (Givens-McGowan, 24-29; Hartig, 55, Cornell, 19-20).
Winona LaDuke of White Earth Reservation in north Minnesota, recounts a tale of the relationship between the Anishinaabeg people and the “Nameweg” or sturgeon community, whose gift of themselves as food and elders took on mythic status for the Three Fires folk of the Great Lakes Basin. In one story, a young woman at Darky Lake in the region of Superior, discovers one day during her first eight-day “moon lodge” vigil, initiating her into the menstrual cycle, that her grandmother is shape-shifting into a sturgeon while the rest of the family is out netting nameweg, and has to be carried by the young woman from her wigwam to the nearby river, where she will live ever after as part of that fish community. The family will hence dwell in that place as part of the Sturgeon Clan (LaDuke, 228).
Other Ojibwa tales tell of the taking of a chief’s son by the sturgeon, to become incarnate in fish-flesh, swim the rivers and lakes and creeks, until returned to the chief. Or even one young man who responds to a helpless cry at a lake shore during a storm, tries to save a drowning girl thrashing in the waves, but upon grasping her flailing hand, is pulled under, goes unconscious, and wakes to find himself held captive in the underwater domains of the Nebaunuabaewuk and Nebaunuabaequaewuk—the Mermen and Mermaid Peoples, becomes one himself, loved by and mated with the mermaid girl who ensnared him, until he is released back to his land-people to reassure them he still lives (Johnston, 133-149).
I mention these tales, but not fully recount them, as an attempt to walk a fine line, seeking to honor and learn from the practices and understanding of the original peoples in this place on the river and yet not appropriate or steal their stories and culture. They were wiser in their dwelling than we are and have much to say about how to approach wild life and creation’s gifts—as the first and crucial teachers for any given watershed we inhabit—especially as we have pirated and damaged the place as settler colonists, living without permission, on the lands of others.
So: fish as elder-sages, not resisting our wanton disregard of their way of living, continually sacrificing their lives for us as food, that we might eat and live, and flashing through the depths, hoping we might capture them in story-nets that do justice to their beauty and make intelligible their wisdom, as co-dwellers with us at this place we have named “the strait.”
And I remain someone who does not particularly like fish.
Another quick regalement from another white man trying to do as I do in learning from the two-legged, four-legged, winged, and finned ones who pre-date us. Steve Heinrichs, in Canadian Mennonite frame north of our border, begins his anthology called Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry thus:
It’s eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning in Winnipeg, and I’m sitting in church. We’re in the midst of a chorus when, out of nowhere, three figures come bursting through the back—a Cree woman, an enormous buffalo, and Salmon boy—bursting heavy upon our sea of whiteness. Snorting steamy breath, the buffalo runs straight for the front, slams into the pulpit, and cracks it in half. The boy throws himself into the pews and onto a few unsuspecting faithful; he’s wailing, “Beothuk! Eskimo Curlew! Sixties scoop!” while holding in clutched hands two bottles—poisoned waters in one, blood of martyred relatives in the other.
And then the woman speaks, standing on a chair. She’s no more than thirty, wearing a “1492 Homeland Security” T-shirt and a skirt with traditional beads. A manifesto buried too long in her heart, words nervously erupt, splitting sky:
“Listen kiciwamanawak, my cousins! We can’t bear it any longer!”
Brown eyes swoop the crowd of blue and green stares to see if anyone’s there.
“Don’t you feel the catastrophe that’s coming, that’s here, that’s been for far too long? Shattered peoples all around; shattered lands right below. Manitou Ahbee, this place where Spirit sits, is weeping a death cry because of this civilization’s culture-fracking ways. She won’t tolerate it any longer, and neither will her allies. The time’s come; it’s long past! Resist the colonial ways, rip up the concrete and remember the Indigenous truths—yeah, even yours!—or in seven generations of weeks, it’ll all be gone!”
Longing for a response, the young Cree hears nothing but Buffalo’s weighty breathing. The congregation is shocked silent. Shocked not because we’re dumbfounded by this Balaam-beast-revelation. Shocked because these strangers have stormed our space—but we’re the good guys, the justice-oriented—and called us to what? Repentance? Shouldn’t this act be happening elsewhere?
Within seconds an ambulance is on the scene with a cadre of attendants, psychic workers, and tranquilizers—cops, too, for good measure. The boy tries to make a dash—“Let’s get out of here!”—but is tasered after a few feet. In minutes, all three guests are subdued and dragged away.
Then something u8nthinkable takes place. One by one, beginning with the children, then the elderly, and eventually us middle-agers, we drop to our knees.
Form a circle.
A minimal discussion ensues, and with full agreement a delegation is sent to the city jail to seek release of the three, to post bail, and to ask these messengers to come back, to teach us, even to lead us. They’re right. Something is wrong. Our hands, yes, even our pink palms, are stained with violence. And we’ve got to do something about it.
Heinrichs goes on to relate this story to the Jonah-tale our lectionary excerpts for us today, insisting (in my own paraphrase) that we get it wrong, thinking the Israelite prophet an evangelical Christian, on mission among the poor benighted masses of China or Afghanistan or Rain Forest natives of Brazil. But Nineveh was the Unites States superpower of its day, enslaving laborers, clear-cutting forests, re-engineering riverbeds, making war on the mountain peoples around, leaving salt deserts and devastated lives in its wake. And Jonah is a word-slinging Standing Rock warrior (think Chase Iron Eyes), an Ojibwa water-walking crone like Mona Stonefish of our own region, or a “shouting buffalo” or “weeping salmon,” coming out “from the shadows of the rez and the urban occupied territories” and the grasslands and rivers, to confront the money-mongering powerful and all of us who still struggle to live otherwise. As always, it is a question of how we read the story and who we think ourselves to be in the mix.
So let’s sit with the Jonah story for a minute. A prophet, whose name means “Dove,” is given a word to go east to confront the equivalent of the White House and the Senate and the entire corporatized culture of high-living and arrogant derision; instead flees west, buys an entire ship enterprise to take him to Tarshish, the furthest margins where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. His flight provokes the primordial Salt-Water-Deep to “speak,” the North Wind Ruach to wail—the whole cruise in hock, storm raging, waves towering, crew panting and praying, Jonah asleep in the hold, like a Jesus in a boat on Galilee froth half-a-millennium later. The renegade seer is awakened by the terrorized fellow travelers, asked to intercede with his own god, admits his failing, and finally calls the reluctant mariners to throw him overboard, as an “offering” to the wild-protesting waters—a strange gesture to us moderns who think we do not owe nature our bodies, but quite willingly sacrifice everybody else’s bodies, including the entire biosphere, for the sake of our wanton lifestyle! Let’s do a quick ring-up of the record (see Heinrichs’ citations, 16-18, plus my own additions):
- 90% of fish-stocks since 1850 gone;
- coral reefs bleaching across the globe;
- an insect Armageddon currently at 70% disappearance, with untold consequence;
- bee colonies collapsing en masse;
- an extinction rate 1000 times greater than ever before in our time on the planet;
- 2,795 gigatons of carbon in fossil fuel industry reserves, slated to be released in coming years, when the threshold for runaway warming is crossed already at a mere 565 gigatons of release;
- 50 -90% of the 6000 languages our species speaks disappearing in this century—50% of which codify, in irreplaceable knowledge, that 2.3% of the planet’s surface that is home to the majority of the world’s vascular plants and 40% of its terrestrial invertebrate species;
- war precipitating a cholera outbreak of epidemic proportions in Yemen, in service of our geopolitical insistence on controlling Mid-East oil (not to mention the other 6-8 places we regularly drone into oblivion);
- incarceration of our own populace at per capita rates the highest in the world, overwhelmingly targeting black and brown bodies of youth;
- or foreclosure rates in this city alone gutting poor communities of color in favor of corporate priorities for take-over of infrastructure and banking interests in bottom-line return so far beyond the pale of imagination as to make a gangster figure like Al Capone seem like a kindergartener by comparison;
- not to mention that we long ago literally “dammed” the sturgeon population into oblivion in re-engineering watersheds, while using their bodies as fuel for steamship boilers, after having extracted their swim bladders and isinglass for alcohol brewing.
Jonah at least had the integrity, when finally confronted by his fellow-travelers, to say, “Yes, here, take me; I am the cause of all of you, on this shared life-boat, being brought to the brink of annihilation. Make of me an offering to the water!” Reluctantly, they do.
There are so many details in this Hebrew parable of ironic send-up, re-capitulating older themes and characters of indigenous stories from all over the Fertile Crescent and environs, that is tempting to detour—Hadad the Merman of Ugarit; Jason the Argonaut, swallowed and then disgorged by a serpent confronted by an Athena carrying a dove on her arm; Phineus of Apollinarius’ tale, pursued by harpies for disclosing prophetic secrets, saved from pursuit by the very same Boreas-North Wind Sea-Storm that here interrupts Jonah’s flight for refusing to disclose prophetic secrets . . .
I won’t derail in that direction, since this is a sermon and not teaching. But two are instructive for our hearing. In one, Herodotus the Greek, writing a couple of centuries before the Jonah-riff, details the story of Arion of Mytilene, thrown overboard by sailors greedy for his goods, who is saved by a dolphin responsive to his lyrical chant sung from ship-side before being cast into the salt brine.
The juxtaposition to our tale here is telling. We typically read the Jonah-fish in the Hebrew tale as danger and death-bringer, sucking the prophet down into potentially mortal digestive processes. But in fact, once in the belly, Jonah offers his prayer of gratitude in the past tense—it was drowning in the depths before being swallowed that was the real danger! The fish-body was a bark of refuge; three days of safe transport back to the shore in a “boat” of ribs and flesh, before being retched back onto land-life. And the prayer the Dove-Man offered was a psalm, a sung hymn inside the swimming fish, giving thanks for its open entrails, and even hints that the finned fish-house is a “temple,” wherein he makes a vow and promises to pay (Jon 2: 4, 7).
It is the Sea that had eaten Jonah the Dove. In Hebrew script, doves are a poor person’s offering for sin, when unable to afford a ram. The sailors gave up the dove, thus “fed” the waters on which they depended for livelihood, were saved in the event, as the rage of the waves ceased. But “Jonah-the-Offering,” having fed himself to the waters, for the others, is saved by the fish. And for the fish—it is the psalm-song that is the gift of eloquence that “feeds.” Indigenous cultures, the world-over, continuously nourish the Holy in nature with song-offering.
In so doing, they mimic the Great Choristers of the Planet, the continuous wave of bird-song that accompanies the wave of dawn that sweeps across the globe and likewise serenades the wave of night that follows on the heels of day (Abrams, 183-185). And here—a footnote from the present: as of 2016, scientists have discovered that more than 800 species of fish also sing—in fish-song below the level detectable by human ears—exactly coinciding with the Sun in its daily rising and falling! (https://www.sciencealert.com/fish-have-been-recorded-singing-a-dawn-chorus-just-like-birds).
Jonah the Dove sings, and Daga Gadol, the Great Sea-Swimmer of the Hebrew tale—as song-enamored-and-beguiled as Arion of Mytilene’s dolphin in Herodotus’ telling—having given her body as a dwelling, after three days protection from the ocean’s depths, returns Jonah to his vocation.
Indigenous stories around the globe tell tales of humans taken by fish to their underwater abodes, there to be taught a different economy of respect before returned intact, to their own community. Heinrichs notes the Pacific Northwest tale of Salmon Boy, a native youth, who disrespects the fish people, saved from drowning one day by salmon, who pull him for a season down to their underwater palace, gird him in salmon-flesh, teach him their vision, before returning him to the air and land as a powerful shaman (Heinrichs, 13). These coast-dwelling native folks will say it is these very salmon who taught them their “gift-economy” way of Potlatch, in which they regularly re-circulate the goods they enjoy in great give-away ceremonies, imitating the annual spawning “give-away” of salmon, running up river each fall, to mate and then give their bodies to bear and humans as meat, to water as minerals, to river banks and trees as nutrients: a keystone species making all life possible in that ecology (http://movementgeneration.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/11/JT_booklet_English_SPREADs_web.pdf).
In the Mid-East, the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights recounts “sea people” encounters where underwater-breathing and –dwelling creatures who look like humans, teach a seduced fisherman named Abdullah, subsequently also enabled to breathe in the watery depths, about their social order where clothes and money do not exist—a kind of “primitive communism” of care, as one scholar remarks—inverted in more ways than one compared to his upright life on land (Irwin, 209).
All of which is to say that the Jonah tale is not a matter for science, where evangelicals go to absurd lengthens to try to figure out what kind of fish could have accomplished such! But for ceremony and story, pointing to an ecology that demands respect and feeding, but that instructs and feeds in kind, or will kill and render extinct: our choice!
There is only this left to say to wrap up. Jonah is taught and preserved, at every step, by the wild and the non-human other: reproved by storm, saved by fish, later shaded by gourd plant, tested by wind and heat and pest, instructed by enemy Ninevites who immediately, at his word of prophetic rebuff, repent and fast, don sackcloth and ash with their animals, and finally provoke God’s happy mind-change, out of care for a “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left and also much cattle,” as the text says (Jon 4:11). The Jonah-story ends, with this curious dangling phrase. This is the story of a God who saves a Man-Dove from a Sea-Grave to speak to an imperial horde, and is quite willing to lose face, much less an exclusive following, just to save cattle, among other things.
It will not be different when that God takes on human flesh. Jesus will be initiated into a river, plunged among fish-spirits as the Orthodox icon shows, mentored by a dove, and taught by wild beasts out on the land, in his own vision quest (Mk 1:9-13). He will later offer in his Eucharistic spread feeding thousands, bread and fish, as divine food (Mk 6:30-45; 8: 1-10; John 6:1-71). And will call his five earliest disciples—all likely from the north Galilee lakeshore town of Bethsaida (Mk 1:16-20; Lk 5: 10; John 1:43-44; 12:21) whose name means “House of Fish” (or even, “Temple of the Fish-God”)—to become “fishers of humans”—presumably because their training has already commenced in being schooled by the finned ones who have given their bodies as sustenance and livelihood to these marginalized males, foreclosed from their ancestral lands and forced to turn to the Lake to survive.
God, indeed, as the Great Fish, “given for us!” I wonder what it could mean, here and now, in this place, where black folk regularly rely on the spring smelt run or the summer walleye gathering, and Ojibwa are busy re-populating the Basin with fingerling-spawn who will once again roam the waters as their great ancestral cousin the sturgeon? The gospel according to the depth-dwellers!
And I still do not really like fish.
Abram, David. 2010. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books.
Cornell, George L. 2003. “American Indians at Wawiiatanong: An Early American History of Indigenous Peoples at Detroit.” Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home. Ed. J, H. Hartig. Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Institue of Science, 9-22.
Givens-McGowan. Kay. 2003. “The Wyandot and the River,” Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home. Ed. J, H. Hartig. Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Institue of Science, 23-34.
Hartig, John H. 2003. “American Beaver Exploitation for European Chic,” Honoring Our Detroit River: Caring for Our Home. Ed. J, H. Hartig. Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 49-58.
Heinrichs, Steve. 2013. “Introduction: An Indigenous Intrusion Troubles the House: A Call to Decolonization,” Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together. Ed. S. Heinrichs. Waterloo, Ontario/Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 13-30.
Irwin, Robert. 2003. One Thousand and One Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
Johnston, Basil. 1995. The Manitous: the Spiritual World of the Ojibway. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
LaDuke, Winona. 2005. Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Perkinson, James W. 2013. Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts, and Empire. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press.
 Heinrichs notes indebtedness to Harold Johnson (Cree) for this term of “relational respect that treaty elders used for white settlers who entered into (or inherited) those sacred covenants (Johnson, 13-14).