Jesus, Wendell, and a Few Fish

The Second Miraculous Catch of Fish

As he walked around the shores of Galilee, Jesus surely wandered into villages struggling to manage the complex economic model that was breaking the back of sustainable fishing practices. Fishing village economics of his day strained under the reign of an extravagant Herod Antipas who leveraged the lake to ensure a steady stream of salted fish and healthy profits. I remember John Dominic Crossan saying in one lecture… “It’s all about the fishes!” Yes, it’s all about the fishes! K.C. Hanson, in his 1997 Biblical Theology Bulletin article surveys the historic and archeological record to reveal the construction of large harbor systems, brokered fishing rights, increased labor demands, fishing police, taxation, tolling, and complex distribution networks all contributing to the dis-ease experienced by those who lived along the Galilean shoreline where Jesus walked.

What does a new kingdom look like when your family becomes disconnected from the patterns of the sea and must function within a more “efficient” system? Would the new kingdom Jesus talked about lead you back to a balance between humankind and the fishing patterns you once knew? Is something lost when we begin to place layer upon layer of human ingenuity between us and the sustaining power of earth and sea?

I’m walking down another wide aisle in the “big box” grocery store in town. Pushing my giant chrome basket I stare up at the rolling swell of product. I know human ingenuity has created this magnificent way of ensuring fish for the empire but it feels like there is something too far-reaching within this sea of plenty. Big metal cans hold foods from around the world, box upon box of foodstuffs have a shelf life beyond reason, the vegetables are all uniformed and polished, ingredient lists read like chemistry, and the price of bananas feels out of touch with the true cost of getting them out of a tree in Ecuador and into my basket. It all makes me suspicious that such ingenuity may be driving me away from the deep seas that sustain me. Is there a way that is more sustainable and connected to the actual patterns of the earth?

Wendell Berry, in his essay Two Economies, frames the whole food issue in a way that opens up some new frontier for those who wonder if such an advanced system degrades the human experience. In my read of Berry, he would place the crafty capacity to harness and distribute food like we do as part of the “Human Economy.” He frames such a constructed economic system within the “Great Economy” of earth and its natural order. The Great Economy is the deep and mysterious cycles of life that is the natural world. Here a vast layer of death and decay creates the life that holds each of us. This is the seed that dissolves into soil and reaches for the sun. This is the livestock that graze the open landscape, the fish that thrive beneath waves. This is the Great Economy that holds all life within its balance. The Great Economy defines the relationship between humankind and the natural world that holds us. This is our place in the world. To imagine that we can rise above such a place through the ingenuity of the Human Economy is but a tragedy of hubris. The aisles and aisles of stacked produce are the hubris of human ingenuity, and in the end, a betrayal of our place within the Great Economy. The goal is to find models that actually match the rhythms of the earth itself.

Last year, I got a call from the local Synagogue in town. It turns out they were starting an interfaith Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) project and wondered if we would want to participate. Participate we did! Our congregation, along with a number of other faith traditions worked with local growers as the temple was transformed into a small farmers market once a week. Jews, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Buddhists, Catholics, and others in the community all filled their baskets with amazing fruit and vegetables, and created a solid income stream for some family farmers that provided capital to generate greater yields and a healthier working environment. Every Tuesday night, you never knew who you would bump into. It created a community with a few local farmers and the soil at the center. It created a recipe swapping pool and allowed folks to share meal ideas from their religious traditions. It provided a share basket to collect surplus for the local food bank. Here was food grown locally and seasonally. Here was food that looked like it came from the earth and not the processing plant. Here was a community pulsating with the pace of life that exists beneath the soil. Here was food linked to Wendell Berry’s Great Economy.

There are a whole handful of issues that progressive Christians need to be focused on. This is one of them! In his essay, Wendell Berry uses the Great Economy as a more universal definition of the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom is filled with those transactions that reflect the actual relationships that bind us to the natural order and to each other. Finding creative ways to live closer to the Great Economy is, according to Berry, a way to experience the Kingdom of God. As we honor all that participates in the food chain we mark our place within the gracious gift of life and create economies that are in balance with the natural order. Efforts at sustainable food practices at all levels hold the promise of providing a clear path back toward the kingdom that Jesus might have imagined as he sat on the beach broiling fish with friends feeling the weight of their broken lives. A way that honors all the relationships that hold life together. A way back to the sea.

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