Fishing Against Empire | Sojourners


Fishing Against Empire

There's a reason why the parables of Jesus often involved fish.
By Gary Paul Nabhan

K.C. HANSON WAS PAINFULLY aware of the disparities in access to resources during Jesus’ time, but Hanson also saw the thread of hidden abundance weaving through the parables. Hanson is a scholar who has explored the ecological dimensions of the parables about fish. He thinks like a fisher as much or more than he thinks like a philologist, philosopher, or folklorist. For decades, he resided along the Pacific Seaboard, but earlier in his career, he spent eight years in Minnesota, “the land of 10,000 lakes.”

Maybe this period of his life gave him a particular understanding of the burdens of freshwater fishing in the Sea of Galilee. In The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition, Hanson lamented that scholars haven’t taken the time to explore Galilean fishing apart from the basic observation that four of Jesus’ disciples are identified as fishers. But fishing would have had to be a huge part of daily life that indirectly influenced spiritual practice, since it was such a vital part of the region’s contributions to the Roman Empire. It gave fishermen their vocabulary for expressing their relationship with the world.

What kind of fish are we talking about? There’s Oreochromis aurea, the tilapia called “musht,” which Christians later nicknamed “Saint Peter’s fish.” The Sea of Galilee still harbors 18 other native fish and at least nine introduced ones. Among the natives, eight species in addition to the musht belong in the cichlid family, including four other tilapia and two freshwater “sardines.” All in all, dozens of tons of these sardine-like fish were annually harvested during the life and times of Jesus.

A single carp-like fish called a blenny is still sought after in this freshwater sea, for it is one that has long been popular on the Sabbath and at wedding feasts. The Sea of Galilee also has an Asian killy (or Persian pupfish), one air-breathing catfish (which is edible but not kosher), two loaches, and a few carpels and bleaks.

These fish were skillfully pursued by Galileans, providing a significant commercial fishery for them over the span of more than 2,500 years. The fish were caught with dragnets, seine nets, trammel nets, cast nets, wicker baskets, fish traps of woven branches and reeds, spears, arrows, pronged tridents, hooks, lines, and sinkers.

The catches brought in by families on the Galilean shores were often clandestinely sold, gifted, or bartered on beaches where a boat could moor, and a quick exchange could occur. In that manner, the fishers could evade the tax collectors who wanted to take part of their catch. The empire mandated that taxable catches destined for export markets must be taken to a single market in a highly prosperous but corrupt village called Magdala. Yes, that’s where Mary was from—a place famous for its inequities.

There, the fish were purchased wholesale, salted, and sun-dried, then made into a salty slurry or “pickled” so they could be transported long distances to other hubs of commerce in the Roman Empire. Some of the “pickled” fish and fermented fish slurry were further processed into the iconic fish paste called garum. Clay pots full of garum fish paste could be readily transported all the way to Rome, where it was in great demand.

That was the trouble. Ever since the sea itself had come under the control of the distant empire of the Romans, ordinary fishers as well as the fish stocks they depended on had become impoverished. Hanson says their boats were regulated by the state so that the elite could profit from their labor. Aristocratic families controlled the roads and bridges that fishers used to transport their catch to market, and the duty rates could be up to 5 percent. That was in addition to the bribes and tithes they had to pay to the Herodians who ran the harbors.

These external economic pressures likely forced the anglers to stay out longer in the water and to use more predatory or extractive methods of fishing that threatened the sustainability of the Galilee fisheries. What else could they do? Just to survive and support their families in Galilee, fishers there worked harder and longer merely to stay in the same place.

This is perhaps the greatest injustice that imperial powers can impose on fishers and farmers whose lives depend on the stewardship of resources: They force the fellaheen (workers) to squander the fisheries’ resources they rely on for their own sustenance. Soon, the most prized fish are priced out of reach for eating by the very families that brought them out of the sea.

Their burden of debts, taxes, and tariffs pressed them to harvest more fish than what their own ancestors would have ever considered as “an allowable level of take.”

Illustrations by Ricardo Santos


IN THE SPIRIT of sustainability and compassion and with a view to the future, Jesus told a parable from the edge of a boat. As Matthew remembered it, Jesus was sitting beside the lake, maybe soaking his feet in the shallows to ease the soreness in them. Before he knew it, a large crowd had gathered around him, hinting that they wanted to hear another story, crowding in upon him so that everyone could hear. He crawled up into the nearest boat so he could look into the eyes of everyone who had gathered. He sat there for a while in silence, making eye contact with each and every person.

Suddenly, the words began to pour out of him like a gushing spring as he offered another parable to all the people who stood enraptured on the shore: “Again, I ask you, what would you say our circle of kinship should be like?” He let them think for a moment, then he began again:

“If you ask me my vision for that heavenly kin-dom / It will be like a fishing net thrown into the water / That miraculously gathers up fish of every kind! / But when a net is that full, the fishers have to do some winnowing. / So, they drag the net full of wriggling fish / Onto the shore, where they sit down among the harvest / To begin to select the fish mature enough to keep / While tossing the immature ones back into the waters / To grow some more, for they are simply not ready.

That is the way it may be at the end of this era. / The sacred messengers will come to gather all who are ready / While deciding which of the others unsure of themselves / Must be tossed back into the perilous waters. / My heart will go out to you when our harvest is sorted out, / For we may hear weeping and the gnashing of teeth, / For some may live on with us, while others may perish. / But do you understand why I wish to caution you? / We must prepare to take care of this bounty.”

Today, we are witnessing a global crisis of fisheries, one affecting artisanal fishers of nearly every freshwater lake in the world.

A global fishing crisis

MY OWN FAMILY'S history has “schools of fish running through it” as a passion and pleasure, but we also witnessed firsthand the decline in fishing livelihoods in our community. While my grandfather “Papa” Ferhat Nabhan was not a fisherman himself, he settled among Swedish fishers when he moved his family from Lebanon to the Great Lakes a century ago. When he was a middle-aged man, he made his living as a produce peddler, but he regularly bartered fruit for fish with his tow-headed neighbors at harbors along the southern shores of Lake Michigan.

I’ve met elderly Swedes who claim that Papa kept their families from starving during the Great Depression. He gifted them all the fruits they could eat while paying them well for any yellow perch they had caught so that he could resell them to his more wealthy and elite customers.

But sometime in the 1930s, a predatory fish named the sea lamprey was accidentally introduced into the Great Lakes, as was a small oily fish named the alewife. Their populations grew exponentially, especially those of the lamprey, which ate 40 to 50 pounds of native fish over its lifetime. Soon, the native stocks of perch, sturgeon, and cisco were so depleted along the shores of the Indiana Dunes that all but one Swedish fishing family abandoned their shacks and boats by the time I was born there.

After the sea lamprey came to dominate the lake’s food chain, the alewife population peaked and then collapsed—with millions of stinking carcasses washing up on the lakeshore. No Swedish American family of commercial fishers could make a living on the southern shores of Lake Michigan anymore.

What happened in my family’s lakeside village is just one example of a crisis emerging along many shores. Today, we are witnessing a global crisis in our fisheries, one affecting artisanal fishers living along the shores of nearly every sizeable freshwater lake in the world. For many, this crisis remains hidden, but it’s real. The “empire” we live within is no less extractive and destructive of creatures such as fish than the Roman Empire that ruled over Jesus.

Today, four out of every 10 species of freshwater fish left swimming in the lakes and rivers of the North American continent are facing some level of endangerment. If Simon Peter and his crew were alive today and trying to fish in the freshwater lakes of the United States, would they be able to make a living?

Some, like the Atlantic sturgeon found in Eastern rivers, once reached sizes of 800 pounds. Their swimming power had the sheer force sufficient to tear through fishing nets as if they were tissue paper.

As early as the 1920s, the populations of sturgeon in one river after another blinked out, diminished by overfishing. I have only held two fingerling sturgeons in my hands over decades of visiting Eastern rivers and every Great Lake. As I tossed these survivors back into the waters, I wept and prayed that they might find safe passage away from nets and hooks.

But that is not the half of it.

Most of the once-populous fish in North America have been imperiled by many factors other than the actions of fishers themselves. We have witnessed whitefish and yellow perch precipitously decline by the damming of rivers and draining of wetlands; by the warming and drying weather that depletes water supplies; by the draining of toxins and endocrine-disrupting chemicals from our sewers and croplands into our waterways; and by the spreading of aquatic weeds, diseases, competitors, predators, and pests that were previously unknown.

Government regulators claim that they have made advances in fishery management and conservation over the past 100 years. That is indeed true to some level. Most of these regulators are well-trained and care deeply about the resources they seek to manage.

Nevertheless, both fish and their fishers are now facing a crisis at least as severe as the one faced by sardines, tilapias, pupfish, bleaks, barbels, and Galileans during the brief fishing careers of Jesus’ disciples.

However many fish stocks we have safeguarded through the more
scientific management of fisheries, we have lost far more through wastefulness, greed, and disregard for the creatures and characters whose lives depend on clean waters. The empire of extraction is swallowing up everything that breathes.

Illustrations by Ricardo Santos

Restoring abundant harvests

MANY CHRISTIANS TODAY don’t seem too concerned—or are barely aware—that many fish stocks today can no longer make their annual “runs” or migrations that have gone on for millennia. They might ask, What does that have to do with our own spiritual pilgrimages? As if we are the only species that makes sacred journeys in this world!

As theologian Diana Butler Bass reminds us, most ministers routinely use the image of sacred waters in their preaching. But they make barely a single passing note of the global fishing crisis occurring in our rivers, inland lakes, and seas. She says we can do better because “the world’s waterways call us to practice social justice—to restore them, to make sure rich and poor alike have access, and to manage water in drought-stricken lands with creativity and foresight.”

We have an opportunity to make a difference and change how we regard Brother Tilapia and Sister Salmon. And there’s no time to lose. According to British fisheries journalist Charles Clover—whom I met on a panel at the international Slow Fish Expo—“We’re at the end of the line.” If we don’t stop squandering fish stocks, millions of people could starve. Pavan Sukhdev, of the U.N. initiative for greener economies, has warned that if there is not a fundamental restructuring of the global fish industry, we may encounter fish-free oceans and lakes by 2050.

What is a world with such a dearth of fish that children will grow up without ever having felt one wriggling in their hands? One where fish are absent from our lives?

The health of at least a billion people, mostly from poorer countries, who nutritionally depend on fish and shellfish as their main animal protein sources would be at risk. And that’s why efforts to restore their coastal, estuarine, and riverine nursery grounds give me so much hope. Where my wife and I spend time on the Gulf of California coast of Mexico, we are assisting the Comcáac Indian fishing communities in restoring mangrove lagoons and seagrass beds. That’s where dozens of finfish and shellfish mate, have babies, and feed. A single hectare of restored healthy mangrove habitat—hardly two and a half acres—brings $30,000 of edible fish and shellfish back to Gulf waters, in addition to hundreds of other nonedible but ecologically important species. The replanting of mangroves and eelgrass beds also creates jobs for youth. It is one of many means to offer long-term care for the bounty of fish.

Just as Jesus found fish in a place where his Galilean friends had given up thinking they could ever bring in an ample catch again, all of us can pray and work toward restoring abundant harvests wherever we live.

This article is adapted with permission from Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized by Our Food System, 2021 Broadleaf Books.

The April cover of Sojourners looks like a scrapbook page with photos from a same-sex marriage, a rainbow ribbon and gold leaves.
This appears in the April 2021 issue of Sojourners

Gary Paul Nabhan, an Ecumenical Franciscan brother, agrarian activist, and MacArthur Fellow, holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona.