One Saturday last July my son-in-law Jason and I took a bike ride outside Ottawa. The country road was mostly flat, almost without traffic. As we were beating up that morning’s only serious hill, out of nowhere a Dodge Ram pick-up blasted by well over the 80 km/h limit, nearly clipping my handlebars and, arguably, shortening my life expectancy by several hours.
Lots of things rushed through my mind in the milliseconds between hearing the truck and its ram-tough mirror almost braining me: Are we riding in the traffic lane? (No.) Are we hard to see? (Jason wore red; I neon green—so NO!) Is a 61 year old in spandex really that attractive—or repulsive—that it makes me a target? (Don’t really want to think about that.)
Then the outsized Jesus-fish on the tailgate caught my eye as the truck faded into the distance. That glance helped occupy my mind for the rest of the ride. Why do people put Jesus-fish on their vehicles, clothing or bodies? I suppose they want to make statements. But what kind of statements do they make?
The fish is an ancient Christian symbol first used as a code among Christians in the Roman Empire during persecution. The Greek word for fish is “ICTHUS.” Its letters serve as an acronym: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.” A simply drawn fish may have signaled clandestine house churches or refuge for other believers.
Today the fish isn’t a secret symbol, but merely a brand. Does it still fulfill its original function—to give Jesus a good name? To protect people? To offer welcome, safety, companionship?
What kind of statement does a Jesus-fish driver make by endangering other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists? What kind of statement does a Jesus-fish wearer make when he mistreats his students? When she cusses out a telemarketer?
Perhaps Jesus’ most famous command is, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Too often, though, the fish-wearers’ behaviours sadly shorten Jesus’ words to “DO unto others….” The fish, then, is no secret symbol, but a public statement that gives Jesus a bad name.
After our harrowing ride, a Catholic friend in Ottawa told me an edgy joke about a priest who drove up behind a woman stopped at a traffic signal. She adjusts her makeup while talking on her cellphone. The light turns green. She doesn’t notice. He waves his arms wildly, lays on the horn. The light turns yellow, then red. The priest starts a slow burn.
During the red light, the woman continues her mini-makeover, chatting all the while. When the light turns green, she still stays put. The priest leans on the horn longer, shouts again and again. As the light turns yellow, a policeman taps his window, orders him to pull over and demands his license.
The priest simmers until the policeman returns ten minutes later, “Here’s your license, Father.”
“Now you listen to me, young man,” the priest complains. “Why’d you stop me? You should have ticketed that woman for holding up traffic.”
“Well, Father,” sighs the cop, “here’s how I see it. I pull up behind you, and notice the car has a Jesus-fish on the trunk and a bumper sticker boasting, ‘Jesus Loves You.’ I see the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror. But the driver is gesticulating, leaning on the horn, shouting things I wouldn’t want my kids or co-workers to hear. So, I think to myself, ‘This must be a stolen car!’ But no; you’re the registered owner. Have a good day.”
A good friend runs a construction business. His pick-up sports the company logo and name. He’s sure people will angrily remember the name if he drives discourteously. But maybe they’ll call and hire him for renovations if he drives well.
Jesus-fish wearers and users can give Jesus a good name too with courtesy and care.