Peninsula Views: Ride On

A Wolf in Fish Clothing


Beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That warning is a paraphrase of a passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

As a much younger man, I made my living as a carpenter. It seems like a lifetime ago, and I’m still grateful for the lessons I learned on that job. I apply the woodworking and building skills periodically, but the most important lessons might have been about people

I was still a student back then. Until I completed my undergraduate degree, I was the least educated on the job — not only in carpentry but also in academics. As a crew, we built one or two houses a year. Each house was well above what any of us would likely be able to afford in our lifetimes.

Most of the owners were great. Occasionally, we built a house for an owner who felt superior to us and made us aware of it. Without knowing a thing about us, they believed their education or career made them better than others. That may have been the worst part of the job. But I took pride in what we built, and enjoyed the job and the people I worked with. They were hardworking and, for the most part, honest. I respected them and believed they deserved respect from others. It was a good crew. We were happy to have a stable, secure job doing honest work.

The oil industry suffered a downturn in the early 1980s. In parts of the country where oil was a major part of the economy, the boom cycle of previous years dried up and took the construction trades down with it. Many times a truck with out-of-state plates would pull up to our worksite and a man would step out and sheepishly ask for work.

One time, as a truck drove away, one of my coworkers said, “There’s a fish on that guy’s back window.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, and it must have shown because he continued. “I never trust someone with a fish on their window. They’re the ones most likely to rip you off.”

I didn’t understand the link between a fish emblem and Christianity at that time, but I nodded convincingly enough to end the conversation.

Since then I’ve learned that the fish is related to Jesus. In the New Testament, He told His followers, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.” There’s also that bit about the loaves and fishes. But more deliberately, maybe, in the ancient world, the fish was a pagan fertility symbol early Christians co-opted as a visual code when they had to hide their faith to survive. It became a Christian symbol from the Greek word “ichthys,” an acronym in Greek letters for the words “Iēsous Christos, theou uios, sōtēr,” meaning “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

In no way is this a condemnation of Christians, a complaint that often comes up when someone like me says something critical of those who broadcast their convictions. Some of my friends are the best people on the planet and are also very religious. They just don’t shout it in the faces of strangers. I’ve observed over the years their actions speak louder than any sticker could.

Judgment is a natural and necessary human behavior. But it’s also a skill.

Whether someone is wearing a tool belt, has a body embellished with tattoos, drives a car with fish bumper stickers, or waves an American flag, it’s on us to determine what kind of person they are behind the branding. We have to ask ourselves, “Are this person’s actions in keeping with the teachings of Christ, or the founding fathers?”

Often, the harder they wave the flag or alter it to mean something else, or the more aggressively they say what they “are,” the more they are betrayed by their actions. They can hug the flag or wave a bible publicly while undermining morality and the institutions which truly make America great, or even attack democracy itself.

Social media and a perpetual “news” cycle make deciding who is trustworthy even more challenging. Someone can represent themselves as a man of God or a patriot even though what they’re actually doing contradicts that facade. They can boost an image with no background in action or even reality. Again, it’s up to us to keep an open mind to the possibility that the carpenter, pundit or politician may not be who they seem — for better or worse. That requires a bit of effort.

When we take people at face value, “judge a book by its cover,” or fail to look under the wool for fangs, we’re vulnerable to being exploited by perceived familiarity and give undue and unearned respect. It may take a little work to form an educated opinion. It’s even more difficult to be open to the possibility our current beliefs may be wrong. But that effort might save us from becoming victims of fraud and slaughtered by the wolf instead of saved by the carpenter.

Mark Michel is a recently retired commercial airline pilot and Key Pen Parks commissioner. He lives in Lakebay.