The word sheeple has been around for at least 60 years as a derogatory reference to people who are docile, foolish, and easily led—like sheep to slaughter.
There is a paradox here, because sheeple applies to absolutely no one. Stop anybody on the street and ask, “Are you docile, foolish, and easily led?” and you will see what I mean. We’re all to smart for that.
But what about the Christian metaphor of the Good Shepherd? Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the one who will tell us (his flock of sheep) right from wrong, keep us safe from harm, give us good counsel when we are confused, and wrap us snugly in the warm folds of his robes on that last, darkest, and most frightening night of the soul. Is this a case where people choose to be sheep?
Well, not all people will be sheep. Like Jesus, there are some others who stumble into—or seek out—the role of shepherd. They are smarter and more intelligent than the flock they aspire to lead. Some of them take on the role of shepherd out of love and compassion for the poor sheep, who, by their nature, are truly helpless. Others aspire to the role of shepherd out of the delusion they know what’s best—for themselves, for sure—and will take the flock by whatever means they can. Some of them will even lead their flocks directly to the slaughter-house.
All shepherds and hopeful shepherds have a message for the flock. But the sheep may have difficulty discerning among those who would help them from those who would harm them. Many people, like sheep, don’t have—or don’t utilize—the capacity to discern the truth. They are unable to make skillful decisions about what’s in their own long-term best interests and the best interests of those who share the pasture. Because, like sheep, they can know only what their immediate instincts tell them. And the instincts of sheep aren’t very good. Can a sheep recognize the butcher as he walks into the pen with a loaded rifle?
But we’re really not sheep. And it is possible to separate the good shepherds from the bad shepherds—if we’d really care to take a close look at them and listen carefully to their messages. Listening carefully doesn’t mean hearing what we want to and not hearing what we don’t.
• Is the message filled with compassion, hope, love, tolerance, and concern for the welfare of everyone in the flock? Or is the message filled with hatred of “the other,” fear that “the other” will take what’s “yours,” and intolerance of anyone who doesn’t accept the message?
• What’s the overall demeanor of those who would aspire to lead you? How do they live their lives—not just when they are in the spotlight, but when no one is looking? Are they kind, gentle, and honest; are they authoritarian, overbearing, and deceptive; are they generous and humble, or greedy for money, fame, and power?
• Are they wise or deluded?
Although it may take a long time and will require some effort, truth can be found.
Provided truth is what you really want.
The photo collage is of some notable shepherds, some of whom are speaking to their flocks. Can you tell the good ones from the bad ones? If so, how?
In the picture are, in no particular order: the Buddha, Jerry Fallwell, Benazir Bhutto, Idi Amin, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, Anwar Sadat, Jimmie Carter, Menachem Begin, Mother Teresa, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Rush Limbaugh, Nelson Mandela, Joseph Stalin, Pat Roberson, Dick Cheney, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, Mao Zedong, Mahatma Ghandi, Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Dorothy Day, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jim Jones, Mitt Romney, and Jesus, who is shone once as the Good Shepherd and again preaching the Sermon on the Mount.
Please forgive me if your favorite—good or bad—is not in the picture. There are so many.
*This is a rewrite of an article first published here on February 27, 2010. I think it’s as timely today as it was then. The original post was inspired by a story sent to me by someone suggesting that Barack Obama is leading the United States down the same path as did Adolf Hitler lead Germany (that story has since been removed, but there are plenty of others out there).