Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd*

Collage of notable shepherds
How can you tell the good shepherds from the bad?

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).

Perception, Projection, and the Trap of Illusion

A marionette is a kind of puppet whose articulated parts are manipulated by someone pulling on strings or wires from above. Evidently, marionettes have been in use for four thousand years, give or take. Historically, their  function went beyond mere entertainment. They were used to teach lessons in morality to illiterate masses, shame errant children of nobles, and convey messages to kings in a way that saved the messengers from possible execution. Puppets could get away with saying and doing things in public that would have been taboo for real people.

Predicating all of these uses is our ability to suspend disbelief so we can think of the marionette as real while knowing it is not.

As I watched the video of the dancing skeleton, it was easy for me to see it as a person—not as a collection of plastic bones held together by bits of string or wire and manipulated by a real person. I projected on it a lecherous personality. It was the clacking of the teeth—presumably at an attractive woman—that did it. But then, toward the end, as he (it!) gets down on his knees to check the take and sees how sparse it is, he sobs despairingly. Aw, he can’t be all bad. A passer-by thinks so too, and drops in some cash.

It’s obviously an illusion, yet it evoked sympathy. 

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But isn’t this the way with people to? I mean we form opinions about people based on our perceptions—all of the data that come through our senses—and create a story so convincing it becomes true. 

But it isn’t true. Any two people will see another person differently—and most certainly differently from how that person sees himself. There will be as many views, and  opinions, of that one person as there are people doing the viewing. No single view—not even one’s own self-view—can be considered the “right” one. My story about me isn’t “true” because it’s impossible for me to view myself as others see me.

Even with this knowledge, our stories about ourselves and others are so convincing they become real and true. Yet they aren’t true, not in a universal sense, anyway. The stories we tell ourselves are illusions.

It seems to me a trap.

Virtuous Action As the Foundation of Morality

In earlier posts, beginning here, I talked about the five pillars of morality as defined by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a psychologist working in the field of moral psychology. He conducts studies to determine the differences between liberals and conservatives, both politically and spiritually.

He does what psychologists do: studies what drives peoples’ behavior. Psychologists want to know why people do the things they do. Of course, Haidt may be completely wrong about his five foundations of morality—after all, they are just ideas. Yet looking at people I’ve known over the years, many of them seem to fit well within Haidt’s categories. I don’t mean to argue that he’s right. Nor do I mean to dispute his theories.

People do things for many different reasons. On the surface, they may say things like “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It’s what God wants me to do,” or what have you. But I’ll assert that deep down, most of us really don’t know why we do what we do.

On thing I’m sure of, most people, most average people, whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, will state they are moral. And they will say so without giving any particular thought why they believe themselves to be moral individuals.

I stated in the first post of this series that morality concerns itself with distinguishing among human behaviors that are right and wrong and good and bad. Virtue is excellent moral conduct or behavior that exhibits high moral standards. What matters is what one does.

Being liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. Being gay or straight doesn’t matter. Being American or Iranian doesn’t matter. Being Christian or Jewish or Mormon or atheist or Muslim or Hindu doesn’t matter. But one’s actions, now they matter.

Oh, yeah, I know. The argument about faith versus works is an old one. There are those who believe that all one needs is faith—meaning faith in Jesus, of course; nothing else will do—to be “saved.” A person who believes this may also believe that negative and harmful actions are irrelevant. They may also insist that, no matter how good a person is and how many good works he performs, unless he has faith in the proper form, he is doomed to hell for eternity. OK, fine. But I say again: Actions matter.

I do agree that what one believes is the basis for one’s actions. No doubt about it. If one believes that actions do matter, then one is more likely to be heedful of what one does. If one believes that faith is all that matters but does not take care with actions, then less consideration may be given to possible harm to others.

Actions can fit into two broad categories: those that are beneficial and those that are harmful. Actions can have short-term benefit but may be harmful in the longterm. Or actions may appear harmful in the short term, but have lasting benefit later on. Sometimes it’s hard to know. But it stands to reason that longterm benefits are more desirable than immediate gratification.

Another important aspect here is: harmful or beneficial to whom? Actions that benefit the individual may be harmful to others. So the best actions, meaning actions that are the most skillful, are those that lead to the long-lasting benefit of oneself and others. This is virtuous behavior based on high moral standards.

Revisiting Haidt for a moment, we can see he’s on to something with his harm/care foundation. I would say that the other four are relative to, and dependent upon, harm/care because they form the basis for how we treat others.

I like the idea of being skillful with one’s actions. There are skillful doctors, mechanics, baseball players. We can be skillful at being people, too. Virtue—good moral conduct—is a skill that can be sharpened with practice.

Next: Determining what is skillful and what isn’t.

End of the World, Take 2 (or 3 or 4 or…)

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the world, for some believers, is in its last week of existence. Friday is Doomsday.

It’s not such a big deal as it was last spring, when Harold Camping and his followers predicted the world would come to a cataclysmic end on May 21. Many of these followers sold sold their belongings and went on crusades of conversion, encouraging repentance as a preparation for judgement day. Camping was wrong, of course, because that day came and went much like every other day. But then again, he insists he’s right. On his Family Radio website, which has gone through an extreme makeover, he explains what really happened on May 21. That the world didn’t come to a violent end was all part of the Plan.

Image from the Family Radio website, two days before the world did not en

“What really happened is that God accomplished exactly what He wanted to happen. That was to warn the whole world that on May 21 God’s salvation program would be finished on that day. For the next five months, except for the elect (the true believers), the whole world is under God’s final judgment. To accomplish this goal God withheld from the true believers the way in which two phrases were to be understood. Had He not done so, the world would never have been shaken in fear as it was.

“…Indeed, on May 21 Christ did come spiritually to put all of the unsaved throughout the world into judgment. But that universal judgment will not be physically seen until the last day of the five month judgment period, on October 21, 2011.

That’s right. Friday is the day. The last day. For good.

Only this time, according to Camping, it will be a quiet event. In a Time magazine newsfeed, Camping states:

“I really am beginning to think as I restudied these matters that there’s going to be no big display of any kind. The end is going to come very, very quietly, probably within the next month. It will happen, that is, by October 21.”

The quote, according to Time, comes from one of Camping’s radio announcements.

Camping, who is ninety, had a stroke in June. Perhaps, for him—not to mention a good deal of others around the world—the end will come quietly on Oct. 21. For the rest of us, however, we all have December 21, 2012 to look forward to—or worry about, depending on your particular beliefs.

Doomsday predictions are as old as the hills, as the saying goes. Here’s a list of 10 failed predictions. It doesn’t include Camping’s bogus 1994 prediction. I’m predicting the Mayan Calendar non-event will make the list in due time.