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).

A Small Case of Ignorance

ignoranceI live in a suburban residential area where the speed limit is 25 mph. In the neighborhood is a middle school, where the speed limit drops to 20 mph at the beginning and end of the school day, when children are arriving and departing. One morning, as I was leaving the neighborhood and approaching the school zone, I saw ahead of me two boys walking along the sidewalk. One of them wore a hoody that obscured his peripheral vision. The other was intent on some electronic device—a phone or game. Neither showed any sign of awareness that a car was coming toward them as they sauntered across the street right in my path.

No, I didn’t hit them. I noticed them in plenty of time and anticipated what they might do. 

On the surface, this is just one of thousands of examples of child-like behavior. It’s the kind of thing kids do, and it’s why the speed limit is decreased in school zones. There are kids everywhere.

On a deeper level, it’s just another example of ignorance. And here I don’t use the word to mean stupid. I mean ignorance of reality, ignorance of what is really happening. Those boys were ignorant of an approaching car and ignorant of any danger. With their lack of vision and occupied with their distractions, they simply weren’t aware of what was happening around them. 

But at what point in a child’s life does he or she cross the threshold from a state of ignorance to a state of awareness? Sixteen? Eighteen? Twenty-one? As I noted above, the speed limit is reduced in school zones because kids are everywhere. And those kids need to be protected from drivers who’s awareness is impaired by thousands of distractions, drivers who may be ignorant of what’s going on around them.

There is no built-in threshold a person automatically crosses from ignorance to awareness. Indeed, many people remain ignorant of reality their entire lives. They like their hoodies and their distractions, and they are unaware that the world is anything otherwise. It is their reality. 

But there is a reality outside the distractions, just as there was for the boys who walked in front of my car as it was heading toward them.

Questions:

• Can you think of one or two adult instances where you saw the foolishness or danger in someone else’s behavior, but they could not see it?

• If so, is it possible that others can see the foolishness or danger in something you are doing but can’t see?

• If there is a state of “the way things really are,” is it possible to be in it?

• If so, how do you get there?

• What do you think?

Occupy RushMouth

Rush Limbaugh by Ian Marsden
Drawing by Ian Marsden, courtesy WikiCommons

Twenty years ago or so, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. I’d heard of him and wanted to know what was so special. Even though I didn’t agree with his politics, I thought it was appropriate to hear what he had to say and judge for myself.

I hung in there for a couple of months, listening to his newspaper-rattling and sighs of disgust while slurring and maligning any person or idea he didn’t like or agree with. 

He claimed he was just an “entertainer.” But his stated goal was to destroy liberalism. I listened as much as I could. And then one day I said to myself, “That’s enough.” I switched him off. 

Every once in a while I’d come across a story about him and wonder, “Do people still listen to him?” Yet I’ve read he has millions of listeners—5 million–20 million. Whatever the number, it’s a lot.  

In spite of his stated objectives—however misguided—no good can come from his hateful speech. Limbaugh’s inability to see it underscores his own delusion. And 20 million pats on the back each day is a lot of encouragement to stay in the dark. Yet because millions believe he’s right doesn’t mean he is. Twenty million people can be wrong.

We are fortunate in this country that physical assassination is a rare thing. But character assassination is acceptable, legal, and prevalent. Rush Limbaugh is not an entertainer. His recent attack on Sandra Fluke is character assassination. Not that she’s his first hit, but she is suddenly in the spotlight over an issue that’s important and personal to many people. 

The caricature above suggests Rush Limbaugh is the face of the Republican party. The face is where the mouth is. While the Republican candidates stumble all over each other trying to prove who is the more conservative, the mouth of the party is busy spewing hatred and contempt. If the mouthpiece is delusional and morally corrupt, what we say about the rest of the party?

Some of us believe it’s proper for a government of by and for the people to help those in need. It’s a point of view, not a disease. The real disease festers in the mouth of Rush Limbaugh.

The Occupy Movement has more territory to cover.