Good Shepherds and Bad
It is astonishing, really, that so much is done in politics, business and policy in the name of Christianity, or even worse in the name of Jesus. Whether it is healthcare, immigration, foreign policy, abortion, or state-sanctioned violence whether it be warfare or the death sentence, leadership in this nation too often hides behind the Bible to justify actions that are quite simply un-biblical.
In my branch of the Christian franchise, The Episcopal Church (TEC) we pray that when we hear the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, that we “may know him who calls us by name, and follow where he leads,” without any thorough examination of what it really means to know the God of the Bible and where this God leads us – or at least tries. What we are left with is the evidence of actions on behalf of those who coopt the name and will of God which quite rightly leaves many to choose atheism as a rational alternative to what we see and hear every day in the news and in our own lives.
“To know” in Biblical Hebrew is rendered roughly “yada.” In context it is used to describe the intimate relationship between the first man and first woman (Genesis 4: 1, 17, 25) resulting in sons, one of whom, Abel, is himself a shepherd. In Proverbs 12: 10 to know connotes a quality of mercy and compassion for the needs of others, all others and all creatures. And in Jeremiah 22: 15-16, talking about King Josiah’s good shepherd qualities, “yada” connotes doing justice and righteousness; specifically judging the cause of the poor and needy. “Is not this to know me, says the Lord” [YWHW, the God of the Exodus, the one who hears the plight of slaves in the Empire and leads their escape to freedom].
The prophet Ezekiel gets on a roll when this same Lord commands the prophet to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them – to you shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak; you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured; you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So, they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and scattered they became food for all the wild animals.” [Ezekiel 34]
In calling the bad leadership to task the qualities of good shepherds is outlined along the same contours of just what it means to know (yada) and follow the Lord. It is worth observing that Israel in this context is a placeholder for just what tribal, cultural and national leadership is meant to look like. That is, this is a Biblical view of what good shepherds are all about. This is not about “theocracy” or the establishment of religion. But it is an honest view of what the Bible, or Judeo-Christian tradition, considers good shepherd leadership to look like, which in the end is not specifically religious but rather a compassionate way of looking at how we are meant to care for one another, for all other people, all other creatures, and the environment itself – for without a healthy and well cared for environment there will be no life at all.
And if this looks at all challenging, one need only look at the New Testament’s description of what early Christian community looked like in the generation after Jesus: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” [Acts 2:44] “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and not one claimed ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds ow what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” [Acts 4:32-36] This is what life with good shepherds looks like. This is how the early church lived and survived tremendous persecution at the hands of the Empire.
The tragedy for the church came about in 313CE when by fiat of the Emperor Constantine the church became the Empire and adopted all the trappings and behaviors of the Empire. One might say the church allowed itself to be coopted and tenured by the Empire. As such, the church for hundreds of years abandoned the qualities of good shepherd leadership and became just another bureaucratic functionary for the machinations of Empire. Sanctioning such barbarism as The Crusades, The Inquisition and numerous other tragedies, the church as such abandoned its rooting in the Biblical qualities of good shepherd leadership. If Abel was the first good shepherd in the Biblical story, the church after 313 more closely resembled his brother Cain.
This leaves much for us to ponder as we listen to talk that claims to represent Christian leadership. Do those who make such claims hold fast the views of good shepherds all the way back to the likes of Abel through John’s portrayal of Jesus as “the good shepherd”, and descriptions of the early church in the book of Acts? [John 10:11ff] Or, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to reform the post-Constantine church, are those making such claims clinging to the church of Cain, Empire and unfettered power sustained by a culture characterized by Walter Brueggemann as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism – committed to notions of self-invention in the pursuit of self-sufficiency”? [Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2012) p. 4]
As Moses puts it before God’s people before they dare enter into the land of promise, “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and hold fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…” [Deuteronomy 30: 19-20a] Length of days depends on our knowing the God who is the Good Shepherd, not the church or any other temporal representative. Length of days means hearing his voice and following in his way. From beginning to end the Bible is steadfast and unwavering as to what good shepherd leadership consists of and really is: merciful, just, compassionate, with concerns for those who are most vulnerable and in need. We will know it when we see it. Until then, all the rest is idle chatter.