Thursday, August 16, 2018

Rethinking Shepherds and Sheep

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on the weekend of July 21-22, 2018.

People of God, my name is Bill Moseley and it’s my privilege to reflect with you on today’s readings.

Today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Mark, as well as Psalm 23, are on the Good Shepherd with some passing inferences to sheep. When I met with the Word Team last week to discuss these texts, I learned that the faith formation students in our 5th to 8th grades were critical of this image as a metaphor for our relationship with God. I don’t blame them. Who wants to be compared to dumb sheep that get bossed around by a know-it-all shepherd that supposedly has our best interests in mind? More importantly, hats off to our young people for being critical thinkers and not passively accepting these ideas. That said, what I would like to do today is offer an alternative perspective on sheep and shepherds which might allow us to approach these readings differently.

So, first off, what about these dumb sheep? Are they really so dim witted? When I was younger, I enjoyed a comic strip by Gary Larson entitled the “Far Side.” One of the recurring themes in this strip was the inversion of humans and animals in the intellectual hierarchy, with the idea that animals might actually be much smarter than people thought them to be. Most farmers would concur that sheep really do need to be herded. But, as per Gary Larson, what if the sheep are just channeling their mental energy somewhere else than the everyday practicalities of life? They may look like mindless fluffy eating machines in a pasture, but what if they are really spending their time solving physics equations and can’t be bothered to think about where they are going?

As a quintessential absent-minded professor, I must confess that I have some sympathy for sheep. You may or may not know that I can be pretty spacey. I can get lost in thought and literally become oblivious to where I am and what I am doing. My wife claims that I fortunately found the one and only profession where such a talent is prized: academia. But such a tendency can put a strain on one’s marriage. While there are literally hundreds of family stories in our household about me doing spacey things, I will just share one particularly egregious vignette to illustrate the problem. In the mid-1990s, my wife, Julia, and I were living in Harare, Zimbabwe where we both worked for the international NGO Save the Children (UK) on a large hunger mapping project. We lived in a small, rented cottage behind the main house on a larger piece of property. The property was fenced and gated, which meant that you always had to open a gate before going up a very long drive to our cottage. One day, we were coming home from work and I happened to be driving. As we approached the entrance to our place, Julia got out to unlock and open the gate so that I could drive through. Now, on that particular day, I must have been thinking about something – trying to solve some sort of problem in my head. As such, and very unfortunately, after driving through the entrance I didn’t stop for Julia to get back in the car, but just kept on driving to the back of the property where our cottage was located. I pulled up to the cottage and I looked over to the passenger seat and I was thinking where did Jules go? I literally had absolutely no idea where she went. I got out of the car and started walking back down the driveway when I saw Jules trudging up the hill. I said, very honestly, where were you, where did you go?

Julia, fortunately, has stuck with me. And that’s a good thing. Not just because she keeps me on track with the practical aspects of life, but because she also nudges me in the right direction on so many other fronts. To wit, we recently met a young Ugandan man at Cabrini named James. James had introduced himself to the congregation at the end of the service. After mass we said hello, chatted during coffee hour, and then offered to drive him home. As we got in the car, Julia discretely said to me: why don’t we invite James home for lunch, isn’t that what someone in Africa would do? And to this, I am ashamed to say, I hesitated. I was probably thinking that I had some “really important” thing to do that afternoon. But we did invite James over for lunch and we had a wonderful conversation, learning that James was here for a month as a medical student at the U and that he had come to Minnesota via connections with an orphanage we serendipitously already knew about in Uganda called the Blue House. My point here is that Julia nudged me in the right direction in this particular moment as she has at many other times in our relationship.

Most people don’t like to be compared to sheep because the implication is that we are simple minded followers. But what if the sheep metaphor is just a way of acknowledging our human potential for waywardness? Whether we are pensive, distracted, or worried, we can wander off course and we need good shepherds in our lives to nudge us back in the right direction.

Just as we are re-imagining the meaning of the sheep metaphor, I would also like to examine our conception of the good shepherd. What I want to argue is that we come to our understanding of the good shepherd via our own cultural understandings of this idea.

What is the stereotypical American understanding of the qualities of a good shepherd or herder? The US, as we know, is a majority urban/suburban nation. Increasingly there are very few Americans who have first-hand experience with animal husbandry and farming. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I probably was first introduced to the idea of the good shepherd in faith formation. I also encountered shepherds and herders in children’s story books. My take-away was that shepherds were above all protectors, they guard the flock from bad things like wolves. In American folklore we also have the iconic cowboy whom, by the way, we often forget is a herder. In fact, cowboys have been so abstracted from their herding context that we tend to focus on their protector role above all us. They almost always carry guns. They are rugged individuals who know best, are only accountable to God, and they protect us from danger. These are the American ideas we often bring to the good shepherd metaphor in today’s readings. We need a good shepherd to protect us from bad things out there, the good shepherd is only accountable to God, and we are lost without such a protector.

My experiences in West Africa with herders shed a different light and interpretation on this metaphor. As you may now, my wife Julia and I met in the Peace Corps in the 1980s in Mali. I served in a small, rural farming community of 200 people in southern Mali. This farming village of Bambara people also had, at its outskirts, 3-4 hamlets of herders composed of another ethnic group called the Fulani. My social life outside of work largely consisted of hanging out in the evenings with young male village friends drinking tea and chatting. There was a Fulani herder man name Sadio who used to come and join us some evenings. Despite the fact that some of the farmers teased Sadio for always smelling like milk and cows, I gradually developed a friendship with him.

As I began to learn the Fulani language, I spent more time with Sadio and his family. I learned to milk cows by hand and even spent a couple of nights in the bush with the herders and the cows. Herding was not an easy life. During the rainy season, the young men would take the cows far away from the village so the animals wouldn’t get into people’s farm fields. The herders didn’t eat very well, consuming mostly milk and some grains. The mosquitos were rapacious in the evening and the social isolation was challenging for these young men in a society where human relations meant everything. These herders tended to the cows like their children, carefully removing ticks from them in the evenings so they would not catch diseases. Above all, however, I learned that the herders’ main job was not to protect the cows from predators because there are almost no big predators left in this part of West Africa. No, their main job was to keep the cows out of farm fields. This task could become very challenging in the fall when the rains stopped, grass cover declined, and the crops were still in the field before the harvest. Hungry cows that see green in a distant field can be extremely determined to get there and eat as much greenery as possible. Allowing cows to wander astray could lead to serious altercations with the farmers in the area - and a potential for conflict that could sometimes escalate to violence.

In sum, the West African view of a herder or shepherd is quite different than the American one. Here the cultural reading of the metaphor is not that of the great protector. Rather, it’s a humble, hardworking person who tends to the health of his or her animals and adroitly steers them away from trouble, even if the instincts of the herd are to satisfy their hunger by feasting on a farm field – an event which would undoubtedly lead to conflict.

I want to conclude by suggesting that we can potentially use these different understandings of shepherds and sheep to sift through today’s readings. After reading and re-readings today’s passage from Mark, I was struck by how Jesus led by example. He mostly taught/led/shepherded by the way he lived his life rather than didactically telling people what to do. In Mark, we see how his active compassion for the masses and the marginalized was a lesson to others. Jesus’ ideas about how to live differently were revolutionary for his time. His thoughts on living in community, loving thy neighbor as thyself, & welcoming the outcast constituted a new “way.” Jesus, to the chagrin of some of his followers, was no gun toting, ruggedly individualistic cowboy with righteousness on his side, riding in to save the day. Rather he, like the lowly West African herder, was trying to lovingly shepherd people along this path to longer term peace and happiness.

Lastly, what to make of the penultimate sentence where Mark writes that the people who came to see Jesus “were like sheep without a shepherd”? Yes, we can read this as simple-minded people who were lost. But we can also read this as people who were mature enough to recognize that they needed a little help getting back on track or staying on track. Furthermore, these people didn’t just flock to anyone. They had choices. There were plenty of other prophets around at the time exuding strength, who were quick to lay the blame at the feet of others, or who promised material wealth. No, they came to see Jesus and I am guessing they did so because they recognized in him a different kind of wisdom. Indeed, these lessons about thoughtful sheep and the good shepherd are helpful guidance for the long but important task of making heaven on earth.


The author may be contacted at moseley@macalester.edu or may be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/WilliamGMoseley

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