Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Real Shepherd’s Good Shepherd
(or De-Romanizing Catholic Leadership)

By Bill Moseley

Note: The following reflection was delivered before the start of mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

My old shepherd friend Sadio relaxing at his home in 2014

First Reading – Jeremiah 23:1-6
Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 23
Second Reading – Ephesians 2:13-18
Gospel – Mark 6: 30-34

Good morning! My name is Bill Moseley and it is my pleasure to reflect with you on today’s readings which are all about shepherds and sheep. We learn about bad shepherds in the first reading, good shepherds in the psalm and the 2nd reading, and an exhausted shepherd in the gospel text. Shepherds and sheep are an oft used biblical metaphor employed to describe the relationship between the people of God and their religious leaders. This all seems pretty clear. But what if it is not? What if we have fundamentally misunderstood the shepherding metaphor.

Stories and metaphors, as any good teacher knows, are what people and students remember, so it makes sense that this is what was passed on through oral tradition, and eventually written down, in our religious texts. Many biblical metaphors are rooted in agricultural livelihoods, which is understandable as most people were farmers, herders and fisherfolk at the time the bible was composed. However, the challenge for contemporary people interpreting the bible is that many of us are not agriculturalists. As such, we may misunderstand the original intent of an agricultural metaphor, or be presented with a misguided interpretation.

Herewith a quick example of such misdirection or misinterpretation from my teaching There is a famous essay published in 1968 entitled “the Tragedy of the Commons” by an economist named Garrett Harden. This essay may or may not be familiar to you, but rest assured that anyone who works in the realm of environmental management knows it it and, luckily for my purposes today, it deals with sheep and pastures. Harden starts this essay with a parable of a common pasture in a small rural community. Here individual community members graze as many of their sheep as possible in order to maximize their own personal gain. In the process, however, the pasture degrades, and everyone losses as there is less and less pasture for the sheep. For Harden, the common pasture is the problem. If we want to solve the degradation issue, then we must subdivide and privatize different portions of the pasture. With your privately held plot, according to Harden, you will carefully manage your portion of the pasture, and only put on a few sheep so it does not degrade.

I find several aspects of this telling of the story problematic, but let me note just two here. First, Harden fundamentally misunderstands the idea of a commons, which have existed in rural communities all over the world for millenia, be they pastures, forests or fisheries. These commonly held natural resources are often tightly controlled and managed by a set of rules developed by the community for the community. It is not a free-for-all as Harden suggests, but carefully managed individual use so that everyone benefits. Second, Harden’s title for this story, the “Tragedy of the Commons,” is leading and frames the answer: the commons are the problem and therefore must be privatized. What if he had entitled the essay “The Tragedy of the Privately-Held Sheep?” This might lead us down an entirely different train of thought.

Now let us return to shepherds and sheep. How were you taught to interpret this metaphor? As a young person, I learned that the shepherd was to protect guileless sheep from danger and that their power may be used wisely or unwisely. In other words, the shepherd holds all of the ‘agency’ and the sheep, in this instance, blindly follow the directions of the shepherd.

But what would real shepherds, people who actually herd livestock for a living, think of the way we (a mostly urban people) interpret the good shepherd metaphor? I am not a farmer and I did not grow up in a rural area. What little understanding I have of shepherding comes from my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Mali in the 1980s. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I had a number of friends from the Fulani ethnic group, a group of farmer-herders that are spread all across the drylands of West Africa. I did go out shepherding cows with these friends on a number of occasions and I can share at least three insights from those experiences.

First, shepherding was not a high status occupation, but rather an arduous, often uncomfortable and low status job. Within Fulani families, it was not the male head of household who typically herded the cattle, but younger men in the family who would spend days in the bush with the cows, eating poor food and being devoured by mosquitoes in the evening. I spent one night in the bush with my male friends and their cattle, soaked by rain, strafed by insects, and kept awake all night by boisterous cattle. I was ready to go home to my village house the next day, which felt like the Ritz Carleton after my time at the cattle post.

Second, livestock (cattle, sheep, goats) are a form of wealth in many areas of the world and wealthy individuals have often hired herders to tend their livestock. This proletarianization of the herding workforce means that the status of this group is even more lowly. While this is not always the case, many peasant farmers at least control their own land, their means of production, whereas the majority of herders do not own the cattle they are tending. Herders are put there to ensure the wellbeing of the herd, but it is pretty clear that they do not own the herd.

Third, it is problematic to think that herders tell or direct their livestock what to do. The herd has a mind of its own and will often do what it wants. If there is good pasture, or water ahead, the herd will surge in that direction. Sometimes this is of no consequence, but sometimes the water might be contaminated or the tantalizing pasture ahead might actually be the field of a neighboring farmer, creating the possibility for conflict. It takes all the skills of a good herder to steer the herd clear of such hazards, something which is rarely recognized when done well and decried mightily when done poorly (as we hear in the first reading when God declares “Woe to the shepherds who let the flock of my pasture stray and scatter”). The herder is there to facilitate and keep the herd moving in the right direction. While it may not be cognizant of this, the herd, in this instance, really has more power than the herder.

I want to argue that these three observations shed a different light on, and give new meaning to, the shepherding metaphor. What might this say for those leaders seeking to derive meaning from this passage for today? While exhorting someone to govern wisely is always good advice, what is more clear here is that leadership informed by the good shepherd model means understanding at least three points.

First, leadership cum shepherding is hard, tiring work (the gospel reading was clear on this) and you take it on as a form of service to society, not for status. Second, people are the wealth of any society and our collective well-being may be facilitated by the work of good shepherds. Such shepherds understand that they do not own such wealth, but are there as stewards, stewards who may be removed if they are not performing their duties. And third, good shepherds facilitate, they do not dictate, They understand that the job is about encouraging the community to move in a smart direction but that, ultimately, this is a collective decision. Of course, the shepherd may also encourage the herd to move in the wrong direction or not stand in the way of a bad decision. This may be expedient in the short term, but ultimately it will create much bigger problems down the road, both for the errant shepherd and the herd.

So how do we apply this more grounded, good shepherd model to leadership today?

The scriptural authors recognized that herds can make bad decisions. Put yourself in a room with people voicing the same perspective and there is a tendency among many to want to go along. Sometimes that may be a wise decision, but sometimes that could be a poor decision. As such, in order to insure the common good, and longevity of society, we need two things to happen. First, we need thoughtful citizens who will raise different points of view. Second, we need leaders, cum good shepherds, who will facilitate a collective decision making process wherein all voices are heard so that the best decisions are made. The leader who feels self-important, entitled to the wealth of a society, and/or inclined to suppress critical thinking and dictate decisions, will fail in the long run.

Given the above, I suggest that we need an educated herd with critical thinking skills. We must have robust investments in public education for the good of society. We also need more shepherd-like leaders, real shepherds who are down-to-earth facilitators. The crozier, or the pastoral staff, symbolizes the role of a catholic bishop as a Good Shepherd. But many other trappings of a bishop’s garb, such as his ring, miter and fine robes suggest wealth and power. If we look at church history, the reality is that the lowly shepherd cum facilitator, along with the communal living preached by Jesus, was largely gobbled up by the Roman Empire whose norms live on in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s time we jettisoned the hierarchical and patriarchal model of leadership that Jesus found to be so problematic and returned to the idea of shepherds and shepherdesses toiling amidst the holy flock. Pope Francis has made encouraging nods in this direction by, for example, washing the feet of Muslim migrants or declining to be driven in chauffeured limousines. In contrast, recent pronouncements by the US Council of Catholic Bishops on President Biden and communion strike me as haughty, misguided and uncharitable. We need more of the former and less of the latter. Amen.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to the Word Team and my spouse for their thoughtful feedback on earlier iterations of this reflection. I may be contacted at