Apr 25 | “Shepherd not Sheepdog,” (Sermon, April 25th 2021)

David Grossman is a name most ordinary Canadians probably don’t know. Lieutenant Colonel Grossman’s workshops are endemic in US law enforcement. From a 2017 Men’s Journal article, quote: “His first book, On Killing, is part of the curriculum at the FBI academy and on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List. Its follow-up, On Combat, is probably best known for his assertion that people can be divided into three groups — sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs — and it’s the sheepdogs, “blessed with the gift of aggression,” who are responsible for protecting the sheep from the wolves. The analogy has been adopted by various military and gun-rights groups[.]”

The article also notes that Grossman emphasizes that sheep, a metaphor for the public, often confuse sheepdogs (the police), with wolves (criminals). The subtext is that the sheep are too stupid to know the difference. Police are thereby encouraged to see themselves as martyrs to the facile and disrespectful whims of an ignorant public. In a quote from Grossman himself, in the same Men’s Journal article: ‘“Cops fight violence. What do they fight it with? Superior violence. Righteous violence.”’ A textbook from one of his workshops includes a whole section on Biblical defenses for killing.

It’s probably helpful to note here that Grossman has no active combat experience and his research methods are deeply unscientific. His work is controversial, with University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Samuel Walker characterizing it as “okay for the Green Berets but unacceptable for domestic policing,” and University of South Carolina criminal law professor Seth Stoughton referring to it as “scaremongering.” After the 2016 murder of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, several police departments dropped his courses, and last year Minnesota actually enforced a statewide ban.

In this context, let’s explore through the lens of today’s Gospel passage, what it means to see the world through the eyes of someone who cares for sheep.

“He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

This was what Courteney Ross said about her partner George Floyd in a TV interview by their local news channel. Other friends of Floyd called agreed that he had a heart for his community, particularly those living in the Third Ward neighbourhood in Houston and the neighbouring Cuney Homes housing project where his church, Resurrection House, focused a lot of their outreach. These friends were honest about his struggles with addiction and his history in the carceral system, and so indeed was Floyd himself. His knowledge of the hardships of life fed his compassion for others.

Floyd eventually came to Minneapolis through a Christian jobs placement program, and most of us know that was murdered by a police officer there, which is why people around the world know his name. That officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes, ignoring his strangled cries that he couldn’t breathe, was convicted as guilty on all counts on Tuesday afternoon of last week.

I’m not telling you about George Floyd to imply that he is worthy of justice only because he was a good person. I do think, though, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, where many churches also observe Vocations Day where we explore what it means to be called to any kind of ministry, lay or ordained, it’s important to explore what leadership, what being a good shepherd who feeds, waters, guides, and protects sheep, really looks like, as opposed to being a sheepdog who does occasionally protect, but more often is there to keep sheep organized and in line, according to the will of the farmer.

“He stood up for people, he was there for people when they were down, he loved people that were thrown away.”

If we’re using the metaphor of sheep, shepherds who care for them, and sheepdogs who keep them in line, Floyd was a shepherd of sorts. While he was open on his social media about his frustration with the systemic violence of his neighbourhood, he used the respect he had gained in that community to lead people, particularly young people, to the path of peace as he understood it through his church.

A small cluster of sheep graze in the foreground with the wall separating Palestinian from Israeli territory behind them, with a guard tower just off centre on the left looming over the scene.

The greatest difference between our Good Shepherd and Floyd is that Jesus says in today’s passage, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”

Floyd’s death was not in service to anyone. While it sparked a worldwide movement, that movement’s lament and rage at his loss is what gave meaning to it. The loss itself was senseless, a precious life that was loved. The movement crying out for justice for those murdered with impunity by police is what has given meaning to those who loved him – not the death itself. To say otherwise is to imply that justice only occurs at the death or other traumatic expense of the marginalized. This is sadly often true, but we know it shouldn’t be.

And indeed, perhaps this notion is what many of us find challenging about Jesus’s death. For so many Christians, the focus on the saving nature of Jesus’s death is what gives meaning to the entirety of the faith. But for many of us, there are so many questions: Why would God allow this to happen? Why did it have to be this way? Did Jesus really know what was coming? What was the metaphysical process involved in this one death providing salvation for the whole world?

And these questions then feed into other passages about how we, those left behind in the echo of the Resurrection, are to live our lives. When Jesus calls us to take up our crosses, does that mean we are called to not only accept but embrace suffering, even death, at the hands of an oppressor? Are we to see ourselves as righteous for putting up with a world that doesn’t understand us, that hates us and marginalizes us? Are we to see the world as an unrepentantly evil and lonely place where we always have to be on guard, armed for wolves? Do we sort ourselves into these arbitrary groups when we are actually all human, and flawed, and just as capable of choosing and cultivating peace as violence in our daily lives?

The sort of person who ascribes to Grossman’s worldview wakes up every day to a universe of fear and resentment. Jesus, in his relatively short time on earth, surely didn’t. If he had, he wouldn’t have made a habit of eating and drinking with tax collectors and sex workers. Jesus, who knew plenty about violence, betrayal, anger against injustice, and state repression, did not come as a sheepdog to keep us nice and tidy in line and rid the world of wolves. He came as a shepherd, feeding us then and continuing to feed us now; guiding us to green pastures and still waters; leaving the ninety-nine to find the lost; defending us knowing that he could do so empowered by God to take up the life he sacrificed.

Knowing this, what are we to do, on this Vocations Sunday?

We do not have the power to take up our lives again, whether they’re lost to violence or the normal course of mortality. As a priest I do not find the metaphor of shepherd particularly helpful to frame my own ministry. It encourages me to enter into that world where you, the people among whom I serve, are othered and infantilized, breeding paternalism and resentment. It’s likewise disingenuous to deny the privilege I have as an ordained person and say that you’re the shepherd and I’m the sheep.

Perhaps during this wild and rather amazing time of pandemic, uprising, and the shock of resurrection, it’s better to focus on who we belong to.

Who is our shepherd? How does he love us? And in his physical absence, how can we love each other?

We can remember how he was with us, and what he said to us, through the stories of those who came before us. And we can make sure that, when we’re huddled together in times of cold or fear, none of us are missing, none of us are forgotten, none of us are lost.

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