The Good Shepherd And The Bad Ones

Photo by Mauricio Fanfa on Unsplash

Without any great intentionality I have been reading about the cruel bite that neoliberal politics puts on vulnerable poor people. In case you might want to see some of that literature, my reading has included:

  • Juan Gonzalez, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (New York: Viking Press, 2000)
  • Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Public Functions of Welfare (New York: Vintage, 1993)
  • Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011)
  • Loïc Wanquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

The gist of the argument is that in the 1990s, under the leadership of President Clinton and Governor Jeb Bush in Florida, neoliberal politics surged, imposing new and rigorous demands on the vulnerable poor. The outcome was an attempt to reduce the working poor to a reliable and essential cog in the production machinery that generated even greater wealth for those at the top of society. The human face of the poor disappeared in this redirection to a workforce on the cheap, without influence or voice.

I gained access to this heavy issue through the commentary of Soss, Fording and Schram concerning the changing role of a case manager. Heretofore a case manager might be concerned for the general welfare of a client in need. Now, however, the single duty of a case manager is to assure work predictability and reliability. A case manager attests:

[Welfare in Florida] is no longer a social service; it is a business. I find it to be the difference between herding cattle and herding sheep. A cattle herder is just running people through, not taking time to look after them.

The authors comment:

Following this metaphor, we may say that sanctions provide a “prod” for case managers who must find a way to “herd their cattle.” In explaining this dynamic, one case manager also touched on how sanctions can promote the paternalistic goal of instilling self-discipline (240).

Later on, the metaphor is extended:

“A cattle herder is just running people through, not taking time to look after them. A shepherd takes care of the sheep, tends after them, cares for them. It is not my nature to herd cattle and now I have to learn to do that.” A welfare client interviewed by Soss (2000) reached for the same metaphor, among other illuminating comparisons, to convey her feelings of subordination and frustration: “It’s like you’re in a cattle prod. It’s like you’re in a big mill. I felt like a number, or like I was in a prison system. Like I said, it feels like you’re in a cattle prod. They’re the cowboys and you’re a cow. [T]hese people are like ‘just be quiet and follow your line.’” (285)

The contrast between “herding cattle” and “caring for sheep” helped me to see something of what is at stake.

Beyond that, the image of sheep-shepherd helped me to make a link to biblical imagery. I turned first of all to Ezekiel 34, perhaps the most important biblical text concerning governing responsibility. (It is to be noted that as long ago as Hammurabi in Old Babylon, “shepherd” has been a figure for “king,” suggesting a regal responsibility for the royal subjects who are as vulnerable as sheep.) In the prophetic oracle Ezekiel begins with a condemnation of “the shepherds” who have been negligent in their duty and have only engaged in self-serving indulgence:

Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…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. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:2-6).

The critique concerns the long run of failed Davidic kings in Jerusalem. Of these kings we may mention two in particular:

Concerning Manasseh:

Moreover Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he caused Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord (II Kings 21:16).

Concerning Jehoiakim:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,

and his upper rooms by injustice;

who makes his neighbors work for nothing,

and does not give them their wages (Jeremiah 22:13).*

The charge is that such self-serving neglect on the part of the king leads to big trouble for “the flock,” in this case: exile and displacement. As a consequence, Ezekiel can have God declare:

I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them (Ezekiel 34:10).

It is the recurring practice of “bad shepherds” to exploit the sheep for their own advantage. The sheep are exposed, vulnerable, and helpless. And God is mightily provoked.

We might imagine a sheep with some poetic imagination reciting a (newly discovered) Psalm concerning “the bad shepherd”:

Mammon is my shepherd; I lack everything.

Mammon leads me into dangerous places;

 he leads me to run great risks.

 He depletes my nephesh.

 He leads me into dangerous sweatshops for his own gain.

Even though I must climb high hills to see Mammon and all his commodities,

 I am scared to death,

 for I never get free of him.

His rod and staff harshly discipline me.

 They leave me vexed and frightened.

The table on offer is cheap, bad-tasting food,

 I must eat on the run.

My head is exposed to the dangers of big cranes and bulldozers;

 my cup runs dry with no time to drink.

Surely greed and cruelty will chase me down,

‘til I die in the midst of sweat and exhaustion.

It is not hard to see that the intense regulation of neoliberal ideology is an echo of the old predatory kings who cared not at all for their subjects.

The good news of Ezekiel, however, concerns the intervention of YHWH into every governance of the failed shepherd kings:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

The failed shepherd-kings will be displaced. YHWH will undertake direct rule to prevent the violent greed of the kings. God is able to see and remove the negligent shepherds who exploit the lean sheep.

Now we get a shifted metaphor that concerns the aggression of fat sheep against the lean sheep:

I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep (Ezekiel 34:20-22).

There is no exact cognate in our economic situation to the intervention of God. We may, however, imagine that the government might intervene on behalf of the vulnerable who are exposed to aggressive exploitation. Except, of course, the neoliberal ideology that justifies the exploitation has largely come to dominate government, so that it is quite unlikely that such an intervention may occur.

Only at the end of this prophetic oracle do we get mention of human agency:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken (Ezekiel 34:23-24).

The prophet can anticipate a coming Davidic king who will do the work of the good shepherd. This coming David will not be a king,” but only “a prince among” who is accountable to the shepherd king, God. Thus Ezekiel can anticipate that the exploitative rule of the bad shepherds will come to an end. It is this anticipation that leads to the expectation that in time to come a king-Messiah will govern in justice, mercy, and equity.

It is my thought that we in the church will do well to place the social analysis of Ezekiel 34 front and center in our pondering of our new socioeconomic reality. The vision of the prophet revolves around the conviction that the purpose of government is the protection and wellbeing of the vulnerable, exactly a contradiction to the neoliberal practice that is programmatically exploitative of the vulnerable. The literature I have mentioned above variously uses terms like “regulating, disciplining, and punishing” as harsh acts against the poor in order to force the poor into submission as cheap labor. Such words are contradicted by those of the good shepherd: “seek out, rescue, gather, and feed.” The latter words indicate the work to be done to rescue the vulnerable from the bad shepherds.

There is no doubt that the “shepherd-sheep” imagery of Ezekiel with the expectation of a “new David” is reflected in the presentation of Jesus in the gospel narrative. Specifically, we may reference the imagery of John 10:1-16. In this poetic rendering of Jesus, we do not get “bad shepherds,” but we get “thieves and bandits” (vv. 1, 8), a “stranger” (v. 8), and a “hired hand” (vv. 12-13). All of these are contrasted to the “good shepherd” because they do not know or care for the sheep; the sheep, moreover, do not know them or trust them. Thus the “thieves and bandits” only come to “steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10). The sheep run from the stranger (v. 5). And the hired hand deserts the sheep in a time of crisis (v. 12). If we consider these several negations together, we have a good representation of the regard neoliberal ideology has for the vulnerable poor. That ideology does not know them; they seek out the poor to steal, kill, or destroy for the sake of greater wealth. They readily abandon the sheep in a crisis, i.e., as soon as their profit fades. The image is of vulnerable sheep and alien agents in the sheepfold who do not care at all for the sheep.

By contrast, it is Jesus who follows in the prophetic train of wise, caring attentiveness whose life is given over to the wellbeing of his vulnerable subjects. It is the extreme expression of care for the sheep that the shepherd will place himself in danger in order to protect the sheep. In this phrase “lay down his life” (v. 17), we may stay within the imagery and imagine a shepherd fending off a wolf or a lion for the sake of keeping the sheep safe. The radical self-giving for the wellbeing of the other is at the heart of a gospel ethic, a profound contradiction to the greedy economy that treats the poor as readily expendable.

It is an obvious truism that the church is to persist in the work of Jesus. Thus we may imagine that as the “good shepherd” gives his life for the sheep, so is the church in its work of such self-giving for the poor and vulnerable. In the Fourth Gospel the imagery moves readily from the claim for Christ in chapter 10 to the mandate for the church in chapter 21. In that final exchange between Jesus and his lead disciple, Peter is told three times how to express his love toward the Lord Jesus:

        Feed my lambs (v. 15);

        Tend my sheep (v. 16);

        Feed my sheep (v. 18).

The allusion to the execution of Peter in verses 18-19 voices the extreme mandate of the Gospel to lay down life for the vulnerable.

The sequence is from royal ideology (king as shepherd), to

prophetic condemnation and anticipation, to

the rendering of Jesus as Good Shepherd, to

the church as sheep-tenders.

This sequence provides a rich theme for our reflection on the economy and on governance. This trajectory on the one hand clearly voices the mandate to the church. On the other hand, the trajectory voices a thematic for our thought about governance, the shape of government policy, and the deployment of public resources. For a church that continues to be excessively preoccupied with personal salvation and next-world prospects, this thematic is an urgent invitation. The matter is made even more urgent by the fact that in our economy there are very few witnesses left who can provide a critical stance over against neoliberal greed and violence. It is not enough that the vulnerable poor can participate in the economy by work that earns a livelihood. What is essential is that the vulnerable poor be given a voice in the public domain. Such voice, moreover, can only be sustained along with becoming property owners. Thus the work of government is the sustenance of such inclusive economic empowerment. We have work to do in the church that is nothing less than the recovery of the primary accents of our treasured tradition.