“I am the good shepherd……the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…”
These are some of the most popular words in the Christian Gospels. Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who cares for the sheep. He describes himself in contradistinction to the hireling, who does not care as well for the sheep since they are not his own. This is a really wonderful passage that describes a heroic devotion, a love to the end.
Unfortunately, this passage is used in modern exegesis more often to expound upon not the selfless love of Jesus but rather the legendary stupidity and herd mentality of sheep. The lesson, most clergymen go on to say in rather unmitigated tones, is that we men are helpless and stupid just like sheep. To me this destroys the beauty of the Gospel passage and is yet another example of what can go wrong when we push metaphors just one step too far, when we think too much.
Yes, mankind is stupid, and we often give in to the herd mentality. The popularity of socialism is a good exhibit in this tragedy. But unlike sheep, man operates on more than just instinct. He has a will and an intellect that can be used to refine his behavior. Why should we, then, accept the sheep metaphor? It really is not all that useful.
How much has this whole shepherd and sheep thing influenced our attitudes about government? There seems to be an assumption in our society that we cannot manage our lives on our own, that we are incapable of making our own decisions, that left to our own devices we would be dumb as sheep. Government therefore becomes a necessary evil. I submit, however, that nothing promotes stupidity more than the popular belief that if I screw up, the government will be there to help me. The incentive for responsibility is removed. Then there is the self-fulfilling prophecy: The institutions in our society say to people, “You are stupid,” and most are docile enough to say, “Yes, you’re right.”
One of the greatest tools of any tyrant—whether it be a Medieval ecclesiastical office-holder or a modern politician in a nation-state—is to make people think that they need such authority. To break this spell, we must stop thinking of ourselves as sheep. It wouldn’t hurt either to draw another distinction, one between the good shepherd who lays down his own life, and the tyrant, who demands that we lay down ours on behalf of the State.
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