Have you ever witnessed something that you wished you could unsee? In your personal life, have you ever had an encounter or a conversation or just observed something that you wish you had not? Often when that happens, our minds spin, depending on the relationships involved and what we have personally observed. There is a moment when you are looking and seeing, but your mind does not want to take in the information. It is like a time warp where life freezes and you think, “Did I just see what I think I am seeing?” And then, one needs to decide what to do with the information, what to do with what you have seen, or heard. Maybe you choose to pretend that you didn’t really see or hear anything. Maybe you decide to “sleep on it.” Maybe you decide to wait until another day, another week, or another year. Or maybe you decide to investigate surreptitiously or go get help in that moment. Or maybe, if you are feeling brave, you decide to speak up and confront.
The thing is, you cannot really “unsee” what you have seen or “unhear” what you have heard. Sure, you can be mistaken, but for some reason, you are there and now must decide. We don’t plan for these kinds of encounters; there really isn’t a whole lot of good training for them. They tend to happen spontaneously and at the worst possible times. Maybe we witness someone being hurt. Maybe we hear a dastardly plan that has no good outcome. Maybe we are in public and hear cries for help just as we are crossing a street at night. I don’t know. I just know that, in that moment, we alone have a choice. We can pretend that we don’t, but we do.
In Ocean Vuong’s poem, “A Prayer of the Newly Damned,” a man sees an act of violence. A knife is placed at the throat of another, someone vulnerable. We have intimations that an older man doing the violent act has forced another human to stoop and beg for his life. In the poem, there seems to be three people: the man pleading for his life, a violent man, and a boy who can no longer unsee the victim soiling his pants in response. There are also intimations that this is between an earthly father and son, and intimations that the boys’ sexuality is at stake. It is an uncomfortable poem. There seems to be three people, but there are actually four.
We are the fourth person, observing this situation.
The poem ends with a prayerful question presented to the Father God, “Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy who is no longer a boy? Please, what becomes of the shepherd when the sheep are cannibals?”
Indeed. What becomes of all of us? In the Hebrew Scriptures, shepherd was another image for a king or political leader. This brings a whole new meaning to John’s statement that Jesus is the good shepherd. He is the model leader, in comparison to the bad shepherds that the people of Israel have known. Before diving into John’s gospel, we might want to re-visit the prophet Ezekiel and hear what God has to say about shepherd-leaders, the political leaders, in his time.
For this, I am going to read from Ezekiel 34 taken from the Message by Eugene Peterson. You can get an idea of what God looks for in a leader by hearing about what really gets God upset. I am going to read just a portion; you can read the whole thing on your own.
“God’s Message came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherd-leaders of Israel. Yes, prophesy! Tell those shepherds, ‘God, the Master, says: Doom to you shepherds of Israel, feeding your own mouths! Aren’t shepherds supposed to feed sheep? You drink the milk, you make clothes from the wool, you roast the lambs, but you don’t feed the sheep. You don’t build up the weak ones, don’t heal the sick, don’t doctor the injured, don’t go after the strays, don’t look for the lost. You bully and badger them. And now they’re scattered every which way because there was no shepherd—scattered and easy pickings for wolves and coyotes. Scattered—my sheep! —exposed and vulnerable across mountains and hills. My sheep scattered all over the world, and no one out looking for them!
7-9 “‘Therefore, shepherds, listen to the Message of God: As sure as I am the living God—Decree of God, the Master—because my sheep have been turned into mere prey, into easy meals for wolves because you shepherds ignored them and only fed yourselves…’”
In case you did not know, John contrasts Jesus as the “good shepherd” or good leader to the bad shepherds in Ezekiel. Like the man doing violence in Ocean Vuong’s poem, the bad shepherds are like cannibals, taking life from the sheep. They are utilitarian in their view of relationships. What can I get out of this person or situation? They use the sheep and what the sheep produce for their own purposes, taking economic advantage, while bullying, badgering, and scattering others. They expose the sheep to the wolves and coyotes; they neglect care of the weak, injured, and strays. If you read further in Ezekiel, these shepherds are letting some of the sheep take over all the pasture, allowing some of the more aggressive animals to muddy the water from which the sheep must drink, and making life chaotic and miserable for the flock.
We, human beings, might not seem like we have a lot of choice in the matters of life. There are days when we rise from our beds and it seems as if everything is against us. What the doctor says or what kind of weather will come or how someone perceives us or the kinds of limitations we face…these are often beyond our control. We may not have choice in where we were born or how we were reared or the kinds of opportunities or privileges we have enjoyed. And yet, we have freedom of will. Which is to say, we have choice in who we will be and how we will treat others within those circumstances. We have choice in what we will do with what we have seen and what we have heard. Like the boy who has seen what he can not “unsee,” we are the 4th person in the scripture. There is good shepherding, bad shepherding, sheep, and us. We have seen and we have heard. We now, it seems, have a choice as to how we will respond to the information we have been given.
Of course, deciding for God, deciding to partner with God, to exercise our free will in pursuit of Godly ends, is not easy. Jesus hung from a cross in doing so. Yet, John’s passage tells us something about the power of our choosing. While some people have their lives “taken” from them unjustly, we can choose to give back life in our daily circumstances so that their dying will not be in vain. Notice that John’s Jesus says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 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.” He is compelled by his God, his Abba to lay down his life for others.
To be clear, those who have had their lives violently taken or who have suffered due to brutality or to hate crimes did not choose “to lay down their lives” for others. They, like the man in Vuong’s poem, have been asked to kiss the boot of their oppressor. Yet, Jesus reclaims power in John’s passage; he will not be victimized; he willingly chooses to put his life on the line for his flock. He is not a hired hand that will run away, but someone who will stay the course and keep the wolves and coyotes at bay. He will voluntarily lay down his life so that others might live.
None of us is Jesus, but all of us are called to be good shepherds, to exercise humanity, care, and concern for those who are stepped on, quickly shunted aside, who are victimized by hate or racial violence, or made to lay down their lives prematurely because someone wants to lord over them. We are, I think, called to respond when we become witnesses to inhumanity. We are the 4th person.
One way to do this is by getting to know the gifts and graces of all of God’s people and by lifting up that diversity, whenever we can, as a positive thing that enriches life for everyone. One way is to make sure that our political shepherds know that other powerful shepherds are watching and taking note of their actions or failure to act. One way is to educate ourselves about what makes for a healthy society, healthy institutions, and a healthy flock.
Siblings in Christ, we are each sheep and shepherd. It is not a dated analogy unless we refuse to see. Unless we refuse to hear. Unless we refuse to take the measure between what leaders do and what they say, between what we witness and what we do with that witness.
We, like Jesus, have the power to lay down our lives— our commitments, our money, our actions, and our particular gifts and graces—for the benefit of the human flock.
How shall we begin? What can you do this week to exercise your choice?
 Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Navpress Publishing Group, 2002).