Wednesday, December 31, 2014

good shepherd

When Mary birthed Jesus, 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all . .
. . If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing . .
. . He surely could've it had it, 'cause he was the king.

-- Appalachian carol

God, endow the king with your own justice,
his royal person with your righteousness . .
. . For he will rescue the needy who appeal for help,
the distressed who have no protector.

-- Psalm 72  

We can't remember which central American country this créche comes from, but every year we struggle to separate the kings from the shepherds. They all have fancy hats and carry something in their right hands (an expensive gift or a lantern?) But this guy, we're fairly sure, is a shepherd -- he bears the crook in his left hand. The mystery of the créche is the yielding of one power to another, of might to apparent impotence. Kings bow to a squalling blob of protoplasm, born to poor people of a despised race in an obscure corner of empire. Shepherds and beasts are the watching courtiers. The trumpet of incarnation is the lowing of a cow.

"Your rod and your staff, they comfort me," sang the psalmist, likening the divine auditor of his song to a shepherd. The people who assembled the scriptures were city dwellers, who had come a long way from the tending of flocks; but they kept the pastoral imagery alive as a discipline on the powers to whom they appealed. The shoot of Jesse, the heir of David whose arrival Israel awaited as national savior, would be strong enough to overthrow the conquerors but tender enough to take care of those who could not save themselves -- a good shepherd, who would leave the ninety-nine in their safety to seek out and save the lost sheep. They trusted, hoped he would forestall the abuse of power, the nickel-and-diming of farmers to less-than-subsistence day-labor, the extraction of wealth by elites for profitable trade with the goyim. And when they imagined God, the author of such authority, they hoped he would put his thumb on the scales of justice for those who could not throw the weight of wealth.

The Day of the Lord, the arrival of the Divine Domain, was always to be a day of reversal. Congratulations to the poor, for they are the heirs, but to hell with you rich, who already have your compensation. Change your minds, said the prophets, because the kingdom is closing in. The people against whom the game is rigged, the people who haven't a chance, are about to get their chance, and you addicts of their degradation will feel withdrawal pangs of your privilege.

No matter how much they had picked, it wasn't enough.

-- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*

Most of the world's hymns to hard work and its moral value are written by people who have no idea what hard work is. The wealthy dream they are not debtors, and we of the middle class claim the right to whistle while we work, either for work's compensation or for its intrinsic delight. But there is work that kills and pays so little that it can never ennoble the worker. Some work pays so little that it won't in the long run keep the worker alive. We hear a lot of songs today about the beauty and saving power of family life, but a family can't thrive on terror and turmoil.

Keeping peace therefore is the crucial task of legitimate power, and there is no peace without justice. In my city and in others, we are questioning our peacekeepers; and they shout back that those who question are murderers. There are some who can't control their rages but have learned to hide them behind a badge. There are some who can't see a dark skin without seeing monstrosity and threat, and they clothe their blindness in a coat of blue. These few wolves are the enemies of many good shepherds, destroyers of their work and of the flock; so why do the shepherds protect the wolves?

Our mayor has spoken in public the words that parents say to young black men: bear in mind the baseless suspicion and ancient anger that may at any moment light on you. And a past mayor has said the present mayor must apologize for creating a climate of distrust. But the distrust already exists. If the mayor of old times doesn't know this, he doesn't know any black people. Or he isn't listening to them. Or worse, they are hiding the truth from him and we must ask why; the willfully ignorant are responsible for what they don't know.

We've all got to grow up, and that includes policemen. They are licensed to be good shepherds. A good shepherd is, among other things, an adult.

The word is out, and there can be no peace until we all address it. No compromises please. Not on this. Compromise can only bring us phoney peace.

*Maya Angelou (New York: Ballantine, 2009), p. 8.

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