This article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to email@example.com.
Easter 4. Stones. Green pastures. Fields and shepherds. The texts this week run rich with the kind of pastoral images that challenge the memories or imaginations of an increasingly urban and suburban population. Jesus was not talking about lawn-service neighborhoods in leafy subdivisions and neither the psalmists nor the authors of Acts or the letters of John could have imagined the sprawling populations of huge metropolitan areas. If, as they say, all politics is local, then what can these images of good shepherds and green pastures have to say to us? Before allowing these texts to dislocate us, it is useful to revisit their social locations.
In Acts, the “rulers, elders, and scribes” along with the high priest and priestly family demand of the imprisoned Peter and John an accounting of their power to heal. They ask, in essence, “on whose authority are you doing this?”
Politics is the art of power, of exercising it, of distributing it, of clinging to it. In this text those in positions of power and authority demand an accounting of actions that have happened without the sanction of their power. Healing without a license threatens the power and legitimacy of those who license healers. Though the powerful will almost always claim to exercise their authority for the good of the people – “unlicensed healers are dangerous!” – if the people witness real healing from unauthorized sources the tables get turned.
Peter’s speech points beyond the established religious authorities to the grace of God in Jesus as the legitimating source of his healing power. For a disenfranchised people, Peter points to an alternative source of power. Shepherds were certainly not among the politically powerful of Jesus’ time. The image of the shepherd was likely a conflicted mix of associations some comforting and others threatening.
Virgil envisioned the pastoral scene of those who “lie beneath the spreading beech and practice country songs upon a slender pipe.” John’s Biblically literate community would have heard associations to David, the shepherd king and, no doubt, to the beautiful images of the 23rd Psalm. On the other hand, shepherds were often scruffy, unscrupulous characters who operated on the margins or outside them; literally out beyond the gates of the city and figuratively in so far as they were often accused of grazing their flocks in green pastures they did not actually own.
If the “good shepherd” was not exactly a contradiction in terms, it was certainly a complex and perhaps transgressive figure whose presence in a story could easily serve to call into question traditional patterns of power and authority.
For a disenfranchised people, the good shepherd points toward an alternative source of power.
1 John names the source of the power: the love of God, or, better, the God who is love. Moreover, in its insistence that we “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” 1 John also invites us into the exercise of that power, or, in other words, into politics, and, in particular, into a politics of love.
Still, all of this is couched in terms that can ring distant like a faint echo of a bell rung in a faraway church tower, heard almost as a memory dwelling in the edge of imagination because we are so far away from green pastures, flocks of sheep and the small places called home by those who care for them.
I am particularly mindful of that distance this week having begun it with the incongruous experience of hearing Wendell Berry deliver the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities at the Kennedy Center across the river in Washington. Hearing Berry tell the story of his grandfather’s rural economic hardship in 1907 while seated in the splendor of a great hall a century removed was as jarring and agitating as reading the 23rd Psalm.
Psalm 23 is famous as a song of comfort, and I have certainly read it at hospital bedsides and over graves to remind the sick and the grieving of the loving presence of God through the dark valleys of life and of death. Nevertheless, the psalm agitates me because it points to an alternative source of power, and it demands that I not only attend to that power but also recognize the ways that power seeks to transform those who attend to it.
Berry spoke this week cognizant of his proximity to the seat of the power of the American Empire, and, in particular to the military might through which that power is so often and decisively expressed. As he noted, almost in passing, the most striking success of the corporate industrialism that powers the empire has been “an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.”
But while corporate industrialism – the 20th-century face of so-called free enterprise – with its remarkable efficiencies, particularly in making war, is widely recognized as the source of the power of the American enterprise, the source of the power of that industrialism itself is not nearly so widely considered.
“Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources” Berry said, and he insisted on the reality of an alternative source of power expressed in and through an alternative economy – an economy based not on extractive technologies but, instead, on affection.
Berry acknowledged the risk of, in his words, “making affection the pivot of an argument about economy.” It’s the same risk that Jesus ran, in his insistence on making love the pivot of an argument about the ordering of not only the household – that original meaning of “economy” – but also of the community, the polis – that original meaning of “politics.”
Berry was offering a lecture on the humanities not a sermon, much less a blog post on the lectionary, so he did not turn to the passages for this week. But he could have cited them well in concluding, as he did, that none of the paths taken by the great American industrial complex of the past one hundred years has been inevitable nor is the same path necessary for us now.
The life of the good shepherd, the assurance of the psalmist, the acts of the apostles and the ethical injunction of 1st John all point toward an alternative source of power and, therefore, to an alternative economic and politic possibility: the possibility that “we do not have to live as if we are alone.”
All scripture citations above are from the New Revised Standard Version.
The text of Wendell Berry’s lecture, “It All Turns On Affection,” is available on the web site of the National Endowment for the Humanities.