There is a scene early on in Clint Eastwood’s film, American Sniper, in which a family is gathered around the dinner table. Here are Mom and Dad. And here are two sons, one perhaps eleven, the other perhaps nine. The décor and the clothes and the hairstyles suggest that we are in a hard-working and straight-laced context somewhere in the early 1980’s. And the atmosphere at the table is tense. We soon learn why: that day at school, the younger brother received a vicious beating from a bully, a beating that had no end in sight until the older brother intervened, reversing the situation and raining punches down on the bully and bloodying his nose.
The father – a patriarch whom, the film suggests, these two boys both love and fear – listens to their story. And then he tells them a story in return.
There are three kinds of people in the world, he says. There are the sheep. These are the people who believe that evil doesn’t exist. And so, when evil shows up on their doorstep, they are unprepared to defend themselves. There are the wolves. These are the ones who prey upon the sheep. And then there are the sheepdogs. These are the people, as the father puts it, who have the gift of aggression and who use it to defend the sheep.
The father keeps on talking, pronouncing that they will not be raising any sheep in his family. And then, placing his belt on the table, he says that he will whup the boys if they become wolves. He goes on: if anyone picks on you – and this is a line that few directors other than Clint Eastwood, with his career in Westerns and in Police Thrillers could pull off – you have my permission to finish it. He asks the older boy – whom, by now, we have realized is the protagonist of the film, that he will grow up to be the very American Sniper for whom the film is named – if he finished things with the bully. The boy nods. And the father says approvingly:
Then you know what you are.
This scene (which, by the way, is a fictionalized version of an argument from a book written by Dave Grossman called On Combat ) has captured a lot of folks’ imaginations, mine included. I remember sitting in the theatre during this scene and feeling some kind of electric charge, some kind of thrill watching it.
My guess is that there are two reasons that this story connected so deeply with me and with so many of others. First, there is the element of achieving revenge against a bully. For a lot of us, the schoolyard was a hard place. If I survived elementary school, it was by fantasising about doing exactly the sort of thing that happens in Eastwood’s movie, about spectacularly reversing the power dynamic with a bully, about ending my own humiliation and beginning his, about beating that bully silly. In real life I was a feeble kid, incapable of punching anyone out; I was manifestly what the Dad in American Sniper scene would call a sheep. In my imagination, I was all powerful, capable of solving problems with violence. I was a sheepdog.
The other reason I suspect that this scene touched a lot of us in a profound way is that it employs archetypal imagery and, in particular, archetypal Biblical imagery. (Those of you who have seen American Sniper may remember that Eastwood underlines this connection by beginning this scene with his camera focused on a Bible sitting on the family’s sideboard.) Even in a society where a lot of folks don’t know many scriptural stories, most people know that sheep and wolves are images that Jesus uses repeatedly, that Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This scene, in other words, has its roots in passages from scripture like the one that we hear today. Perhaps we could call this scene “The Parable of the Sheepdog.”
Here’s the problem. While the Parable of the Sheepdog may be deeply indebted to scripture, it is also a deep departure from scripture. In Luke’s original story – in Jesus’ original command to his followers – there are only wolves and sheep. The sheepdog is an innovation on scripture or a departure from scripture or – let me risk being harsh – a rejection of scripture.
See, Jesus says, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
The command that Jesus gives to the seventy whom he sends forth – the command that he in turn gives to you and to me – isn’t that we are to be sheepdogs: it that we are to be sheep. We are to go forth, deliberately underequipped: no purse, no bag, no extra pair of sandals. I think we would be safe in adding: no gun. We aren’t to greet anyone on the road, an instruction that commentators figure means that we aren’t to ask for help or money or reinforcements before we reach our destination, before we come to face the wolves. And when we reach the wolves, we are to knock on their front doors and say:
Peace to this house.
If the wolves reciprocate our peace, if they share in it, then we are to go in and eat whatever they give us. If they do not, we are to shake the dust from our feet and move on.
I’d like to notice with you four aspects of Jesus’ command. First, notice that, from the perspective of the Parable of the Sheepdog, what Jesus is telling us to do is utterly naïve. Or if you prefer St. Paul’s language, it is utterly foolish. To wander out among the wolves unarmed is reckless, it is to risk being assaulted or killed. Perhaps we could even go so far as to say that being among the wolves in this way is to make ourselves complicit in whatever violence the wolves send our direction.
Second, notice that while Jesus’ command may be naïve by worldly standards, it is not unexamined. Jesus is absolutely clear that violence is a possibility and, indeed, that in some scenarios violence is very nearly a certainty. Unlike the sheep in the Parable of the Sheepdog, Jesus does not deny that evil exists. What he does do – here and elsewhere – is tell us to refuse to respond to evil with evil of our own or to violence with violence of our own. And let’s be clear, Jesus is not asking us to do something that he is unwilling to do himself. In many ways, the whole Gospel is the story of Jesus standing like a sheep unarmed among the wolves. Certainly his journey to Jerusalem, where he will confront Empire and the religious authorities and the cross, is such a story. This Gospel establishes this expectation from the beginning: remember that, in the Gospel of John, the first thing that John the Baptist says when he sees Jesus is: Here is the Lamb of God.
Third, notice that if judgment or punishment is required, it isn’t our job to dole it out. As we go forth carrying the Gospel, we may be welcomed. Or we may be rejected. And what are we to do if we are rejected? How are we to protest? How are we to get revenge? By shaking the dust from our shoes. By letting it go and – as the popular expression has it – giving it to God. If some kind of retribution is indeed in order (and I’m not convinced that there is – I strongly suspect that revenge is a human need, not God’s need), it is God, not us, who will deliver it.
Last – and this is where I want to spend the most time – notice that Jesus’ command assumes the possibility that the wolves will be converted and – maybe even harder than that – it assumes the possibility that we will be converted. It assumes the possibility of mutual transformation. When we go forth as what another generation called missionaries, it may be us who end up being transformed.
When we enter into a town, we are to eat and to drink whatever is put before us. We are, in other words, to participate in the culture that we find there, the culture that we find outside of the safety of our homes, outside the safety of a place like this church. We are to participate, if you like, in the culture of the wolves.
And that makes me wonder: What if Jesus has given a really similar command to the people in the towns? The people who, perhaps, understand you and me as wolves? What if he has said to them:
Wolves are going to come among you. You are not to bar your doors against them or reject them or meet them with violence. But you are to welcome them in and to feed them.
Few or none of us self-identify as wolves. I do not. I’m pretty sure you do not. And nor do the people in the towns to which we go. (Maybe there are a handful of psychopaths who gleefully identify as wolves, but they are the exception to the rule.) Most of us identify as good people, as the good guys. If we speak of wolves, it is when we speak of other people. Former CIA Agent Amaryllis Fox tells the extraordinary story of interviewing a captured Al Qaeda soldier who told her that he had seen a number of Hollywood films – Star Wars, Hunger Games, Independence Day, there are scores more – in which a small scrappy of group of outsiders will do anything within their limited resources to expel a technologically-advanced invader. What you don’t realise, the fighter told Fox, is that to us, you are the Empire, we are Luke and Han. We might paraphrase his words by saying:
You are the wolves. My friends and I: we are the sheepdogs.
Maybe what Jesus is teaching us is that going unprepared, going unarmed, going open to another culture: this is the only way that we will discover that those whom we meet are not wolves. And, in turn, it is the only way that those whom we meet will discover that we are not wolves. Unarmed and unprepared and open, we will discover that we are sheep together, and that the shepherd is calling all of us forth into freedom.