On sheep, wolves, sheepdogs and a Good Shepherd

“Let my trust be in your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources.

If I trust in You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.”Thomas Merton

I am a sheep.

How you doin'?

How you doin’?

Now in different climes, this could mean different things. To people of faith, I could be acknowledging my desire to follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd. To hipsters, punks and other breeds of nonconformist, I could be admitting that I fail to deviate from the societal norm. To physicists, I could be declaring myself to be a computer program that calculates General Relativity.

In the gun world, I am a sheep, and apparently that’s not a good thing.

As the mass shootings of the last few years have inspired a grassroots push for gun control, the National Rifle Association and its allies in the gun proliferation movement have emerged from their redoubt with an enthusiastic retaliation. On the apologetic front, the concept of “Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs” has emerged as a common meme.

Unavailable for comment.

Unavailable for comment.

The source of the meme is a chapter from retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. In the chapter, “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” Grossman, a psychologist who admits that he did not invent the concept, divides society into three classes. The sheep are the normal people who go about their everyday lives. The wolves are the bad guys, those who would do the sheep harm. It is the sheepdogs—law enforcement officers and military personnel—who protect the sheep from the wolves.


To protect…somebody.

As academic concepts go, it is simple enough for the average person to understand. But the Sheep-Wolves-Sheepdogs concept has expanded to include recreational gun owners in the “sheepdog” category, and that is alarming.

It’s okay if you’re a sheep!

Grossman is careful to reassure his readers that being a sheep is not a bad thing, kind of.

“I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell.”

Thanks, I think.

On other occasions, Grossman emphasizes—unconvincingly—that the sheepdogs are not superior to the sheep. The problem is, somebody forgot to tell the sheepdogs not to get carried away with their self-appointed role. Whether it’s appearing on a website called “The Art of Manliness” (a post that was curiously coauthored by a woman) or on a manly militaristic T-shirt, the testosterone infusion of the sheepdog has been profound. Though the Good Shepherd tells us that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), the sheepdog invites us to adopt the allure of having the power to take someone’s life.

This is about nothing more than a desire to protect.

This is about nothing more than a desire to protect.

If you’re going to quote Emerson, do so in context.

Available for comment, but sadly misused.

Available for comment, but sadly misused.

I never thought I would see Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted by someone who supports gun proliferation, but I have.

What goes on around you… compares little with what goes on inside you.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is especially alarming is that Grossman uses this quote from Emerson, a renowned pacifist, to introduce a section called “The gift of aggression.”  Comparing aggression to gifts of academy, profession and the humanities, he elevates the inclination towards violence to the level of a vocation.

I am thrilled for you. Here's my wallet.

I am thrilled for you. Here’s my wallet.

In addition to expressing a total misunderstanding of Emerson, Grossman turns into a virtue that which Sigmund Freud thought of as one of humanity’s baser instincts. (Though admittedly, scholarship is not unified on that subject.)

This is more like it!

This is more like it!

What is curious is Grossman’s own aversion to violent video games. While on one hand, he promotes aggression as a gift, he is disturbed to see that those who find entertainment in aggression lack self-control in applying that aggression. It’s similar to the hard-drinking father who lays into his son when he catches him with a beer.

As Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 12:1-11), there are various gifts that the Holy Spirit provides to us. Aggression is not one of them. It is a step away from God. For it is the peacemakers who are blessed (Matthew 5:9).

It’s not so clear who defines the sheep, the wolves and the sheepdogs.

I try to avoid conclusions based on assumptions, but I think it is fair to say that the people who circulate “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs” tend to place themselves in the sheepdog category. The sheep are not eager to announce to the world that they lack a capacity for violence. The wolves tend to keep their wolfishness out of the public eye, lest they end up in the pound.

Also unavailable for comment.

Also unavailable for comment.

But it is a broad concept. Grossman even gives room for fluidity by describing it as a continuum.

“This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between.”

A curious infusion of Buddhism.

It is helpful that the concept is not bipolar (or tripolar, if the wolves are to be included). However, in a realm of hypothesis that lacks clinical definition, we find ourselves with an open question: How do I know if I’m a sheep, a sheepdog, or even a wolf?

Casting his lot with the philosophy of metaphysical libertarianism, Grossman posits that, as thinking creatures, humans can change from sheep to sheepdog. For example, a gun-owner who leaves his house without his gun becomes a sheep during his time of vulnerability. However, this is a little too complimentary to the reader; one can choose from being protector or protected. He says little of those who choose to dabble in wolfishness.

Perhaps that is because nobody chooses to be a wolf. Those who Grossman may think of as wolves might actually been seen in a different context as sheep or even sheepdogs. Society has placed the wolf tag on people who smoke pot, record police officers, and mess up somebody’s hunting trip, cases that seem to reverse the role and make the sheepdogs (the police) into wolves themselves.

At all levels, the practitioners of violence and those sympathetic to them typically do not see themselves as wolves. Gang members shoot rivals because they believe that they are protecting themselves and their comrades. Northern soldiers in the Civil War saw themselves as protecting the Union, while their Confederate opponents thought they were trying to force the Yankee way of life upon them. Even Hitler thought what he was doing was good for the world.

The people of France, the Netherlands and the Philippines saw American troops as sheepdogs fighting off the wolves. The people of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have seen them as wolves fighting other wolves.

After all, what is a wolf, but a dog whose ancestors lacked the blessing of domestication. We find it easy to condemn those who oppose us, but when you get down to it, every human being is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), sharing in the same human dignity. And sometimes we as people and as nations need to take the logs out of our own eyes (Matthew 7:5).

And yes, wolves can be tamed. (henriksen1 on imgur)

And yes, wolves can be tamed. (henriksen1 on imgur)

See also St. Francis of Assisi.

So who decides who are the sheep, sheepdogs and wolves? Perhaps we ought to leave that to he whose job it is to separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

But that just means you are in denial of evil.

Grossman once again offers patronization to the sheep:

“It is denial that turns people into sheep. Sheep are psychologically destroyed by combat because their only defense is denial, which is counterproductive and destructive, resulting in fear, helplessness and horror when the wolf shows up.”

I think Gandhi, King and the afore quoted Emerson might have something to say to this.

There is a huge difference between acknowledgment of the existence of evil and fear of it. From the beginning of his satyagraha movement in South Africa, nonviolently combating the unfair treatment of Indian immigrants in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi stared the wolf square in the face. He received the fangs and claws of the wolf in the form of mob beatings, attempted assassinations and the final bullet that offered him a chance to make the ultimate sacrifice. Gandhi was no sheep.

Martin Luther King, Jr. showed the world that the myth of the angry black man was just that, a myth. He faced police dogs, death threats and the assassin’s bullet with forbearance. Dr. King was no sheep.

Justified or not, to carry a weapon on one’s person in response to the existence of evil is a demonstration of a fear of evil. Who Grossman calls “a warrior, someone who walks the hero’s path” is more accurately described by Paul Waldman in The American Prospect: “Even apart from the threat the carrier poses to the rest of us, he has decided to transform his view of the world into one in which every person he encounters is a potential assailant, every space he walks into a potential scene of carnage, every moment the moment before violence and death erupt.”

I'll stick with this guy.

I’ll stick with this guy.

While the sheepdogs might find protective comfort in their ability, even willingness, to take the life of a fellow human being, the sheep can take comfort in the protection of the Good Shepherd. For, as Jesus describes in John 10, the sheepdog is in reality a hired hand, one who cannot be trusted to protect the flock. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 1:11, ESV)

If your faith is in your concealed Glock (or the man sitting nearby who carries one), then God is at most a backup plan. Even in the unlikely event of an untimely death at the hand of violence, he who conquered death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) will see you through. That is a faith that no gun can provide.

7 thoughts on “On sheep, wolves, sheepdogs and a Good Shepherd

  1. Ah, so many angles to riff on. There’s the desire to tell the NRA that “you can’t solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that started it.” (Attributed to Einstein, I think. But then, a lot is attributed to Einstein. As Abraham Lincoln reminded us: “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”) Or the thought that if some people see wolves everywhere, well, it often takes one to know one.

    But the thing that grabbed me most: “the testosterone infusion of the sheepdog has been profound.” Many things I consider dangerous, from Christian fundamentalism (both Protestant and Catholic) to militarism, from economic deregulation to the private citizen’s love of the gun, seem to draw from this common image: the Real Men have gone away somewhere. And we must get the Real Men back right now, from wherever they have gone, and purge out the Fake Men, whoever it is they are.

    The image is, of course, deeply flawed. The view of manhood behind it is myopic. But it resonates deeply with many, many people. And we’ll need to face it head on, as its own thing, if we expect to solve a lot of other things.

    (P.S. Welcome back!)

  2. What a beautiful and timely reflection. My own feelings about “gun rights” are complicated; I instinctually recoil from weapons and people’s desire to own and use them even as I love and respect a great many people who consider this a fundamental right. Thus, this is a debate I mostly listen to with an open heart, but seldom participate in directly. Still, I love that this post gives me something that I can get behind without ambivalence — a dependence on God that is available to sheep, shepdog, and wolves alike (and I am also a sheep, although my dear and gentle “sheep/cattle dog” mutt is lying nearby on the rug as I write this. :)).

  3. Pingback: Friday Round-Up: 3/7/14 | Catholic Majority

  4. I agree with your analysis, however, it does not communicate the entire picture where Christian manhood is concerned and most of Christianity these days does not; thankfully being sheltered for a couple generation now in well ordered and protected societies in the West. So I agree with you analysis as applied to various Western extreme displays of bravado, etc., however, it falls short of providing answers to those who really do need to use force to protect themselves from the likes of Boko Harum and ISIS, because the “Civil Magistrate” who is suppose to wield the sword to protect the innocent against the wicked (Romans 13), is missing, weak, or worst yet is the wicked! In other words, your theology is accurate, yet incomplete. Actually, up to six months ago, I would have completely agreed with you; however, the latest round of genocide at the hands of ISIS, along with an assignment to really study what courageous young manhood requires as a leader in a Christ Centered youth development program sent me on a two month, intense theological study on what duty do Christian men have in relationship to stopping genocide. Here is the argument you need to be able to conclusively make to say that Christian men are never to use force to protect the innocent against the wicked. That the Gospel abrogated the warrior Image of God Ex 15:3 that the created order instilled in the vocational call of the “males”of mankind to build and protect societies where life can flourish. Theologians clearly see this from Genesis 2:15 where the first man is placed in the Garden to “till and cultivate” it , which theologians clearly understood was the vocational call that places a duty on men to build and protect society as God’s reagents. Yes, the New Testament clearly indicates this role has been given to the “Civil Magistrate”; however, what constitute the “Civil Magistrate”, when you home is being broken into or gang just broke into your neighbors home and a 911 call is not going to save them, or in the case of genocide the “Civil Magistrate is absence. Are we are brother’s keeper or not. Can I say to the Assyrian Christians in Iraq, be at peace and stay safe and not give them the things they need to actually do this. How does that differ from what James says is defective faith, i.e. to say, be fed, keep warm, and not given them the things they need. In the absence of the “Civil Magistrate”, the Gospel does not eliminate the duty of men, Christian or otherwise to protect the innocent against the wicked. God is our ultimate hope and salvation; however, we are clearly his agents.

  5. Grossman’s views are reality based…even if the analogies don’t resonate. Yours are mystical and based on other worldly hope…I believe in both….historical atrocities were not conducted by the Sheep Dogs…but by the Wolves/Cooperative Sheep (Informers)…denigrate it if you will…clutch your faith as others did when they came for them. Clutch your faith as you die…very admirable and heroic for a sheep. I will go down fighting and then look to heaven and take the hand offered. The Catholic Church’s abiding of developing genocide over history’s coarse is not comforting.

  6. Perhaps that is because nobody chooses to be a wolf.

    Very wrong.

    I’ve had to deal with people who choose to be evil. I remember two who were so evil, they polluted the air simply by exhaling. To put it another way, they chose to prey on the good Shepherds flock. They chose to be wolves.

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