Trying to Understand the 99 Sheep Left Behind

Imagine for a moment that you are a sheep. And throughout your entire bleating existence you’ve been accustomed to a certain way of life.

Photo by Dibya Jyoti Ghosh on Unsplash

Imagine for a moment that you are a sheep. And throughout your entire bleating existence you’ve been accustomed to a certain way of life.

You’re cared for intimately by a shepherd. Belly always full with fresh green pasture. Thirst always quenched with cool water. You sleep peacefully at night because you know the shepherd is on the lookout for predators.

Then one morning you wake up and something feels off. You can’t quite put your hoof on it, but there’s an anxious energy among the herd. It isn’t until midday that you understand what’s happened: Julia, the ewe from the western edge, is missing.

Never in your lifetime have you experienced one of your community members not being in the herd! You and your friends huddle up to discuss the situation when someone points out that your shepherd has just grabbed his staff, a water skin, and sped off down the hill.

Away from you.
Away from the herd.

For the first time ever, leaving you all alone in the wilderness.

An hour passes. Then another.
The sun begins to set. Not only is everyone complaining about their empty stomach and parched tongues, but now panic sets in as night approaches and your shepherd hasn’t returned.

Who will watch over you while you sleep?

You’ve never not been the sole attention of the shepherd.
But now he’s gone — presumably out looking for Julia?

You and the rest of the herd are scared. Unsure what the night will bring. Unsure if life will return to normal tomorrow… or ever…

Even though you don’t know what happened or why she’s missing, as you settle down for what will surely be a long night, you find yourself embittered toward Julia. Sure, you hope she’s okay, but her absence pulled your shepherd away from you, away from your family, and you quietly seethe.

Instead of sleeping that night with grass and water in your system, you’re filled with fear and resentment.

One of the most impactful insights I’ve learned in the past few years came from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who teaches that understanding leads to compassion and compassion leads to love.

Therefore the way we can practice loving people (especially our enemies) is by first seeking to understand them.

The above thought experiment, of what it might be like to be one of the ninety-nine sheep in Jesus’ parable from Luke 15, got me thinking last week about people (specifically white-identifying people) who balk at statements like “black lives matter” and instead bleat back that “all lives matter.”

I’m not saying that “all lives matter” people are my enemy, per se, but they are definitely my idealogical “other.” By rejecting the BLM call, and insisting instead that ALM, they have positioned themselves on the other side from me on a very important issue. So, in this way, you might call them a type of “enemy.”

And since I still identify as a Christian, the demand is that I take up the call to love my enemy. Which brings me back to Thich Nhat Hanh and seeing how attempting to understand them might be my best (only?) hope.

(Quick sidenote: my priority is and has been to better understand the experiences, perspectives, insights, and feelings of marginalized and oppressed people groups. I am not advocating that we should spend our energy trying to understand “all lives matter” people instead of, or to the detriment of, “black lives matter” people. Nope. It is far, far more imperative that we listen and learn and seek to understand the black experience in America, the history of white supremacy, and what people mean when they say things like “black lives matter.” My attempts here to try and understand my enemy is, you might call it, a side project. While, yes, it might be important — see the above call to “love your enemy” — it must also be placed in its appropriate ranking on the hierarchy of importance.)

Why might people feel so threatened by the insistence that “black lives matter” and feel the need to retort, “all lives matter?”

A multiplicity of reasons, for sure (and here’s a helpful breakdown of six reasons “all lives matter” doesn’t work). But the thing that came up for me last week, while reflecting on the parable of the Lost Sheep (or, as Amy Jill-Levine more accurately calls it, the parable of the Shepherd who Lost a Sheep), was how it would feel to be one of the ninety-nine left alone in the wilderness.

Of course they would be scared about their well-being.

Of course they would be anxious about the future.

Of course they might even grow resentful toward the one sheep who got lost.

Of course they would feel a sort of loss from how they’ve always known life to be.

And I think that’s one thing that comes up for people when they push back against BLM with ALM. They have grown accustomed to a particular way of life where the shepherd (aka, the government, the economy, the education system, the police, and so on) has always been there for them. It’s all they’ve ever known.

So when they look out and see a possible scenario where that shepherd is no longer there, or at least no longer there in the same sorts of ways, that probably feels scary.

What if life changes for me?
What if I’m no longer the most important sheep to the shepherd?

What if I start missing out on opportunities, advancements, or benefits?

(Another sidenote: I am NOT saying these fears are justifiable or should be conceded to. I am merely trying to identify and name them in hopes that such understanding might lead me to compassion, which might lead me to love… because honestly, loving “all lives matter” people feels reeeeeaallllly hard right now. And to state again, it is still not my highest priority.)

Like the ninety nine sheep left alone in the wildnerness, I think “all lives matter” people are filled with fear (what if things change?! I like how they’ve been!) and resentment (and it’s all your fault, black sheep! why did you wander off??).

The thing I would want to say to my white brothers, sisters, and siblings who reject BLM and cling to ALM, is that your very way of life, the one you’re desperately clinging to and fearing might change, is what it is because the flock has never been whole.

In other words, you think that the shepherd leaving to find the lost sheep (aka, focusing on the mattering of black lives) means that the ninety-nine are now less important or don’t matter.

But this is where the parable of the lost sheep breaks down for us, because in very real ways the African-American sheep have never fully been a part of the flock. (see: chattel slavery, 3/5ths, segregation, Jim Crow, redlining, for starters)

This is not about leaving the flock to find the one who’s gone astray as much as it is finally recognizing that we’ve created a country designed by and for some sheep, at the expense of other sheep, and that needs a reckoning!

You’re so afraid of not having all the protections, the benefits, the upside of having the shepherd watch over you, but you have to realize that that has always come at the expense of people of color in our country.

We say #BlackLivesMatter as a way to name how black lives have historically NOT mattered in our country, in our systems, or in our resources.

They have not been a part of our country in equal or equitable ways. For a small sampling of how that’s true, consider:

-Generational wealth inequity (“Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception”),

-Differences in access to and quality of health care (“Black people simply are not receiving the same quality of health care that their white counterparts receive, and this second-rate health care is shortening their lives.”),

And, what many are waking up to right now, how white people simply don’t have to worry about being hunted down while jogging or choked to death by a police officer for almost nine minutes.

You’re afraid that might change?
Yeah, well it needs to.

You’re anxious that you might not be the precious focused object of desire by the shepherd?
Yeah, well you’ve only been thus because so many other sheep never really joined the flock.

I don’t know, reader… as I write this, while I think I’m starting to gain traction on the “understanding” piece of the ALM crowd, I’m not sure I’m making much progress on the “compassion” step.

Perhaps that will come.

In the meantime, I think I’m gonna follow the shepherd down the hill and seek after those who are missing.

Visit these sites, support the work, make a difference.

8 Can’t Wait : a campaign to bring immediate change to police departments.

Black Lives Matter : eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.

Be the Bridge : practical, helfpul steps, guids and programs for becoming aware and responding to the racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world