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COLM MEANEY: “Like sheep to the slaughter”.

Sheep and lambs are recurring images in the bible, both Old and New Testaments. However, they convey very different meanings, depending on context. Perhaps the most endearing image is from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, and this is then echoed by Jesus saying that he is “the good shepherd” (John 10). Initially this is a somewhat unedifying image of ourselves as sheep: I mean, sheep don’t exactly have an aura of bravery or strength; rather, they embody docility, meekness, naive innocence and muteness. And yet, the overall message of the sheep/shepherd image is one of comfort and reassurance: there is a divine power there to guide and protect us.

Another more troubling image is that of the sheep being led to the slaughter. This has two aspects, very different from one another. The first is of the person who willingly takes upon himself or herself the destiny of martyr. There have been many examples of individuals who have preferred to be loyal to their principles, even to death, than to succumb either to force, threat or blackmail.

Socrates remained faithful, rather than approve of his treasonous judges, and drank the hemlock and entered immortal posterity, while his judges are remembered as trying to uphold the establishment, no matter how rotten it was. The Old Testament second book of Maccabees recounts the gruesome killing of a Jewish mother and her seven sons, all of whom refused to eat pork at the behest of their pagan oppressors (2 Macc. 7: 1-41): martyrdom rather than abandon age-old, divinely-given laws.

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) says that Jesus went willingly to the cross, for the joy that lay in the future. Perhaps; but the gospels record his anguish in Gethsemane and his prayer to God that he might be spared the agony of crucifixion – though in the end, being faithful to God’s frightful will remained his unassailable commitment. The classic Old Testament quote for this message is the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53, the “suffering servant”; and it is echoed by Jesus himself and often in the New Testament.

However, it is vital to remember that in all these cases, the destiny of martyrdom was freely, if painfully, assumed by those involved. That a person may assume the vocation or calling to be a sacrificial lamb is one thing: having such a destiny forced on a person or a group is something entirely different; as different as right is from wrong.

Because another troubling image of sheep from the bible is that of harmless, innocent animals being led to the slaughter, against their will – or indeed, hardly even cognizant of the fate that lies immediately ahead of them. This is in Psalm 44:22, and is echoed by St Paul in his letter to the Romans (8:36), which says “For Your sake we face death all day long, we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered”.

This is indeed a tragic picture, and one wonders if there is any redeeming feature to it at all. And surely we have seen it repeated often throughout our often inhumane human history. Innocent, harmless, docile sheep-like people, being led to their end, not uttering a sound: how tragic.

So far we have seen three biblical ovine images: (1) the Lord as guide and protector of ourselves, the sheep of his flock. (2) The person who takes willingly upon himself or herself the frightful destiny of being as a lamb led to the slaughter, yet remaining steadfast in the face of even ferocious persecution. (3) The sheep that are, unwillingly and innocently, led to the slaughter. And have people been led to their slaughter over the past three years? It need not involve actual death (though in some cases it most certainly did), but could include damaging people’s mental balance; interfering with young people’s education, and so forth. I invite you to ponder, for instance, what happened in our nursing homes.

A side note: Jesus’ journey to the cross was helped along by Judas’ betrayal of him (not to mention Peter’s denial and the wholesale abandonment of Jesus in Gethsemane). Intriguingly, betraying innocent blood is not limited to humans. There is the phenomenon of the “Judas goat”, an animal trained to lure and to guide other animals, usually sheep, to their death in an abattoir. But, of course, the Judas goat’s trainers are always human.

To shift gears somewhat: “sheeple” is a word relatively new to me. For my money, it’s more descriptive than judgemental or pejorative. It refers to people who are likened to sheep in two ways: (1) They are so naive and innocent, that they will swallow any story, no matter how ridiculous or incredulous; and when other more reasonable explanations of any scenario are offered, they will look at you blankly and continue to believe whatever was heretofore offered; and (2) they are easily open to being manipulated, as they move mutely with the rest of the flock. I would say that they are both guilty for not cultivating an inquisitive mind when confronted with blatantly ridiculous scenarios and their accompanying preposterous “explanations”, and  yet they somehow have not been gifted with a critical or questioning mindset.

Still, whatever can be said about the “sheeple”, who are clearly in the majority, the last thing that should be done is to cause them to suffer, or to take advantage of their compliant nature so as to inflict pain on them.

And between scary pandemic-propagandising, with all its easily foreseen callous consequences, and then the other highly-questionable “medical” interventions – well, the sheep are once again being led to the slaughter.

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