COVID-19, shutdown, and the leaders we need

As we shelter in place, let us consider what COVID-19 is revealing about our world, and let us consider which voices we will follow out of the enclosure. (Listen.)

When Jesus begins to talk about shepherding, most of us begin to doze off. Maybe it’s the deadening effect of a hundred Sunday School lessons, or those awful cutesy pictures of Jesus and little lambkins; maybe, it’s the sheep. Whatever it is, wake up! Because in this story of sheep, sheep rustlers, shepherds and gates, Jesus isn’t talking about farming. Nor is he talking about himself as a shepherd; that doesn’t happen until later. Instead, he’s talking about leaders—teachers, preachers, politicians, kings—and his words point to the leaders we need in this time of shutdown and beyond.

Do our leaders treat their people as vast flocks, for the most part neglected and left to their own devices? Do they consign them to barren lands, ignoring their need for fresh food, clean water and decent healthcare? Do they merely swoop down from time to time with great sound and thunder to check on the profits, then take and diminish and destroy?

Do they tear people apart as they seek to satisfy their own terrible hungers? Do they see people as expendable, exploitable, nothing more than a means to the leader’s gratification? Do their words, theologies, politics or economics leave people belittled, impoverished, anxious or afraid? According to Jesus, leaders like these are thieves and robbers: and they’re everywhere.

True shepherds are different. True shepherds know their flock; they care for them. They understand and speak the language of their people’s deepest hopes and needs. They want to see people flourish; they seek their wellbeing; and so they lead the people step by step to places where they will thrive.

This is because they come to the people through the gate of Jesus Christ. It’s a strange metaphor, and a strange gate. As humans, we’re so obsessed with borders and barriers, insiders and outsiders, that we usually think of a gate as keeping people out; but this is not how Jesus describes it. The gate of Jesus is a bridge, an opening, a point of connection through each and every wall. And as it swings open, it enables the flow of spirit between heaven and earth, guest and host, insider and outsider, friend and enemy … and shepherd and flock. So true shepherds are connected with their flock through the spirit of self-giving love, compassion, gentleness, justice and truth.

Life right now feels apocalyptic. The world has stopped; people are dying; economies are collapsing; we are sheltering behind closed doors: and many things are being revealed. For, despite how the word has been used and abused, ‘apocalypse’ does not mean divine punishment. It just means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revelation.’ These are apocalyptic times because, as COVID-19 rages across the earth, many things are being uncovered.

We are discovering that the economics of austerity do not prepare us for pandemics. We are discovering that conservatives are, in fact, radicals who have gutted the very institutions which could have kept us safer. We are finding that polarised electoral systems and media are ill equipped to report on science, and that the mocking of expertise has left us all vulnerable.

As tertiary education and tourism are shut down and international supply chains are disrupted, we are discovering how foolish it is to have an economy where everything is imported, nothing is made, and groceries rely on ‘just in time’ supply management. And as private schools are offered financial bonuses for reopening while public schools are blasted, and billionaires beg for bailouts while health workers lack PPE, we are seeing that decades of privatising profit and socialising loss have created an unhealthy culture of dependency among the rich.

We are also discovering that things we were told were impossible are, in fact, not only possible but being done right now. In Australia, Newstart has doubled; in Ireland, hospitals have been nationalised; in Canada, the jobless have four months of basic income; in Spain and Portugal, people in immigration detention have been released and are being treated as full citizens. It is becoming clear that the ‘need’ for austerity is a lie, that governments can radically change policy overnight, and that inaction on climate change is a choice.

Meanwhile, as parents, particularly fathers, are now working from home, we are realising that commuting is not always necessary; that many children love having their parents around; and that work may not be as important as we all pretend. Yet it is also becoming clear just how much of the caring and coping burden falls on women’s shoulders: and we are wondering what it will take for this to change.

And as cars and cruise ships, factories and planes, have largely ground to a halt, many around the world are discovering the delights of clean air, clear waters, and gentle silence in the street. Butterflies are returning to big cities, and, for the first time in years, many urban dwellers can hear the birds sing.

COVID-19 and shutdown are revealing these and many other deep truths about economics, politics, gender and creation, and we are seeing that the way things are is not fine. We have built a world of desperation and exclusion for too many people, a world in which the gap between rich and poor is absolutely obscene; and we have embraced a way of life which exploits the poor, pollutes the earth, and is leading directly to climate catastrophe. This moment of uncovering reveals that life as usual is an utter disaster, and yet also that different ways of living are possible.

Even so, when shutdown is over, the pressure to return to business as usual will be nearly overwhelming. So in this moment of pause and uncovering, as we shelter in place, let us consider our leaders. Let us ponder which voices we will follow out of the enclosure.

  • Will we follow those who urge a quick return, who value short term economic gain over long term health?
  • Will we listen to those who say ‘only the vulnerable’ are at risk, as if the vulnerable do not matter?
  • Will we walk straight back into a way of life which disempowers, diminishes and destroys?
  • Will we uphold the gross economic injustices of this world?
  • Will we go back to long hours away from home and the endless shuttling of commuters to work and children to activities?
  • Will we return to the insatiable consumption of things and activities which cost the earth and which never really satisfy?
  • Will we accept the voices which say that nothing can change?

In other words, whether in politics, religion, the media or the marketplace, will we follow only robbers and thieves? Or will we seek true shepherds, leaders who come to us through the gate of Jesus, leaders who know and love people and long to see them grow? Will we look for and support leaders who care for the vulnerable, listen to experts, fund public institutions, and work towards a future where every person and the whole earth can flourish?

Finding true shepherds to lead us out of the enclosure, out of shutdown, and out of our destructive way of life, will mean joining with others and getting involved. It will mean democratic efforts far beyond voting: but if we are willing to do this work, then God will provide. And as Rebecca Solnit writes in The Guardian this week, ‘Hope offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainties ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them.’

So let us not accept the status quo, or follow those plausible Pied Pipers who lead us dancing towards death. Let us instead identify the conflicts worth joining, and the possibilities worth winning, and the work worth doing, and the leaders worth following out of the enclosure. For we have hope that, through God’s true shepherds, Christ himself will lead us to a world where full and flourishing life is not just for the one percent, but for everyone. Thanks be to God. Ω

A reflection on John 10:1-10 given to Sanctuary, 3 May 2020 (Easter 4A) © Alison Sampson, 2020. I include some phrases and observations from Rebecca Solnit’s essay, which you can read here. Photo by Nelson Eulalio on Unsplash.

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