The following is from a homily preached by Deacon Brandon Justice at St. Mary’s parish near Silver Spring, Maryland a few weeks ago in the wake of the unprovoked terrorist killings of 5 US military men in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My good friend, Zmalfoy, was in attendance, and asked Deacon Brandon for a copy of his words, knowing that I’d appreciate them (and others, as well). Thank you Zophiel! And thank you Dcn. Brandon, for your permission to spread your good words. They are especially meaningful to me as I write from a hotel just a few miles from Chattanooga, tonight.
In 2008 I was, as a police officer, involved in a gunfight where the other person lost his life. This was the fourth time since 1994 that someone shot at me, but this time it was different. This was the only time since becoming a husband and a dad. It was also the only time I returned fire at someone, and I was in my third year of deacon studies by this time.
During the 8 weeks I was off waiting for the grand jury to convene and decide its ruling, I was given a book to read by a fellow officer and veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. He knew I was struggling, and a book titled On Killing by Col. David Grossman was his suggested remedy. One particular chapter was called On sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. In his book, the ‘public’ are sheep, and those who perpetrate evil are the wolves and people like me, who protect the sheep from the wolves, are the sheepdogs. Grossman explained that the masses needed those of us who could kill to occasionally do so for the greater good.
From military high school, to ROTC in college, my time in the Naval Reserves and a police career that began in West Baltimore, I pictured myself as a sheepdog – a man, as Grossman writes, with a capacity for violence. As such, I was one of those charged with protecting the sheep, who are inevitably viewed as helpless, fearful and potential victims. I took pride in being the guy who would meet evil with force. “If I have to, I will kill for you” was my pledge.
As time went on, this part of my psyche confused me. My identity as a Catholic father, son, husband and deacon were at the front of my mind, but to regulate my fear I needed to feel like a sheepdog. To be a “lamb among wolves” seemed ridiculously unrealistic to me. Even though I read about Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Archbishop Romero, I never related to exactly how they resisted injustice or faced down evil. Was King a scared sheep? Did Romero run from the wolves like a sheep? Would we consider Gandhi a helpless sheep in the midst of violence? Each of these men bravely protected his flock, not as a sheepdog, but as a shepherd. I began to see non-violence as a duty when, for so many years, I understood it to mean weakness.
John 10 expands on Mark’s gospel: the Good Shepherd. None of us are called to embrace violence, or to celebrate having the capacity to kill. We’re called to be shepherds FIRST – held accountable to how we guide, teach and protect those around us. As Catholics, we must confront evil non-violently with our faith, hope and love. Sheepdogs, like wolves, kill; except one is evil and the other is hired. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
In 2012 I took a fellow clergyman of mine, Fr. Harry, to see Of Gods & Men – the story of the seven Trappist monks who, in 1996, not only refused to leave their sheep but also refused armed protection from the sheepdog – in this case the unjust Algerian army. In the end, the Islamist terrorists kidnapped and beheaded all of the monks. Afterwards I asked Fr. Harry what he would have done. He, too, had military training in his background before becoming a priest. Would he passively go with kidnappers or fight back? He surprised me, saying “I would like to think that as a man of faith, I would respond peacefully with love.” I began to realize that if he could shed the desire to be the sheepdog, then so could I. Instead of “I will kill for you,” my pledge became “I will die for you”.
Such is the calling for clergy, as I have chosen to become. It remains a sad reality, however, that the sheepdog pledge and the sacrifice of police officers, deputies, soldiers, sailors and marines are necessary as long as some men continue to choose evil. Non-violence may not be an option for all of us. Pray for these men and women who choose to be sheepdogs. They are targeted, not just in Asia and the Middle East, but now in St. Louis and Chattanooga.
But this is also a time of unprecedented martyrdom in our Church. More faithful shepherds are being sacrificed than ever before. Nonetheless, this evil, this hatred for Christ, will eventually collapse – just as the genocidal regimes have all done before them – not by force, but by love. We will ultimately triumph – not because we killed greater numbers, but because we sacrificed in greater numbers: not by inflicting, but by enduring. This is the victory of the Cross that is fulfilled through the calling of the shepherds.