The Lord's My Shepherd; I shall not Want
Few phrases from christianity are so abhorrent for me while at the same time being beloved of the faithful, as Psalm 23, known to generations of long-suffering british school kids and boy scouts as "The Lord's my Shepherd", a dreary hymn to the tune "Crimond", attributed to Jessie Seymour Irvine.
This torturous dirge is the archetype of an exercise in tedium, especially if led by an aging church organist who insists on the full metred arrangement, at shuffling pace, pauses and all. Dressed in stiff and uncomfortable Sunday best, dragged to a cold building filled with strange old people smelling of peppermint and death, then made to stand and sing this dragging lament, it's no surprise that my parents' half-hearted attempts to bring me up christian failed almost before they'd begun.
That aside, though, the real problem with the phrase is the allusion underlying it. If god/jesusis the shepherd, then we, the people are sheep. Docile, dumb, easily startled, regularly fleeced. Largely unable to cope alone. Unable, even, to cope collectively, without the firm hand of the shepherd and perhaps the teeth of the sheepdog. This image permeates christianity. Congregations are referred to as flocks. There is talk of lost lambs. The word "pastor" itself was originally a 13th century word for a herdsman and was adopted in short order by religious authorities who perhaps knew a good joke when they saw it.
In this, Christianity most obviously shows itself to be a counter-democratic, politbureau-style hierarchy. Proles at the bottom, whose labours enrich those above, whose word is law and cannot be rescinded. You don't get voted in by your peers, you get lifted up by those above you, based on their own reasons. This, in politics, would be decried as cronyism and corruption - and given the various churches' predilection for meddling in the political process, this is profoundly disturbing.
This is reinforced further by allusions elsewhere in Christian doctrine. In Matthew 4:19, the character of jesus says "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" - so perfectly and tragically inviting comparison with the phrase "hook, line and sinker" that you almost wonder if some cynical wit was behind the passage, laughing into his sleeve as he went.
Men are a resource to be plucked from the ocean of doubt and exploited for all they have to offer. Jesus does not say "Follow me, and I shall make you great teachers, able to instill wisdom in those you encounter". No, he goes for the metaphor and in doing so, reveals christianity's hand. It's pretty plain - the flock is there to be fleeced, the shoals to be fished. The money and resources flow upwards to those in the know - the disciples - from those merely kept docile.
The famous saying could be more aptly rendered, in christianity's case, as "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Think of him as a fish and his donations will buy you seafood for the rest of your life".
This hierarchical, proles-at-the-bottom aspect is clear throughout christianity, even in modern churches employing the veneer of populism. Go to a traditional cathedral service and you clearly see tiers leading up the hierarchy. It's perhaps most obvious with the catholics, with the flock, then lay workers and deacons, vicars, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, right up to the pope. All appointed, all Politbureau-style closed hierarchies, with the expected results of the money flowing up while the bullshit flows down, and all supported by the bottom layer. The sheep.
Go to a modern church like Hillsong and you still see it too, but more well disguised. The elect may pass among the proles, touching a shoulder here, offering a kind word there, but the money only ever flows up.
In this and in many other ways, christianity proudly, it seems, displays its anti-democratic colours. You are sheep. You cannot be trusted to make decisions for yourselves. Lay down and let us make the decisions, and while we're at it, don't you feel terribly hot in all that valuable fleece? Let us unburden you.
In other ways still, the nature of christianity shines through. Jesus is the "king of kings". Eschatological cults eagerly await his return, at which point all earthly government shall be dissolved and big J shall take his rightful, unelected place at the head of the planet, an emperor with ambitions to make Napoleon blush. What follows is a purge, then, apparently, a lifetime of happy servitude under the new king - and, of course, his ministers.
Whatever you want to call it, that's not democracy.
Over time, this whole gigantic problem, christianity's counter-democratic, patriarchal nature has ossified and become so accepted, so unquestioned, that some of the world's most prominent democracies don't even realise it's a problem. In the pious United States, questions of national importance are thrown aside in legislative assemblies, so that repressed, frightened christians can ban the use of the word "vagina", so that women's reproductive rights can be taken away (shades, again, of the shepherd knowing better than the sheep) and so that anti-scientific nonsense can be seriously considered as textbook material.
Here in Australia, where a majority of the population believes that gay couples should be able to marry like anyone else, the shepherds of the christian right want the voices of the uppity sheep to be summarily ignored, and what's more they're meeting with success. Tony Abbott is disallowing his party from voting with their conscience - presumably because, in this case as in others, the shepherd knows better than the flock - and this means bills which, if voted on by the public, would fly past the post will instead be held up because the shepherd knows better.
Might I humbly suggest, ladies and gentlemen, that if you think democracy is a good thing, you should perhaps consider whether institutions like christianity - and indeed like Judaism and Islam - are actually compatible with the values you support. You should think whether the person you're voting for really supports those values too, or whether he's just paying them lip service while adhering to the underlying philosophy of "the shepherd knows best". If you pay money into a religious group, consider whether you really want to be funding an institution which so plainly espouses dictatorial rule, and if you don't, take your money away.
You are not a sheep. Make sure they know about it.