That’s what you do in a herd: you look out for each other. ~ Manny the mammoth
“Did he just say what I think he said?”
The radio was on as background noise—I can’t remember if I was at my desk or driving somewhere. NPR’s Frank Langfitt was talking about money laundering in Macau, and I wasn’t really paying too much attention.
But I perked up at this line: “I’m in the bottom of one of the casinos and trying to avoid a herd of hookers.” Wow—really? “Herd?” Of “hookers?”
The alliteration was catchy, but it sounded so demeaning and dehumanizing. These were individual women, after all, each with a family background and history, and each, no doubt, with a terribly sad tale to tell. The journalist’s flip use of a slang term for prostitute was bad enough; lumping the women all together as a nameless pack of animals was truly jarring.
I react similarly whenever I hear public health advocates speak of their immunization efforts—like Harvard physician Haider Javed Warraich:
Vaccines work when given to individuals, but they are most effective when administered to an entire population. That’s because vaccines confer “herd immunity” that disrupts the chain of infections, but only if enough people get the immunization.
I get the idea and the science behind it, but if public health officials want greater vaccination compliance, then I suggest they come up with a better image than “herd immunity.” Certainly immunization is effective and an important weapon in the public health arsenal, but I am not part of a herd, and neither are my children.
Instead, Warraich and his ilk notwithstanding, my kids are individual persons with individual physiologies, not to mention unique personalities, affinities, and dispositions. And this is true for everyone—something Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali pointed out with specific reference to Muslim women:
I didn’t realize until I came to the West that we actually are first and foremost not collectives. We are individuals. We are individual girls with our different characters, with our likes and dislikes. And before you assume the collective, assume the individual.
Yes, individuals first; members of a collective second. And, in any case, never simply part of a faceless mob.
However, there’s one area in which herd language is appropriate—and, oddly enough, it’s particularly associated with prostitutes. I mean, if there’s anything that deserves the moniker “herd of hookers,” it’s the church.
To begin with, the church actually does turn out to basically be a herd—remember the Good Shepherd? We all love the parable of the shepherd rescuing that lone sheep in the Gospel. It’s comforting and reassuring: I’m a witless beast, and the Divine herdsman has me safely ensconced across his broad shoulders.
Remember, though, that the shepherd eventually would’ve returned that sheep to the herd. Ultimately, it’s the herd that the Good Shepherd is entrusted to protect and nurture, and rescuing individual sheep is accomplished within that context.
Admittedly, it’s a delicate balance that Scripture strikes between images of God’s people as individuals and as a group. Paul gets at it very directly in his letters, especially when he talks about the body of Christ being made up of individual members with their distinctive differences. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (I Cor. 12.12). In other words, we’re all in it together as one body, but we’re also like discrete cells in an organism—each with distinct tasks to fulfill, with the vitality of the whole depending on everybody carrying out their assigned roles.
The ultimate destiny of the organism, however, is not dependent on each separate cell because it is already determined—predestined, you could say—that the organism is destined for paradise. “When the Holy Spirit blows, He does not create good individual Christians, individual ‘saints,’” writes Metropolitan John Zizioulas, “but an event of communion, which transforms everything the Spirit touches into a relational being.” The Catechism quotes Vatican II on the topic:
Believers who respond to God’s word and become members of Christ’s Body, become intimately united with him: “In that body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe, and who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ in his Passion and glorification.”
Salvation, thus, is a matter of our incorporation into that body, and our petty faults and failings day to day are somewhat irrelevant as long as we persevere in that body. We know this because Jesus told us that the ones actually getting into heaven are the tax collectors and the prostitutes—biblical shorthand for notorious sinners. Think about such stories from the point of view of one of their main target audiences—the Pharisees and the self-righteous. They listened and critiqued, but they missed the obvious—and what was the obvious?
It’s this: Jesus was calling on them—and on us—to become more like Zacchaeus, and the Gospel’s sinful woman, and other noteworthy biblical transgressors in their lowliness. Far from giving the Pharisees a commission to lift sinners to their own level of respectability, the Lord gave them a subtle challenge to descend to the tax collectors’ and harlots’ level instead. That’s where humility and contrition can take a visceral, authentic form. That’s where true repentance and conversion can take place.
So, if Christianity is about conforming to Christ and getting to heaven, and if we ourselves really want to be on the way to heaven, then we too should think of ourselves as tax collectors and prostitutes—simply sinners, that is, just as Pope Francis declared himself after an interviewer asked him who he was:
I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.
This is no surprise, of course, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the process of becoming saints is a group effort—all the members of the body of Christ working through their stuff all at the same time—and it won’t exactly be a precisely choreographed affair. The Catechism puts it very explicitly:
All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.
To be sure, the crook and the harlot and all us sinners, once incorporated into the body of Christ, are still called to repentance. There’s no question that sin is awful in every respect, and part of embracing Christ and becoming part of the church is recognizing sin for what it is and reforming accordingly. Nevertheless, the crook and the prostitute have an advantage over the self-righteous, for profligate sinners have no illusions about their worthiness or sufficiency.
In any case, our job entails avoiding judgment of our fellow sinners, and then, more importantly, fully acknowledging our own corruption and inadequacy. Then, Jesus can do something with us—the sooner, the better.
Fortunately, thank God, we don’t have to go it alone—we have the Church herself, the saints, and even each other. Here’s the Catechism once more:
The unity of the Mystical Body produces and stimulates charity among the faithful: “From this it follows that if one member suffers anything, all the members suffer with him, and if one member is honored, all the members together rejoice.”
Out of many, one; one body, many members; born again as an individual, but born into a herd destined for glory. “Such is the race that seeks for him,” says the Psalmist, “that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”
There’s plenty of mystery here to go around: Let’s dig in!
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared December 14, 2014 on the author’s blog “God-Haunted Lunatic” and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail of “The Good Shepherd” painted by Philippe de Champaigne (1631-1681).