November 01, 2017

Jesus only names about a half a dozen things people need to do when it comes down to being on the right side of the sheep/goat divide at the end of the line. The whole food, water, clothes, sick care, stranger welcoming list – I can name examples of churches doing those things all day long. But visiting prisoners – that gets harder and harder to identify. We could claim that the Rev. Harold Johnson had done it on behalf of the whole conference, but I don’t think that would hold much water.

There are several United Methodists in the Missouri Conference who do heed this call, though. Tom Maxwell and the good people of Nelson Memorial UMC have been all in when it comes to prison ministry for 23 years now. Read their story starting on page 14.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s book On Combat, published in 2004, also talked about sheep separation, but he didn’t have any goats in his story. Grossman puts us in three categories, sheep, sheep dogs and wolves. If you’ve ever bumped up against proponents of concealed carry weapons or seen the movie American Sniper, you’ve heard the story. There are the average people – sheep – who just go about their daily business, peaceful but vulnerable. Then there are the bad guys – wolves – who prey on the sheep.

Finally, you have the sheepdogs, whose calling is to protect the sheep. The analogy works well pretty well through the simple lens of combat in a historical military sense, in which two sides are squared off, wearing matching but distinctive uniforms, and the wolves and sheepdogs know where the clear geographical front line is. It gets horribly off-track when you apply it to civilian settings, simply because to a sheepdog, wolf lives don’t matter.

I recently read The Prisoner in His Palace, and urge you to read it, too. It is a book about the dozen U.S. soldiers who guarded Saddam Hussein from the time he was taken prisoner, through his trial and up to his execution.

Never have the sheepdog/wolf roles been clearer. Hussein was the leader of the pack - the wolf who sent other wolves to their deaths in battle. He even killed his fellow wolves, just to instill a culture of fear to keep everyone in line.

And the sheepdogs had signed up specifically to be sheepdogs. They were there to fight. Some had done multiple tours already and were combat veterans, others were green but ready. Even Hussein’s former friends, family and soldiers thought he was a bad guy.

But something strange happened during the incarceration. They dictator and the guards got to know each other. And something strange developed.

Kindness.

The military protocol only required basic humane treatment. But in time the soldiers were doing things for Hussein to be nice. Not because he is good person, but because they were. The kindness was reciprocated. He was nice back. The wolf and the sheepdogs got to know each other, and astoundingly liked each other. They found the humanity behind the roles they were cast to play. The eventual execution of Hussein was a crushing sad life changing event for many of the soldiers involved.

As awful as Hussein was, he didn’t view himself as a wolf. He also thought he was a sheepdog, doing the hard things that were necessary to maintain order. He told his guards, “[The U.S.] will wish you had me back. This country requires a really strong ruler.”

The bonds formed occurred under a circumstance that wasn’t going to have a happy ending. I give thanks for the soldiers who could see past someone getting what they deserved, and extend grace.

The troops on pages 6 – 9 of this magazine took on a far different task – one that ended with a win/win. They had difficult, technical jobs, and we’re doing them while living out of a Sunday school classroom – not the easiest conditions. But I have never seen a group of people have a better time at work. While working extremely hard to provide medical services as efficiently and effectively as possible, they were also clearly enjoying themselves. It was a privilege to be able to tell their story, and to bring it and a couple of other military-ministry related stories to you in time for Veteran’s Day.