Lewis Rothschild: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
When I first saw that scene in the movie “The American President,” I thought the concept overstated, but now I’m not so sure. I scan the plethora of ignorance posted and shared on the internet every day, even by many of my friends and acquaintances—people I would have expected to apply the rules of careful research to verify the veracity of statements made rather than unthinkingly parroting lies. I hope against hope that what I see is an illusion based on the sheer volume of mud, that the real “sand-drinkers” represent only a small percentage of the population.
Lest you think me above the fray, think again—more than once, I have jumped into some conversation, only to discover later a piece of information I had previously missed, a fact that rendered my view indefensible. Lately, though, I’ve started unsubscribing to every so-called nonpartisan newsletter I receive—the “puffing up” over imaginary evils committed on any side of a debate—even from those who once seemed to share my opinions about what might work to return us to a more stable course—obliterates the possibility of reason, and renders broad-reaching, lasting solutions impossible to find. I’ve decided to take a retreat.
I’m in good company. Jesus often went on retreats, too, and I think I know one of the reasons why. One time in particular, he and the disciples had managed to row their boats to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, if you please) with the intent of going into the mountains for one of those retreats. But by the time they got across, the throngs of people had run on foot, I guess, around the sea and greeted them on the other side. The New Testament story, told several times in slightly different iterations, says that Jesus had compassion on them and postponed taking care of his own need for solitude because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen sheep without a shepherd. Great throngs of them, with no concept whatsoever of what automobiles were or could do to them, who refused to step off an Irish road until a shepherd appeared to lead them into a nearby field. I have photos of a long line of sheep following a man down a road until there was a break in the stone wall. Jesus talked about shepherds, too—“good” ones who went looking for single missing lambs, false ones whose voices enticed these dumb animals into danger. The metaphor isn’t lost on me—any shepherd will do when sheep are afraid or unsure of what to do or where to go.
Those of us in the cars waiting patiently (and some not so patiently) for them to move assumed that the man who appeared was the shepherd for this particular flock, but there was no way for us to know. Maybe he took them back to the fold for shearing, but maybe not. Maybe he took them to the slaughterhouse instead. In the end, it didn’t matter—they were dumb enough to follow him anyway.
Jesus hoped that the crowds that hustled to the other side of the Sea of Galilee did so because they understood the truth of his message, but he was a realist. He knew that most of them only came because they were hungry or wondered if maybe, like they’d heard from one of their friends, that he was the one who would finally lead them out of occupation by the Romans and their in-country lackeys.
His disciples didn’t get it, either. Not then, anyway.
When he looked around at the mass of people, he told the disciples to feed them, and they looked back at him like he’d lost his mind. “Tell them to go into the towns and villages and buy it for themselves!” they said. “It’s not our problem they didn’t bring their own food. They could’ve gotten a good job and an education, just like we did!”
Jesus just repeated his command. “No. You give them something to eat.”
“What?” they said, again, in disbelief. “You want us to take our 200 denarii and go to McDonalds and bring back food for them? You want us to spend our money for them? Risk our own dinner? Are you kidding us?”
About that time, in one of the tellings of the story, a boy who had overheard their strategic planning meeting, approached Andrew, Simon’s brother, and handed him five loaves of bread and two fish. The disciples looked at the food and rolled their eyes. “Five loaves and two fish for 5000 people? Come on, man.”
I imagine that a number of possible responses passed through Jesus’ head, but he finally took the loaves and fish from Andrew, and said, “Make the people sit down.” It was a big grassy place, like Piedmont or Central Park, so there was room for all of the attendees.
He started at the front, handing out the food. The young boy who’d brought the bread and fish in the first place was taken care of first—Jesus would never have allowed him to go hungry. While he was going down the row, like a priest distributing communion bread, a fellow a couple of rows back reached for his bag and said, “I have some Dasani and some bagel chips and smoked salmon,” and started offering some of them to the people close by. A few rows behind that, and off to the side, a woman standing with a big bowl of water on her head took it down and handed a ladle to the fellow sitting at her feet. “I have enough water for thirty or so to have a sip,” she said, waving her hand. When questioned about what she would tell her family when she got home without the water, she said, “They’ll never know. There’s another well on my way home.”
All of a sudden, more bread and water and fish and some Burger King and Taco Bell and Chick-Fil-A bags started appearing, and 30 minutes later, an observer just passing by might have thought it was a rather large previously-planned picnic. Kids were playing together on the playground. Folks in one section were singing Hebrew karaoke, spontaneously started by a guy who’d produced his lyre. Laughter rang out from still another area. Sheep jokes, no doubt.
After a few more minutes, Jesus stands up and nods to his disciples again. “Go, gather what’s left over. Let’s make sure nothing’s wasted—there’s a soup kitchen back in Capernaum that could use it. And while you’re at it, get people to pick up their trash—you know how some of the Occupy Judea people can be.” There were no sarcastic comments this time. The disciples scattered to do what Jesus asked, and when they returned, every one of the 12 had a basket full of bread.
Somebody yelled, “Hey, man, are you for real? You need to run for office!” And then the crowd slowly picked up the chant. “Jesus, Jesus, he’s our man. If he can’t do it nobody can!”
When Jesus heard this, he knew it was time to get out of there, so he slipped away into the hills, which was, as you recall, what he’d started out to do in the first place.
Don’t think it was easy for Jesus to sidestep the amazing opportunity he had. He was a human being, after all. From the day he was baptized by John in the Jordan, he knew he’d be tempted many times to use the indestructible power of what he knew to control the people who followed him. He knew that if he let himself, he could get used to the blind adoration. He knew that if people were starving or fearful of starving, things could get ugly.
That’s why, I’m convinced, that just after the Spirit had descended on him like a dove and he’d heard the voice of God, he went on that long retreat by himself. You know, the going into the wilderness, the one that lasted 40 days or so. He went to wrestle with those very demons, and arm himself for future encounters, like this one, that he knew would come. That first long retreat had only one purpose—self-examination and preparation to subdue the all-too-human tendency to become enamored with ourselves when granted positions of authority where we and others believe we can excel, to fall prey to the narcissism of beginning to believe oneself above the law—superior to those who nominated us in the first place. He went to the desert to honestly ask himself if his morality, his high talk about God and love and nonviolence would hold up if he himself was starving.
Jesus wasn’t stupid. He knew that when he came back from that first retreat that he would face the temptation over and over again, that sometimes he’d be hungry and sometimes not, sometimes lauded and sometimes jeered, sometimes praised and sometimes humiliated, and he would have to be strong. He knew that most of the sand-drinkers, blind forever to the true meaning of abundance, would miss the mark, mistaking the meaning of his parables, and try to put him in charge of their lives—all with the misguided belief that he would wave a magic wand and either make their misery go away or protect them from suffering in the first place, if they were “good” people who followed the rules.
He knew, too, that the sand-drinkers are capricious, that in the end, the people who yelled, “Jesus, Jesus, he’s our man!” that day when he’d fed them were the same who would yell “Crucify him!” when they realized that they had misjudged him, that he hadn’t come to lead a charging army against the oppression of Rome. And because he knew it, he sometimes slipped away when he was tired and discouraged to get his head about him and remember again, who he was. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “You say I am,” was all he responded.
Jesus is the only person in the history of the world, so far as we know, who, presented with the opportunity to assume the illusionary mantel of power, praise, and superiority, turned it down, and completely escaped its built-in delusions. The only one.
And yet, in the face of that exception, we still act surprised when what once seemed to be wine turns out to be sand.