In this passage we read from the Gospel of John, we hear that good shepherds will leave their whole flock and even give their life for the safety of one sheep. They know their sheep by name and each is precious to them. It is said that God counts by ones and each human life is special.
Not so for the hired hands. They are in it to make a quick buck and if a sheep gets lost along the way, what is it to them? Let the wolves take one or two while they run the other way. Who cares as long as they get paid?
Let me tell you the story of a good shepherd and his flock that stood up to the wolves in America that poisoned people for the sake of profit:
At the turn of the 20th century, American food producers could get away with putting just about anything in their food. And they did… Canned food had salicylic acid, borax, and copper sulfate. Producers sold corn syrup as honey and colored lard as butter, and there were no laws or consequences to false labeling. [i]
Let’s take milk as an example. In Deborah Blum’s book “The Poison Squad” she notes, "Far too often, not only in Indiana but nationwide, dairy producers thinned milk with water (sometimes containing a little gelatin), and recolored the resulting bluish-gray liquid with dyes, chalk, or plaster dust. They also faked the look of rich cream by using a yellowish layer of pureed calf brains. As a historian of the Indiana health department wrote: 'People could not be induced to eat brain sandwiches in [a] sufficient amount to use all the brains, and so a new market was devised.'… in addition, the department tracked such a steady diet of manure in dairy products that it estimated that the citizens of Indianapolis consumed more than 2,000 pounds of manure in a given year."[ii]
There were no laws concerning food safety and the food companies wanted it to stay that way. Who cares if some people died as long as the money kept rolling in?
Where were the good shepherds that would step up and work to bring the wolves under some sort of control? Who would study all of these additives and their safety?
Into this void stepped Harvey Washington Wiley, the Department of Agriculture’s Chief Chemist and a leading crusader for food safety:
To show the physical costs of food additives, Wiley designed what he called hygienic table trials -- and convinced Congress to give him $5,000 to fund them. Officially, the goal was to "investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and to health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use." Unofficially, Wiley hoped to use the table trials as a springboard to enact widespread food regulation.[iii]
These “table trials”, later dubbed the Poison Squad by the press, consisted of a group of twelve young clerks that signed waivers that they wouldn’t hold the government accountable if they died. They would weigh themselves, have blood drawn, and other tests before and after each meal. Each meal would contain an increasing amount of an ingredient considered suspect until members of the squad got sick. The symptoms caused by the additives and the amounts ingested ware carefully noted.
"The Song of the Pizen (Poison) Squad," by poet S.W. Gillilan, is a poem that exaggerates the squad's exploits:
On Prussic acid we break our fast;
we lunch on a morphine stew;
We dine with a matchhead consomme,
drink carbolic acid brew;
Corrosive sublimate tones us up
like laudanum ketchup rare,
While tyro-toxicon condiments
are wholesome as mountain air.
Thus all the "deadlies" we double-dare
to put us beneath the sod;
We're death-immunes and we're proud as proud--
Hooray for the Pizen Squad![iv]
Wiley, a good shepherd, and his flock of clerks were directly responsible for the Meat Inspection and the Pure Food and Drug Acts in 1906. They put their lives on the line and fought the wolves of the food industry. They worked against the hired hands in government and congress that were paid to hide their reports and stymie their work. Their only thought was to save lives by making food safer.
We need good shepherds that will put themselves out there for those they don’t even know. To help those considered the least by society. Even Jesus said that there were other sheep, not even of his own sheep pen, that were special to God.
How can we all follow Jesus and Harvey Washington Wiley’s example and be good shepherds and leaders? What in our own town, state, or country can we advocate for and help lead others to see the need for change?
Hopefully we don’t have to eat poison to save others - but how about striving to make sure all people have enough food to eat? Working on gun control so we can limit the lives lost to gun violence? Fixing income equality to lift the world out of poverty? Creating a health care system where no one is one sickness away from destitution? Removing profit from the prison system? Ending America’s original sin of racism?
Remember, God counts by ones, and even one life saved, whoever they are or worship, will cheer the heart of God and make our world that much better.