Everything’s a Shibboleth

One of the things I do in my role as pastor is send out a (roughly) daily email to about 150 members and friends of my congregation. Sometimes they’re reminders of upcoming events; sometimes they’re celebrations of recent events; sometimes they’re prayers or other spiritual things. Today, I had something planned to send out. But I changed my mind, and put it off until tomorrow, because today was September 11. I felt I had to send something out about “Patriot Day.” So I found a prayer that seemed to fit, and sent it out. I heard nothing from anyone, good, bad, or indifferent. And that’s fine. I didn’t expect to receive any responses. But I’ll be honest — I sent that email out today not because I particularly wanted to. (Personally, I really don’t get worked up about Patriot Day.) I sent it out because I felt like if I didn’t, I would be scolded by someone. That if I didn’t make some kind of mention of the day, then someone would ask me why I didn’t, and insist that the church needs to be more grateful to the nation in which it resides.

It’s the same reason I sometimes choose patriotic songs as the final hymn on the Sunday closest to Memorial Day and Independence Day. I don’t think those hymns belong in worship — but I feel that if I don’t do so, it will anger someone. It will send a message that I am unpatriotic, that I am an ungrateful liberal, that I am — oh, who knows. But I’m not here to complain about congregations and politics today. I think I did that a while back anyway. No, I want to talk about shibboleths.shibboleth is something that identifies you as part of a particular group. The word comes from Hebrew: it means “the part of the plant containing grain” or something like that. But the meaning is immaterial. The word shibboleth was used, according to the book of Judges, for another reason completely beyond its meaning.

Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time. (Judges 12:5-6, New Revised Standard Version)

The Gileadites used the word shibboleth to find out if people were among the enemy or not, because the enemy had a different dialect. It’s like if I suspected that you were Canadian, and to find out I said, “Then say out and about.” The difference is, I probably wouldn’t then kill you like the Gileadites did to the Ephraimites. But I feel like there are shibboleths all around us today. The most recent one is Nike shoes. If you wear Nike shoes, it means that you’re part of the crowd that supports Colin Kaepernick, that supports NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. It must mean that, because in our country right now, you are either in one group or the other. It can’t mean that you just like Nike shoes. Not anymore.

Or how about when John McCain died? Was your flag at full staff or half staff? The answer to that made it clear which side you were on: Trump or McCain. For a few days, the flag seemed to have no meaning anymore except that: which side of the great GOP divide you were on.

And to go back to the kneeling — it seems like to some people that’s a shibboleth itself. If you support players’ right to kneel, then it means that you hate the troops. And that’s just about the worst sin you can commit in today’s America. “The troops” are held up as this icon, this pinnacle above all else, that everyone must worship. Don’t get me wrong — I have an awful lot of respect for our armed forces. It takes incredible strength and skill and courage to do what they do, whether it’s wartime or peacetime. But I don’t think that makes them superhuman. They deserve respect, and they certainly deserve proper treatment upon their return. But there’s a level of hero worship among some that makes me very uncomfortable, and often it’s a level of hero worship they expect everyone to do. And if you don’t, then you’re not patriotic, and you hate America. Another shibboleth.

I’ve got long hair right now, and it doesn’t seem to have caused an uproar in my congregation. I’m sure some people like it and others don’t, but it doesn’t seem like it’s become an issue. But I very clearly remember the last time I had long hair like this. I was in the candidacy process to be ordained a pastor, and when I met with the candidacy committee, one member looked at me and asked me directly, “What statement are you trying to make with your hair?” I was taken aback, and stuttered a bit. I said, “Umm, that I like long hair?” I’ve grown my hair out three or four times in my life, and it’s never been a statement of any kind. I’m not a Vietnam protester. Yes, my politics skew left, but I don’t grow my hair this way on account of it. But to this member of the candidacy committee (who was of the Vietnam generation), this hair meant something. And I got the sense he didn’t like it. The rest of the committee laughed, and someone told me, “Get used to hearing questions like that if you’re going to be a pastor!” My hair has been a shibboleth, at least to some. I got it cut the following day, because I decided I just didn’t want to hear it anymore. That was thirteen years ago, and I finally started growing it out again about a year ago.

Sigh. This post has gone on too long. But sometimes it just feels like everything we do is taken the wrong way by people. Sometimes it seems like there are things you have to do in order to not offend or upset folks who just want people to be in clearly marked boxes. Sometimes it feels like there are just too many shibboleths around these days. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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