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Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Resolutions: The Problem of Shibboleth in 2018

It is the time of year when resolutions abound. Or if not resolutions, goals. Maybe goals are too weighty a burden: maybe wishes.

It is the time of year when wishes abound. Despite the popularity of making “New Year’s Resolutions” – and despite the popularity of articles detailing how to make resolutions “stick” – most people know that lasting life change isn’t found on the heels of New Year’s Day. Resolutions melt away along with the winter snow drifts, and if one thinks about resolutions at all mid-July, it is often accompanied by reflections on exactly when or how they crumbled and disappeared.

Yet “resolutions” are really a misnomer. If you are resolute, you are “single-minded,” “firm,” and “unswerving.” If a person resolves to do something, that person has decided to do it. The person has resolve. There is strength, and because of that, follow through. A resolution isn’t a goal; a resolution is a decision. In that sense, goals are mile-markers; resolution is the direction you are running.

It may be a short-lived New Year’s goal to drink less, but it takes real resolve to drive to an AA meeting and walk in the door. It may be a futile goal to go to the expensive gym you joined; but it takes real resolve to value your body, your health, and your future, and to examine why you may devalue any of those things.

Where goals may gather around what you want to do or quit doing, how you want to look or where you want to go, being resolute may have more to do with what kind of person you want to become.

And here we arrive at shibboleths. 

What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of culture and society would you like to take part in? Because right now, dear North America, we are addicted to shibboleths.

If the word sounds familiar but just out of memory’s reach, it is a cultural reference, yet originates – as so many cultural references do – from the Bible. In Judges 12, the Gileadites are aware that their enemies the Ephraimites may be trying to cross a stream, posing as Gileadites. But the Gileadites are also aware that the Ephraimites have a small verbal giveaway – a difference in pronunciation of a word. (Think of how the pronunciation of certain English words give away whether you’re from the North or the South of the United States.) So if an enemy is trying to sneak by, just have them say a word – one single word – that will betray their association. If said incorrectly, the speaker dies.

It was simple but effective. Long before taking off your shoes at airport security or full-body scanners, one man looked at another and said, “really? Then say shibboleth for me.”

Since then, as Rice University points out, if something is said to be a shibboleth, it is used in a way similar to a “litmus test” (a phrase lifted from one context – the science lab – into another context – a cultural standard applied for the use of making a judgment).

shibboleth is a kind of linguistic password: A way of speaking (a pronunciation, or the use of a particular expression) that is used by one set of people to identify another person as a member, or a non-member, of a particular group. The group making the identification has some kind of social power to set the standards for who belongs to their group: who is “in” and who is “out.”

The purpose of a shibboleth is exclusionary as much as inclusionary: A person whose way of speaking violates a shibboleth is identified as an outsider and thereby excluded by the group. This phenomenon is part of the universal use of language for distinguishing social groups. It is also one example of a general phenomenon of observing a superficial characteristic of members of a group, such as a way of speaking, and judging that characteristic as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on how much the observers like the people who have that characteristic.

And as we sit down and pen our resolutions – or our goals – or our half-hearted dreams – it is worthwhile to take a moment and consider our addiction to shibboleths. How do we employ shibboleths to decide who we listen to on – anything?

Doing away with the usage of shibboleths doesn’t mean throwing away core principles or values: it does have to do with preserving personhood, no matter who is crossing whom’s river. Using a litmus test to decide whether or not to pay someone basic common respect isn’t a value of Jesus Christ.

So the problem isn’t an inherent issue with a system in which someone is “in” or “out” – that’s necessary, just like standards for making it to the big leagues or getting into Harvard or joining the local VFW. The problem isn’t with having group boundaries; the problem is how we treat people no matter which side of the boundary they’re on. And often, when we unconsciously use a shibboleth, we’re giving ourselves permission to treat people as less than. 

Every group has its favorite shibboleths. 

Did you just use a male pronoun to refer to God? Violation! Shibboleth. I don’t have to listen to the rest of your sermon now.

Did you just use the phrase “climate change” in a way that suggests you’re concerned about it? Violation! Shibboleth. I know all your other beliefs now and can dismiss you out of hand.

Did you just use the word “orthodox”? By that, didn’t you mean “power play by males to keep authority by ruling what everyone had to believe?” Violation! Shibboleth. Obviously, you’re stuck in a literal interpretation of faith and haven’t accepted it as myth yet.

Did you just say you’re “cisgender”? I don’t even know what that means but I know what everyone believes who says that kind of thing. Violation! Shibboleth. There’s no point getting to know you.

Did you just say you’re for women’s rights but you’re also pro-life? You can’t be, I say so. Violation! Shibboleth. We can’t ever work together for anything and I don’t have to think about your point now.

This is what happens when we employ shibboleths. We don’t engage in critical thinking, we don’t assume the value of the other person, and we don’t speak with kindness to or about those outside the boundaries of our groups. You have spoken a shibboleth: that, we say, is all we need to know. We reduce every complex particularity of a person made in the image of God to how they pronounce shibboleth, and if they say it wrong, we take their personhood from them and move on, leaving a bleeding corpse in our wake. They revealed themselves for what they were. It was a pity, but it had to be done. We were justified.

Do you have a goal to abstain from social media drive-by’s this year? Do you wish that other people weren’t so obnoxious about differences?

Or are you resolved to put shibboleths to death? To maintain your integrity, principles, and values, and yet not to give in to the wily notion that your integrity demands that you dehumanize the people on the other side of the boundary? On the contrary – your integrity demands that you raise up, elevate, and protect the humanity and value of the person across from you who is trembling as they utter the word, wondering if you will see them – the real them – or whether you will draw your sword?

Debate where it’s needed; argue when necessary. Stand confident in your principles. And yet, while you debate, while you argue, while you stand confident –

And yet I will show you a still more excellent way…

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

May 2018 find love shaping the sound of our every word.