Shibboleth describes the cultural markers which separate “Us” from “Them”. How do the missionally-minded navigate this landscape of shibboleths?
I remember going to the Tate Modern to see a striking art installation by Doris Salcedo in 2007. It was a long crack in the ground, deepening and widening in places, running the length of the massive Turbine Hall.
I was intrigued by how visitors interacted with it (I’m clearly more of a sociologist than an art critic). Some people followed its banks letting it direct them along the length of the hall, children seemed to love jumping over it, others straddled it and were split in the moment of being both one side and another.
A great fissure which prompted responses and was hard to ignore. It had an intriguing title “Shibboleth I-IV”.
I am a jobbing sociologist, and the word Shibboleth has found a home in my discipline. It is used to describe the cultural markers which groups use to define who they are – separating “Us” from “Them”.
It’s part and parcel of Othering; fostering group solidarity by exclusionary practices. There are many effective shibboleths. The word most often describes language codes but there are broader applications and a plethora of cultural practices which politicise difference.
Observing the Tate installation, I was not then aware that the word Shibboleth is a Biblical one. The word appears only once. It is a strange ancient word meaning ‘ear of corn’ or possibly ‘river’ and comes from a story in the Book of Judges chapter 12, verses 1-15.
But it’s not the literal meaning which has given this ancient word currency in sociology and art today – it’s the strange narrative it comes from. It’s a story about borders and hostile environments, about the lethal effects of Othering.
It’s a story to interrogate missional practice today and one which, for me, brings together sociological imagination and lived experiences of mission in Newham, the multi-everything London borough I live in.
The Biblical story is set in the aftermath of war. The Israeli tribes of Ephraim and Gilead were physically divided by the Jordan River. A recent war with the Ammonites led to inter-ethnic conflict.
Gilead were led to victory by Jephthah, a ruler with a traumatic past but clearly a head for warfare. After the Ammonite defeat, some Ephraimites, who had backed the wrong side or had crossed the river to scoop up some of their neighbour’s plunder, were left stranded on the wrong side of the Jordan.
As they attempted to cross home, Jephthah’s men guarded the bridges and fords, demanding travellers pronounce the word “shibboleth” for safe passage.
Western Ephraimites did not have the “sh” sound in their language and so their Otherness was revealed. “Jephthah’s men caught forty-two thousand men and put them to death that day” (Judges 12:2–6); an almost throwaway verse depicting the carnage of war.
I stall at this verse and its casual depiction of military slaughter. The Bible does that to me sometimes.
I put down the Bible and turn on the news and am acutely aware that our context cries out for its own eisegesis. Europe has been plunged into a new war. Not that we ever shock off our commitment to militarism.
This war is close at hand and recasts this discussion of borders and Othering. I am aware of the privilege of having a safe place for reflection, and how crass theoretical discussions sound as thousands of others in Europe are displaced, lose their homes and their lives.
We reel at the horror of weapons aimed at those attempting to find safe passage. These scenes tell us of the human cost of national borders. They are places where the "banality of evil", as Hannah Arendt describes, is manifest.
Attempts to redraw and reinforce shibboleths are carried out with the destruction not only of human lives, but of the very things which define our humanity.
And, thank God, we also see there those who are willing to journey across the borderlands of difference and welcome and heal and feed and host.
Beyond the theatre of war, the rise of popularism and the disruptive effects of globalisation have left the European landscape riven with physical and cultural borders.
The Indian commentator Mishra described our society as the “age of anger”, disturbed by geopolitical uncertainty, where politics is driven by a relentless focus on “logic” and “liberal rationalism” at the expense of emotional responsiveness.
Shibboleths dividing Us from Them are international, intranational and local. They are expressed in the polarisation of political discourse, the echo chambers of social media and the dehumanisation of all who cross or blur borders: from migrants to the queer.
What is the Jesus-shaped response? How can we express the kenarchy of God, the rile of love, in such a landscape?
I live in a city where the spoils of Empire are built into its architecture, within a culture rife with colonialism. My corner of London is a multi-cultural landing bay for the world, shaped by waves of migration. Newham has the lowest percentage of White British residents of all of London's boroughs.
The White British proportion of the population fell from 33.8% in 2001 to around 15% today, the largest shift in any local authority in England in this timeframe. ‘Race’ matters here. Newham is also the most religious Borough in the UK (according to the 2011 Census).
40% of Census respondents identified as Christian (reflecting the heritage of recent migrants), 32% Muslim (which is the fastest growing religious group) and 8.8% Hindu.
There are small Buddhist, Sikh, and Jewish communities and, at 9.5%, we have the lowest rate in the UK of “No Religious Affiliation”.
Many of the Christian churches are independent, a significant number are branches of international, especially African, churches. I am ethnically White and culturally a “Cockney”, from an East-End working class community, the fourth of six generations of my family to live in the same four streets.
I worship in the same church that my grandmother found salvation as a child in an East-End slum community. I am one of the ministers of the same church.
My sense of vocation has been expressed through a call to stay and be a faithful Christian presence within a fast-shifting landscape; to be a familiar person to my neighbours, to be open and hopeful.
Our main missional practice has been community organisation and faithfully gathering to worship in the multi-everything community we love.
And so, my life and faith would be represented at the Tate installation as that person jumping the shibboleth, crossing and recrossing, seeing what happens to myself and others in liminal spaces.
In my neighbourhood, every day is an opportunity to encounter the Other in a transformative way. It has been a way of life and I believe that “staying put” has offered an incredible spiritual journey.
So how do the missionally-minded navigate this landscape of shibboleths?
For me, the Gospel involves finding Christ in moments of alterity; of encounters with the stranger. I find myself drawn to the blurry edges of church life and seeking missional practices which bridge divides.
In my church at Bonny Downs we have found many ways to work for the common good with our neighbours: bringing a community centre and garden to life; organising sports activities and working together in youth provision.
Being here for almost three decades has given us time to create structures around these efforts. We partnered with others to set up a local community association.
As Jesus-followers we gather for worship in the community garden in the summer and in the community centre in the colder months.
We have taken up the challenge to journey into worship that is more “tables than stages”. We seek multi-voice gatherings to reflect our flatter model of leadership. Our single minister’s stipend is divided among four missional leaders, of which I am one.
We are all bi-vocational, with roles in local community projects. Our future vision is to rebuild our church site as an “urban abbey” where we can live intentionally and invite those transitioning from homelessness to join us.
We find hospitality matters, both giving and receiving it. Being a neighbour can be expressed through having a bench in your front rather than back garden – here is mine. It’s a place to become known and to get to know neighbours.
My church seeks to be a place of welcome for recent immigrants in a hostile environment. The bread and butter of urban ministry is to provide bumping spaces for neighbours and justice projects which bring people together.
We adopt Asset-Based methods to draw out the gifts of those in limbo in our asylum processes. This had led to a gardening social enterprise and conversational English groups around cooking meals.
None of this is especially unique in urban mission. It is nonetheless beautiful, messy and makes my community the best place in the world to be discipled.
In short, we have found tables, benches, gardens and justice-seeking adventures dismantle shibboleths, and help us to find our primary identity as sojourners through a shifting and unravelling culture, safely held within the expansive and cosmic kenarchy of God.
Dr Sally Mann is a Baptist Minister, Sociology Lecturer at Greenwich University, and teaches on MA programmes at Nazarene Theological College. She and her husband Dave are founding trustees of Red Letter Christians UK, aiming to give a voice to local churches working for Jesus and justice.
Vista is an online journal offering research-based information about mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each themed edition covers a variety of perspectives on crucial issues for mission. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Vista Journal.
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