Shibboleths that divide, evangelical focus

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 floor, deepening and widening in places, running the length of the huge Turbine Hall.

I was intrigued by how visitors interacted with (I am clearly more of a sociologist than an art critic). Some followed its banks by letting themselves be guided along the corridor, the children seemed to like to jump over it, others stepped over it and were divided when it came to being on one side and the other at the same time.

A big crack that sparked reactions and was hard to ignore. It had an intriguing title “Shibboleth I-IV”.

I am a sociologist at work, and the word Shibboleth has found its place in my discipline. This is used to describe the cultural markers that groups use to define who they are – separate “We” from “Them”.

This is an integral part of Othering; promote group solidarity through exclusionary practices. There are many effective shibboleths. Word most often describes language codes but there are broader applications and a plethora of cultural practices that politicize difference.

Looking at the Tate installation, I didn’t know then that the the word Shibboleth is biblical. The word appears only once. It’s a strange old word meaning ‘cob 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 that has made this ancient word commonplace in today’s sociology and art – it’s the strange narrative from which it sprang. It is a story of borders and hostile environmentson the deadly effects of otherness.

It is a story to interrogate missionary practice today and which, for me, brings together the sociological imagination and the lived experiences of mission in Newham, the multi-everything area of ​​London in which I live.

The biblical story takes place in the aftermath of the war. The Israeli tribes of Ephraim and Gilead were physically divided by the Jordan River. A recent war with the Ammonites has led to inter-ethnic conflict.

Gilead was led to victory by Jephthah, a ruler with a traumatic past but clearly bent on war. After the defeat of the Ammonites, some Ephraimites, who had retreated to the wrong side or crossed the river to pick up some of their neighbor’s plunder, found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the Jordan.

As they attempted to return home, Jephthah’s men guarded bridges and fords, requiring travelers to say the word “shibboleth” to pass safely.

The Western Ephraimians did not have the “sh” sound in their language and thus their otherness was revealed. “The men of Jephthah caught forty-two thousand men and put them to death that day” (Judges 12:2-6); an almost disposable verse illustrating the carnage of war.

I stop at this verse and its flippant description of military slaughter. The Bible does that to me sometimes.

I put the Bible down and turned on the news and I’m fully aware that our context calls for its own eisegesis. Europe is plunged into a new war. Not that we ever shock our commitment to militarism.

This war is near and reshapes this discussion on borders and otherness. I am aware of the privilege of having a safe place for reflection, and how crude theoretical discussions sound as thousands more in Europe are displaced, losing their homes and their lives.

We are shaken by the horror of weapons aimed at those trying to find safe passage. These scenes tell us the human cost of national borders. They are places where the “banality of evil” manifests itself, as described by Hannah Arendt.

Attempts to redesign and strengthen the shibboleths are carried out with the destruction not only of human lives, but of the very things that define our humanity.

And, thank God, we also see those willing to travel across borders of difference and to welcome and to heal and to nurture and to house.

Beyond the theater of war, the rise of popularism and the disruptive effects of globalization have left the European landscape torn apart by physical and cultural borders.

Indian commentator Mishra has described our society as “the age of wrath,” troubled by geopolitical uncertainty, where politics is driven by a relentless focus on “logic” and “liberal rationalism” at the expense of responsiveness. emotional.

The Shibboleths that separate us from them are international, intranational and local. They are expressed in the polarization of political discourse, the echo chambers of social networks and the dehumanization of all those who cross or blur borders: from migrants to queers.

What is the response in the form of Jesus? How to express the kenarchy of God, the death rattle of love, in such a landscape?

I live in a city where the spoils of the Empire are integrated into its architecture, within a culture plagued by colonialism. My corner of London is a multicultural landing bay for the world, shaped by waves of migration. Newham has the lowest percentage of white British residents of any London borough.

The proportion of white Britons in the population has fallen from 33.8% in 2001 to around 15% today, the biggest change of any local authority in England over this period. “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 lowest rate in the UK of “No Religious Affiliation”.

Many Christian churches are independent, a significant number are branches of international churches, especially African ones. I am ethnically white and culturally a “Cockney”, from a working-class Eastern community, the fourth of six generations of my family to live on the same four streets.

I worship in the same church where my grandmother found salvation as a child in an East End slum. I am one of the ministers of the same church.

My sense of vocation expressed itself through a call to stay and be a faithful Christian presence in a rapidly changing landscape; to be a familiar person to my neighbours, to be open and hopeful.

Our main missionary practice has been community organizing and faithful gathering to worship in the multi-everything community we love.

And so my life and my faith would be represented at the Tate installation as this person jumping the shibboleth, crossing and re-crossing, seeing what happens to me and what happens to others in the liminal spaces.

In my neighborhood, every day is an opportunity to encounter the Other in a transformative way. It’s been a way of life and I believe “staying put” has been an incredible spiritual journey.

So how do missionary spirits navigate this landscape of shibboleths?

To me, the Gospel consists in finding Christ in moments of otherness; encounters with the unknown. I find myself drawn to the fuzzy edges of church life and seek out missionary practices that bridge divisions.

In my church at Bonny Downs we found many ways of working for the common good with our neighbors: support a community center and a garden; organize sports activities and work together in welcoming young people.

Being here for nearly three decades has given us time to create structures around these efforts. We partnered with others to create a local community association.

As followers of Jesus, we meet for worship in the community garden in the summer and in the community center during the colder months.

We have taken up the challenge of moving towards a worship that is more “tables than steps”. We are looking for multi-voice gatherings to reflect our flatter leadership model. The allowance of our single minister is divided between four heads of mission, of which I am one.

We are all bi-professional, with roles in local community projects. Our future vision is to rebuild our church site as an “urban abbey” where we can intentionally live and invite people transitioning from homelessness to join us.

We find hospitality important, both giving it and receiving it. Being a neighbor can be expressed by having a bench in your front garden rather than the back – here’s mine. It is a place to make yourself known and get to know your neighbors.

My church wants to be a place of welcome for new immigrants in a hostile environment. The bread and butter of urban ministry is to provide alternate spaces for neighbors and justice projects that bring people together.

We adopt asset-based methods to leverage donations from those in limbo in our asylum processes. This had led to a gardening social enterprise and English conversation groups around meal preparation.

None of this is particularly unique to the urban mission. It is nonetheless beautiful, messy, and makes my community the best place in the world to be a disciple.

Short, we found tables, benches, gardens and justice-seeking adventures dismantle shibbolethsand help us find our primary identity as travelers through a changing and unraveling culture, held securely within the expansive and cosmic kenarchy of God.

Dr. Sally Mann is a Baptist pastor, lecturer in sociology at the University of Greenwich and teaches in masters programs at Nazarene Theological College. She and her husband Dave are founding trustees of Red Letter Christians UK, aiming to give voice to local churches working for Jesus and justice.

Vista is an online journal offering research-based information on mission in Europe. Founded in 2010, each thematic edition covers a variety of perspectives on mission-critical issues. Download the latest edition or read individual articles here. This article first appeared in the April 2022 edition of Vista Journal.

Barry F. Howard