Into the Shibboleth
By Brian Langley
“We should all see the world from the perspective of the victim, to know what it is like to see the world from down there.” Doris Salcedo
Our world is replete with a power that drives us to create divisions with others — a destructive line that divides you and me. That power is presented in the Bible as a core truth of our sinful human condition. We easily justify the divisions between us, reasoning them to be not only expedient but also necessary in the presence of our real, or sometimes contrived, enemies.
As a result, our lives and the spaces where we move become layered with multiple “who belongs and who doesn’t” lists — both explicit and ambiguous. We are comforted by the thought that we will be protected from each other once the dividing lines are marked between you and me. However, to our surprise we also find that a wide and profound chasm opens between us — a chasm of difference and of unequal power relationships, which history reminds us easily leads to exclusion, inflicting and prolonging human suffering. These chasms are where many people are pushed, forced to spend their entire lives, and in the depths of which many lives end.
The Bible contains an early and poignant example of that. A Semitic tribe called the Gileadites used a linguistic test to root out their enemies, the Ephraimites, from among them (Judg. 12). Their “Shibboleth test” consisted of a checkpoint at a river crossing, at which all travelers were asked the question, “Can you say ‘Shibboleth’?” The Ephraimites, unable to correctly pronounce the “sh” sound, were immediately killed.
Recently, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo engaged those concepts in a work of art displayed at the Tate Modern museum in London. Titled “Shibboleth,” her piece consisted of a crack more than 500 feet long in the museum floor. It was imposing and nearly impossible to avoid for those who entered the museum. She offers a readily accessible interpretation of the crack: “It is the experience of the immigrant, the outsider, the very life of the people that we don’t want to acknowledge.”1 The crack, as negative space, points to the depths of those who suffer in the chasms of division. Theirs is the “experience of those who are passed over, trampled on, or intentionally avoided.”
This piece points to the truth that we live in a world divided and fractured and that the creation and maintenance of the divisions between us cause suffering. The walls of the crack are sustained by chain link and barbed wire to remind us how power and force are employed to exclude. Her work is an affirmation that in the many places where we live and interact with each other the racial, theological, gender, linguistic and cultural Shibboleths that we create are etched into the very fabric of our societies like open wounds — only these wounds are not actually carved into concrete, but into human lives and flesh.
One day I was walking with a group of friends through the streets of Lima, when a young man came rushing up to me, agitated and frustrated. I immediately perceived that what he wanted most was someone who would listen. His arms, darkened from dirt, countless cheap tattoos and the relentless sun exposure that the poor suffer under daily, began to flail as he recounted the previous night’s events in the police station.
“You don’t understand how they beat me,” became a common phrase as his story and emotions wound tighter.
“Of course I don’t” was my best offering.
Replaying those mental tapes for me seemed to be healing him, enabling him to know that there was someone out there who would listen to deep pain with respect and attentiveness. So both of us, he at first and then I, found ourselves sharing the sense of fury at the injustice of what had taken place: A young man beaten by the police had harmed no one, had broken no law.
Showing me a large bruise on his upper arm, stretched out to his side as it was, he then lifted his other arm horizontal and exclaimed, “I was suffering at the hands of the police just like Jesus suffered, unjustly and without cause.”
Something like an electrical shock raced through my body, carrying the high voltage of criticism and judgment, for this young man was no stranger to me. I knew that he had been in and out of prison for crimes he did, in fact, commit, that he chose to steal on a daily basis instead of working honorably, that his drug addiction left him unable and, most days, unwilling to live responsibly. What a brazen comparison to identify his sufferings with those of Jesus Christ, who Christians affirm to have lived a truly innocent and blameless life!
I became caught up in straightening out his view of himself and God as my most important Christian duty. Having become engrossed in my new task as God’s self-appointed doctrinal deputy, my respect for his sufferings and attentiveness to the reality he was living faded — in fact, we both noticed this crack growing between us. It was a crack that I created, first marked by my commitment to the truth, but now a growing chasm that divided us because I lost sight of love. We parted ways, and he has never approached me again. He moved on still in pain, surely feeling terribly misunderstood, and now judged. Could things have gone differently? Can the truth be spoken and lived in our relationships without opening up chasms of judgment and suffering?
We believe that God had people just like these friends of ours in mind when we read the words of Jesus, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of heaven ahead of you” (Matt. 21:32). How could Jesus say that to be “the truth”? How can we say that? We might say now, as was said then, that this is not only an audacious but also a scandalous teaching. To say that people who are socially stigmatized, known to commit evil deeds, possibly living in sin or lacking a correct understanding of the meaning of salvation, might be entering into eternal life, much less ahead of others, falls on the ears of the upright, the successful and the good-doers as unthinkable.
Yet, in the person of Jesus Christ we find a Life devoted to those who live in the Shibboleth. We encounter a Person who never fails to speak the truth — but also who never fails to love. We cannot deny, nor have any of us been able to eradicate, the power present in this world that drives us to create divisions or the shocking presence of those in the chasms of suffering. However, the amazing truth the church proclaims is that God is also releasing a power that heals such divisions, marked by a descent into the Shibboleth chasms, and in solidarity proclaiming the compassionate truth to those who suffer there. In a world as fractured as ours with deep and wide chasms of all kinds, this may be the Christian community’s most compelling witness as well as this generation’s “narrow road” (Matt. 7:14). We are invited to follow Jesus into the Shibboleth.
1 Interview with Doris Salcedo, The Unilever Series, Tate Modern Turbine Hall.