Shibboleths and Gatekeepers

Ireland’s The Journal reports today that Wallace Thompson, the secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society – a group representing Christian evangelicalism in Northern Ireland – encourages Protestants not to use the phrase “RIP” (Rest In Peace).

The reason, Thompson said to the BBC, is because technically “in his eyes, ‘RIP’ is a prayer and [being Protestant and not Catholic] he didn’t encourage prayers for the dead.”

Full disclosure: I am a Protestant, and I am certain that at some point in my life I have written or used the phrase “RIP.”  I will also share that, should the occasion arise, I will have no problem using it in the future.  If that upsets the memory of Martin Luther, I’ll cope.  He’s not the one I’m trying to impress.

But the “RIP” issue has in it echoes of other, similar struggles I’ve witnessed throughout the church.  When I was a child, I was raised to say “God bless you” after someone sneezed.  Saying anything less – even “bless you” without the “God” – would earn you a church full of arched eyebrows.  Then, a few years back, a pastor at a church I attended actually preached a sermon on the origins of “God bless you,” pointing out that it originated from a medieval belief that the soul left the body when you sneezed.  By saying “God bless you,” he claimed, we were essentially ratifying that ancient medieval superstition – which was certainly not right and not at all godly.

On and on it goes.  The church focuses on a whole host of minor issues, attempting to parse out shades of meaning and righteousness from each.  Is it okay to eat in church? (Yes, at one church I attended.  Absolutely not and completely sinful, at another.)  What about Halloween?  Some Christians I know merrily dress up, say “Halloween” freely, and go trick-or-treating without shame.  Other believers abolish all mention of the word and refuse to celebrate anything but “fall festivals” or “harvest holidays” (perhaps without realizing that those events, too, share common elements with ancient pagan practices!)  We fret over tattoos and piercings and Bible translations.  We worry about phrases and parts of speech and accidentally doing something that resembles an old superstition.

Why?  Why do we focus so much on these things?

Judges 12 provides a clue.  Jephthah, an Israelite commander – whose story is fascinating enough on its own – has gained victory over the Ammonites.   Soon Ephraimite forces arrive to take up arms against Jephthah, and after he thumps them soundly he takes commands of the fords of the Jordan.  From that time on, whenever an Ephraimite attemped to cross the ford, the following occurred:

…the men of Gilead [would ask] him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:5-6).

The inability to pronounce the word marked the Ephraimites’ identity.  And so “shibboleth,” by one definition, has come to mean “a custom or usage distinguishing one group from others” (source).

We fret over RIP and “God bless you” and Halloween or not-Halloween and tattoos and fellowship halls because we, too, depend on the shibboleth.  We are always after some sort of identifying mark that will help us find “our” people and solidify our identity within the larger group.  Saying “God bless you” as a child was a signifier to a large group of people that I was one of them, a believer in Christ, and that the identity mattered to me.  Celebrating a “fall festival” instead of Halloween proper is a way for certain groups of believers to telegraph their identity to others and say something meaningful about the way they practice their faith.

Insofar as it goes, that’s all fine.  There are a lot of variations within the Christian experience, and falling on one side or another of a particular issue is well within the rights of any believer.  The problem comes, though, when we become gatekeepers over those issues: when we use Halloween or God bless you or RIP not as an avenue to find others who are like us, but to keep out those aren’t.

Because Romans 10:13 offers us a new perspective on the shibboleth.  Salvation, Paul writes, is not for a particular group of people.  Crossing the ford is not a privilege permitted only to a select few.  Rather, Paul says,

As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The only word necessary to cross the great ford that separates us from God is the name of Christ, and anyone can say it.  All can say it.  And in the end, that shibboleth – the name of the Lord Jesus Christ with whom we identify and to whom we commit ourselves – is the one that saves us.  Not all the smaller, less-significant signifiers like whether or not you say “RIP,” or how you say or don’t say “God bless you,” or whether or not you celebrate Halloween by its proper name.

In our desire to work out our own Christian identities and live out our faith in ways that are meaningful, let us not lose sight of the fact that we are not the gatekeepers.  God is.  And only one word is required.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s