Definitions can be limiting. A quick survey of the word “shibboleth” yields:
“a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.” (Google)
“a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.” (Wikipedia)
“Shibboleth is among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.” (Shibboleth.net)
“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” (Judges 12:6)
Now let’s talk turkey…
As this Thanksgiving-themed clip from The West Wing (s02e08) shows, a shibboleth can have a richer meaning than cursory definitions would indicate:
A shibboleth can be a core belief or principle which is meaningful to some people but not to others — one worth defending and making sacrifices for. When quizzed by the President on the names of the Apostles, a Chinese refugee tells him that “Faith is the true shibboleth.”
Those refugees risk dying in a cramped, poorly-ventilated container ship, hoping to escape from Mainland China to the (relative) freedom of America. They’re persecuted Christians seeking asylum. In America they’ll probably create their own small community, since mainstream American culture is fairly white and secular. They may face hatred and discrimination — and have to stare down everything from White Aryans to condescending atheists — but they won’t be imprisoned and tortured just for being Christians. That’s what’s good about America.
In both Christian and Masonic texts (as well as Firesign Theatre songs), the word “shibboleth” often occurs in close proximity to the word “sword.” A sword is not only a type of blade used in modern fencing and ancient combat. The metaphorical sword of which Blake wrote (and British Anglicans sing) is a palpable willingness to stick up for a principle:
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
(Are you humming along?) In this context, a shibboleth is a living, relevant principle of faith, and a sword is not a weapon of destruction, but represents dedication to the spreading of a principle, and the overcoming of obstacles to building an idealized world — one built on compassion, not naked power or self-interest.
Am I being long-winded, obtuse, pedantic? I apologize. It’s really because I’m trying to avoid unpleasant tasks… I’m a city boy, not a gardener; but even I know that before you sculpt a zen garden, you may have to pull up some weeds. And once when I was living away from home, I had a landlady who took a pair of gardening shears to an ugly green tomato hornworm that was fiendishly attacking her modest suburban yield of plump, red fruit (or vegetable).
It seems unavoidable, then, that to stick up for a principle sometimes means dispelling wrong views and correcting the record where it has been fudged. This might seem easy in the abstract, but can be rather difficult in the concrete (no Mafia jokes please!). I suppose I have some rather large (cement) shoes to fill.
Real as hell…
In recent posts I’ve talked about the problem of hate on the Net and how it affects minority spiritual groups. I’ve quoted cyber civil rights advocates and other scholars who analyze the problem of hate propaganda in a very cerebral way, which is helpful for understanding how it operates. I too am trying to connect the dots and shed some mental light. But it’s always possible that the analysis will fall short of illuminating the reality of the harm done to real people.
Just the other day I was watching Chris Matthews on MSNBC. He’s a bit of a populist, but a good communicator. He described the issues raised by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson as “real as hell.” That’s the way I feel about the problem of hate on the Net which targets Eastern spiritual teachers and their students. It’s real as hell for those people subjected to hatred and harassment. This passage from Danielle Citron’s “Cyber Civil Rights” bears repeating:
Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.
We live in times when every hare-brained idea has a plethora of hare-brained folk defending it, and false information is spread by those who gain some petty advantage from doing so. Yet, the stakes are not petty. We seem poised on the brink of creating a more peaceful, compassionate, and enlightened world; but a side effect of this would be a change in the balance of power. In such a world, we would come to value peacemakers more than warmongers, and value those who can enlighten us more than those who merely entertain or titillate us. We would find that our appetite for lies has been more than sated, while our hunger for truth springs forth as a noble instinct long starved.
Those who are inured to mere cleverness, sharklike ambition, social control, and world domination will be losers in such a world. While great intellects will still abound in science, what we will come to treasure most is the spiritual heart, whose ability to satisfy us has long been underestimated.
What we often see in history is that wherever a point of light springs up, there’s an effort to extinguish it, usually by foul means. The Crucifixion was not just an event, but a metaphor for what the crooked does to the straight and true. It is repeated a thousand times a day all around the world. This was well-known to admirers of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and was well-known to labor Catholics of the mid-twentieth century. It is epitomized in this scene from Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On The Waterfront:
Actor Karl Malden plays activist priest Father Barry in On The Waterfront
The famous “This is my church” scene shows Father Barry (based on real life waterfront Catholic priest Father John M. Corridan) taking a stand against corruption in the longshoreman’s union. With dramatic oratory, he drives home the point that Christ is not just a spiritual figure, but also an ethical figure, and ethics forms a connecting link between the high principles one hears in church sermons and the tribulations of daily life. Nor is this a uniquely Christian view; all the world’s great religions connect the ethical with the spiritual. For example, in Entering The Tao, Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni writes:
Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.
This seems like a good place to stop for now. If it’s not yet clear where I’m going, let me add that one of the issues I plan to tackle is the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. Look for a post called “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics” coming soon!
In the meantime, I offer you this esoteric blessing via the Firesign Theatre: May your cornflakes rise.