In 2007 Columbian artist Doris Salcedo created a temporary installation at the Tate Modern art museum in London. Her crew formed a long, dramatic crack in the concrete floor of the gallery. It started as a thin break at one end of the room that expanded and split like the widening tributaries of a river. During the months it was viewed by the public and in spite of the posted warnings about the nature of the exhibit, some visitors reported injuries due to tripping over the uneven floor where the gash went as deep as two feet. Salcedo named her interactive artwork Shibboleth, a word which calls up the uncomfortable idea of dividing, creating a clear us vs. them.
To find the genesis of the word shibboleth, we have to look to the Book of Judges in the first half of the Bible. Here we see a rough man named Jephthah. Born from a prostitute and booted out of his father’s home by his half-brothers, he had made a name for himself among renegades and scoundrels who were searching for a leader just as much as they were itching for a fight. When the Ammonites came to start a war, the very people who had thrown Jephthah out of town begged him to come back home and be their leader. They needed a warrior and this coarse, haggling outcast was just the fella to do the job.
Judges 11 gives us a few details about the battle and Jephthah’s foolish vow which resulted in the disgraceful and unnecessary death of his only child. Then we see Jephthah’s predicament with the tribe of Ephraim. (Historical Context: Many generations before Jephthah came on the scene, the leaders of Israel had divided the land between the 12 sons of Jacob. Joseph, Jacob’s most successful and powerful son, wanted his blessing to go to his own sons—Manasseh and Ephraim—creating two half-tribes.) Fast forward to Jephthah, the illegitimate son from Gilead and the tribe of Manasseh, now being hounded by his kinfolk, the Ephraimites, for excluding them from the battle against the Ammonites. The men from the tribe of Ephraim told Jephthah, “How dare you go fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you! We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”
Jephthah wouldn’t stand by in the face of this egregious threat. His troops were told to station themselves on the shores of the Jordan River and deny any Ephraimite to cross alive. They’re told to quiz these relative relatives. When someone approached them, they would ask if they were from Ephraim. Then they were supposed to ask them to say, “Shibboleth.” They knew the Ephraimites had a particular pronunciation of this innocuous Hebrew word which meant “an ear of corn.” If they said, “Sibboleth” Jephthah’s men would murder them on the spot. Shibboleth became a password, a means to separate two people groups who should have been allies.
Centuries later, the word shibboleth is a stand-in for a custom or phrase which is designed to divide and separate. Author and professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. used the term in a recent article where he answered his own question about the fragile state of our democracy when faced with widespread systematic racism. He said, “The answer to that question will depend, in part, on white America’s willingness to leave the shibboleths of American racism behind…” A willingness to acknowledge that some know (and can say) the correct password to gain passage across the Jordan into privilege and safety and others don’t, and then to be bothered enough by this realization to act.
The gallery floor of the Tate still bears the scar of its past art exhibit, though the crack has been filled in. The symbolism of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth begged people to look down and see the disfigured gap, if for no other reason than to avoid tripping over it or falling into it. Salcedo explained in an interview, “It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”
So now that we see the crack, how we help others—or in some cases, stop preventing others—to cross the divide reveals our deepest character. Not because I have anything especially extraordinary to offer and in spite of being utterly flawed and downright clumsy, but if I can be one person standing on the edge of this deep, horrific gash in the ground, staring at tangled rebar and bits of bone and rock revealed by the crevice, waiting to offer a hand to those on the other side, then at least I am one.