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Two tribes were at war. When defeat was imminent for one side, members of the losing tribe tried to pass themselves off as members of the winning tribe. A plan was evolved where everyone was forced to cross a bridge one at a time and say the word shibboleth, a word which always came out sibboleth in the accent of the despised tribe. If they said sibboleth, they died. (Read it in Judges 12.)

Today a shibboleth is any word or custom used to distinguish a particular group, usually with an emphasis on the superiority of one group over another.

Shibboleths are changed over time, as the 'enemy' learns to pronounce them. Racist Americans used to refer to Blacks as 'niggers' until there was a public outcry against this term. Some racists learned to call Blacks 'coloured' but it didn't stop them from being racists. So the new name was re-defined as an insult. Soon 'Negroes' (Spanish for 'blacks') became unsuitable too. Now only people who refer to them as Blacks are regarded as friends. (Update: The latest politically correct term is African Americans.)

A similar evolution has taken place amongst Christian fundamentalists. The 'born again' shibboleth was made popular by Billy Graham. Forty years ago people simply asked if you were 'saved'.

Go back a few more years and you find a group of fundamentalists for whom the secret password was to say that you were 'washed in the blood'. Some groups have clung to past shibboleths with or without the new ones added to the list, while others have forgotten the old ones over the years.

More recent than 'born again' is 'spirit filled'. If you're born again but not spirit filled, you fall into an inferior class of born-againers. Born-againers ask Jesus into their hearts, whereas spirit-filled born-againers ask Jesus and his Spirit into their hearts.

It is important never to question the exact meaning of a shibboleth, for it labels you as an outsider. The shibboleth means little in itself; what really matters is just whether you are willing to use it (often insincerely) in order to be identified as part of the in-group.

Insincerity is a big part of membership, and because of that, we see it as the best possible reason for not playing the shibboleth game.

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