When I lived in Northern Ireland, I became acquainted very quickly with the old divisions they have between Protestant and Catholic. You can’t usually tell by looking at someone which “side” they were on, so people asked each other a series of questions. If your name didn’t give it away, they would ask what school you went to, where you live or grew up, or where you worked. And if none of those worked, you may be asked to pronounced the letter “h” (“aich” = Protestant, “haich” = Catholic, as they were taught in their respective school systems). Northern Ireland was, and to a great extent still is, a very divided society. People were born in separate hospitals, lived separate neighborhoods, educated in different schools, worked in separate places, and were buried in separate cemeteries. The “other” has been viewed as a threat for so long, it’s become second nature to be suspicious of new people, so they habitually try and find out what “side” you are on.
Are we starting to do this now in the US? Have you thrown out certain phrases to see how people react? Like, “the other day, I was listening to NPR,” or “my buddies and I went hunting last weekend,” to see how people react to them? Because if you like NPR, you must be a liberal, or if you like hunting, you must be conservative. Right?
Are you on my side? Can I trust you?
This testing of strangers goes back a very long way, much longer than Northern Ireland. In Judges 12, the Gileadites were trying to discern who were the Ephraimites, and they did it by asking them to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” If they could only pronounce it “sibboleth,” the Gileadites knew they were Ephraimites, and killed them.
The divisions between Gilead and Ephraim, and between Protestant and Catholic, became lethal. We are honestly not far off from that in the United States, I don’t think. So what if we started looking at each other differently? What if, rather than looking at people’s clothing, their license plate, their accent, what news they listen to, or any other category, what if, instead of trying to find out which side they’re on, what if we looked instead for the image of God within them?
We put out on our church sign a while back: “You are beautiful. And your enemy is also beautiful.” Look for the beauty, friends. Look not for reasons to dismiss or huddle together, but look for the presence of God in each other.
Seek, and you will find. So I hear.
Grace and peace,