The main storyline of “Shibboleth” focuses on a group of Chinese evangelicals who flee religious persecution in their country and arrive in America the week of Thanksgiving seeking asylum.
The Chinese government insists that President Bartlet and his staff put the stowaways on the next boat back to their homeland.
Some members of the Immigration and Naturalization Service also warn Bartlet that it is not uncommon for immigrants to “feign faith” in order to earn the protection of the U.S. government.
Bartlett, a devout Catholic, invites one of the refugees to the Oval Office for an interview intended to test their sincerity.
When his staff asks what his criteria will be, Bartlet references Judges 12:6 – “Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.”
The word was used to distinguish true Israelites from imposters during a battle with the Ephraimites. Those who failed the test were killed in the Jordan River.
Bartlet’s quiz for the man, Jhin Wei, begins with an inquiry about how he became a Christian. He tells the president that he began attending a house church with his wife and was eventually baptized.
Next, Bartlet asks how Jhin Wei practices his faith. His response is touching in its simplicity: “We share Bibles. We don’t have enough. We sing hymns. We hear sermons. We recite the Lord ’s Prayer. We are charitable.”
Bartlet then wants to know more about the head of the church. Jhin Wei’s voice breaks as he tells about an 84-year-old pastor who has been beaten and imprisoned many times and then ends with an affirmation that the head of the church is Jesus Christ.
The final straw for Jhin Wei is when Bartlet asks him to name one or two of the disciples. After listing them all, he respectfully informs Bartlet that Christianity cannot be demonstrated through a recitation of facts.
“You are seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world. ‘For we hold that man is justified by faith alone,’ is what Saint Paul said. ‘Justified by faith alone.’ Faith is the true shibboleth,” Jhin Wei concludes, unaware that he has just said the magic word on which Bartlet’s decision hinges.
I have always loved this exchange because it sums up so many points in two minutes that take some preachers an hour and some Biblical scholars 200 pages to get across.
This year, the plight of Jhin Wei and the fictional Chinese church also made me think about the many real Christians like them who endure persecution every day.
A gentleman from the church we recently began attending returned to his native Laos earlier this month to share the Gospel with his family. After watching “Shibboleth,” I did some research so I would have a better understanding of the hostility of the environment that he has entered.
I learned that officials in Laos prevented 180 starving Christians from receiving food aid this summer as a way to make them renounce their faith.
I learned that local authorities recently threatened to destroy the homes of approximately 50 Christians after they refused to participate in occult rituals. These families were instructed to sign documents stating that they have “resubmitted themselves to the spirits” and have renounced Christ.
I learned that a 24-year-old pastor was found covered in blood in the jungle in September by his church members, who strongly suspect foul play.
I learned that four Christians in Laos spent six weeks in jail this year for holding a Bible study.
Of all the heart wrenching reports I read, the one that got to me the most was about a longtime Christian who was evicted from his village, arrested and taken to prison after leading 300 people to Christ in May.
You read that right — one man, one month, 300 souls saved.
I expect that a lot of people gave thanks for freedom of religion around the dinner table on Thursday.
However, I wonder how much we really understand freedom or religion (or to be precise, Shibboleth) until we are forced to choose between the two. I pray that in this country, we never will.