I introduced the concept of Shalom yesterday as I was concluding my last post on the missional order. I should take this opportunity to explain that my many musings on this subject over the past week-plus, although they are tagged “missional order”, do not represent the formal outcome of or substance of discussions in our gathering at Seabeck. Many of these themes emerged at one or more points in the discussion, but the thoughts I present are my own ruminations arising in these post-Seabeck weeks. Of course, many of my thoughts go back to much older ruminations, and I’m busy wrapping them all up in this series. A series, mind you, which I never intended to be a series. Nonetheless, I’ve summarized it as such in a sidebar below. Back to Shalom, a concept which also makes an appearance in Luke 10, where a blessing of peace is extended to those from whom the 70 sought hospitality, and the notion of “a people of peace” arises in the reception of the greeting of peace.
First we must consider what is behind this word shalom. (I will refer to ISBE III:732-3 and DJG:604-5 as well as Walter Brueggemann’s Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, though I won’t cite them each time.)
Its basic meaning is “well-being,” but theologically it is one of the most significant terms in Scripture, having a wide semantic range that can stress nuances of its basic meaning, which includes totality or completeness. Nuances include fulfillment, maturity, soundness, wholeness, community, harmony, tranquility, security, friendship, agreement, and prosperity. We’re not talking about times between wars, nor about happy thoughts of contentment. Shalom is something far deeper, and carries an eschatalogical significance. For the Old Testament prophets, peace was a central concept associated with the messianic hope — Isaiah 9:6 where term “Prince of Peace” is used for the Messiah is but one example of many.
The proclamation of shalom is therefore connected with Messianic realization, with the Kingdom of God. For first century Jews who by our estimation misunderstood the kind of Kingdom that Jesus was announcing and establishing, this connects with political import in the destruction of Israel’s enemies. Jesus greeted his disciples for the first time as the Risen Christ in John 20 with the words, “Peace be with you” — and it is interesting to note that when he repeated these words in that same meeting, he followed them with the words, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” In this joyous meeting and celebration of victory over death, we begin to understand more of the kind of Kingdom that Jesus is establishing. We do have peace, shalom, but not yet in a complete or unhindered fashion.
Walter Brueggemann introduces shalom by observing that in the Bible, “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.” He suggests that “the most staggering expression of the vision is that all persons are children of a single family, members of a single tribe, heirs of a single hope, and bearers of a single destiny, namely, the care and management of all of God’s creation.” He writes,
that persistent vision of joy, well-being, harmony, and prosperity is not captured in any single word or idea in the Bible, and a cluster of words is required to express its many dimensions and subtle nuances: love, loyalty, truth, grace, salvation, justice, blessing, righteousness. But the term that in recent discussions has been used to summarize that controlling vision is shalom. Both in current discussion and in the Bible itself, it bears tremendous freight—the freight of a dream of God that resists all our tendencies to division, hostility, fear, drivenness, and misery.
Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective.
He cites the “covenant of shalom which was spoken of by Ezekiel, and concludes, “The origin and the destiny of God’s people is to be on the road of shalom, which is to live out of joyous memories and toward greater anticipations.”
Now, we’ve changed the word and the imagery a bit, but doesn’t this sound like all the same things I’ve said in the last two posts? Here we’re being reminded of who we are and what we’ve been promised. Let’s connect them even further. Jeremiah, prophesying to an exiled people, talks about shalom, saying in 6:13-14 that it is a compromise to the vision to offer a substitute for shalom, calling it what it is not; this is merely a form of injustice. Shalom here is to be extended to “the other”, the outsider. Brueggemann explains,
Shalom is an enduring vision. It is promised persistently and hoped for always. But there are those occasions when it is an especially vital hope. One such time was during Israel’s exile. Among the eloquent spokesmen for the vision in that period was Jeremiah. And among the most extraordinary texts is this letter he wrote to the exiles urging the validity of the vision even among displaced persons:
“I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for shalom and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope…. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes.”—Jeremiah 29:10-14
On the face of it, the text is simply a promise that the exile will eventually end. But the structure moves from promise (verse 10) to land (place, verse 14). So again Israel is set on that joyous, tortuous path from promise to land, from wandering to security, from chaos to shalom. Thus, the experience of exile—like every experience—gets read as a part of the pilgrimage of this incredible vision of God with the people of Israel.
Jeremiah, Brueggemann points out, uses shalom even in the midst of exile, a surprising and powerful promise thrust into a place of despair and cynicism. History is bounded by God’s will for shalom and his accomplishment of shalom. IN Jeremiah’s telling, God still promises when everyone else has given up. His message is that God is there.
The vision of shalom is most eloquently expressed in times very much like our own, when resources for faith to endure are hardly available. Thus, for example, in Isaiah 65:21, shalom motifs come together; in 65:25, reconciled creation; in 65:24, assured dialogue. It is natural that the question of shalom should vex the church precisely when life seems so much a monologue.
The other use of shalom in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is in 29:7:
But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.
Imagine that! A letter written to displaced persons in hated Babylon, where they have gone against their will and watched their life and culture collapse. And they are still there, yearning to go home, despising their captors and resenting their God—if, indeed, God is still their God. And the speaker for the vision dares to say, “Your shalom will be found in Babylon’s shalom.”
The Babylonians certainly represented “the other” to exiled Israel, and they were told to seek shalom in the shalom of these “others.” It must have been almost too much — yet there’s that element of promise again, of assurance that all is not lost. Remember who you are, and what you’ve been promised. Get back on the road to shalom. Extend shalom to your captors… be agents of shalom.
The only shalom promised is one in the midst of historical reality, which comes close to saying “incarnation.” The only God we know entered history, appeared as a person. Shalom of a biblical kind is always somewhat scandalous—never simply a liturgical experience or a mythical statement, but one facing our deepest divisions and countering with a vision.
Shalom, then, is not so much “a peaceful, easy feeling.” Establishing peace is a disruptive process. Hard to accept, the language of shalom is laced with political overtones and a call to extend blessing to those who wrong you. It is an announcement of the end of the age, filled with messianic metaphor and announcement of the Kingdom of God. As Alan Roxburgh said in discussing Luke 10, “No wonder some people closed the door.” As people on peregrinatio carrying and seeking shalom, we offer this peace, this radical disruptive peace, seeking to find other people of peace. Although dispersed and in exile, it is these with whom we share familial identity, and we are members of commuitas in the same purpose of extending shalom and being people of shalom. To greet another at the door with the words, “Peace be to this house” is not nearly as flippant a greeting as, “Hi, how-are-ya?” It is, however, a vision of something to be lived into.