Dimensions of Shalom
The scope of this communal vision is an important element in understanding its power. In its most inclusive dimension it is a vision encompassing all reality, expressed in the mystery and majesty of creation image:
The Earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:2a)
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. . .
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain.
(Isaiah 11:6-7, 9a)
[from chaos to shalom]
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. . . and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. (Mark 4:37-39)
The Greek word translated peace here means quiet rather than shalom, but the passage still applies. The storm at sea represents all the same ominous, chaotic forces presented in Genesis 1:2. And the word of Jesus in Mark serves the same purpose as the hovering spirit of God in Genesis 1:2, namely, to bring fundamental disorder under God’s rule – into harmony – so that light, life, and joy become possible. Creation in Genesis and by Jesus, (see Colossians 1:17), is the establishment of shalom in a universe that apart from God’s rule is disordered, unproductive, and unfulfilling.
In the same symbolic word, the messianic vision of Isaiah, (11:6-9), is of a world in which creation is reconciled and harmony appears between children and snakes, among all kinds of natural enemies. Shalom is creation time, when all God’s creation eases up on hostility and destruction and finds another way of relating. No wonder creation culminates in the peace and joy of the Sabbath, (Genesis 2:1-4a), when all lie down and none make them afraid. No wonder our most familiar Sabbath blessing ends: The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace (shalom), (Numbers 6:26), for the benediction is the affirmation of Sabbath, the conclusion of creation, when harmony has been brought to all the warring elements in our existence.
A second dimension of shalom is the historic political community. Absence of shalom and lack of harmony are expressed in social disorder as evidenced in economic inequality, judicial perversion, and political oppression and exclusivism. Of course, the prophets speak boldly against such disruption of community, which is the absence of shalom:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!. . .
They covet fields, and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house.
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands,
“Bring something to drink!”
These offenses are viewed by the prophets not simply as ethical violations but as the disruption of God’s intention for shalom, the perversion of the community God wills for people in history. Their call is continually a call for righteousness and justice:
Seek good and not evil, that you may live. . .
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
The doing of righteousness and justice results in the building of viable community, that is, shalom, in which the oppressed and disenfranchised have dignity and power.
Depart from evil, and do good;
Seek peace (shalom), and pursue it.
Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace (shalom),
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
The consequence of justice and righteousness is shalom, an enduring Sabbath of joy and well-being. But the alternative is injustice and oppression, which lead inevitably to turmoil and anxiety, with no chance of well-being. (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21)
Jesus’s ministry to the excluded, (see Luke 4:16-21), was the same, the establishment of community between those who were excluded and those who had excluded them. His acts of healing the sick, forgiving the guilty, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry are all actions of reestablishing God’s will for shalom in a world gone chaotic by callous self-seeking.
The cosmic and historical-political aspects of shalom point to a third dimension, which the Bible usually assumes but does not discuss. It is the shalom sense of well-being experienced by the person who lives a caring, sharing, joyous life in community. By way of contrast, covetousness is presented as one aspect of the self-seeking life that is never satiated but always pursues selfish security only to discover that it leads to destruction:
Because of the iniquity of his covetousness
I was angry, I smote him,
I hid my face and was angry. . .
Shalom, shalom, to the far and to the near,
says the Lord;
and I will heal him.
But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot rest,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no shalom, says my God, for the wicked.
(Isaiah 57:17, 19-21; author’s translation; compare Joshua 7)
And in Jesus’s teaching, covetousness leads to a tormenting anxiety:
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” . . . And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” . . . He said to his disciples, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Luke 12:13, 15, 22; compare Acts 5:1-14)
Thus, in creation, the forces of chaos are opposed by God’s powerful will for orderly fruitfulness. In historic community, the forces of injustices and exploitation are opposed by God’s will for responsible, equitable justice, which yields security. In personal existence, driven anxious self-seeking is opposed by God’s will for generous caring. The biblical vision of shalom functions always as a firm rejection of values and lifestyles that seek security and well-being in manipulative ways at the expense of another part of creation, another part of the community, or a brother or sister. The vision of the biblical way affirms that communal well-being comes by living God’s dream, not by idolatrous self-aggrandizement. The alternative is to so distort creation as never to know what it means to celebrate the Sabbath. Either we strive to secure our own existence or we celebrate the joy and rest of Sabbath, knowing that God has already secured it for us. Shalom is received by grateful creation.
Maintaining the Vision
The Bible is not romantic about its vision. It never assumes shalom will come naturally or automatically. Indeed, there are many ways of compromising God’s will for shalom.
One way the community can say no to the vision and live without shalom is to deceive itself into thinking that its private arrangements of injustice and exploitation are suitable ways of living:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
every one is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
every one deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, “Shalom, shalom,” when there is no shalom.
(Jeremiah 6:13-14, author’s translation; compare Ezekiel 13:10, 16 and Amos 6:1-6)
Shalom in a special way is the task and burden of the well-off and powerful. They are the ones held accountable for shalom. The prophets persistently criticized and polemicized against those well-off and powerful ones who legitimized their selfish prosperity and deceived themselves into thinking it was permanent. The prophetic vision of shalom stands against all private arrangements, all “separate pieces,” all ghettos that pretend the others are not there, (compare Luke 16:19-31). Religious legitimacy in the service of self-deceiving well-being is a form of chaos. Shalom is never the private property of the few.
A second way of perverting the vision is to take a short-term view. Isaiah preserves a story of King Hezekiah, who bargained the future of his people for present accommodation. He is condemned for thinking: “There will be peace (shalom) and secularity in my days.” (Isaiah 39:8) A moment of well-being can be had today with enormous charges made against tomorrow. Parents pile up debts of hatred and abuse for their children to pay off. But the prophet is clear. Shalom is never short-range; eventually, someone must pay dearly. Caring for creation is never a one-generation deal, (see Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:2).
A third way of abusing God’s will for shalom is to credit certain props as sources of life – for example, to idolize political or religious furniture and pretend it is the power of God. Jeremiah saw that his people regarded the temple as a way of shalom, apparently thinking it was available and cheap without regard to demands that came with the package. (Jeremiah 7:1-10) Similarly, Jesus exposed a self-deceiving mentality that valued particular moral rules at the expense of persons. (Matthew 15:1-20) The vision of shalom is so great that it would be nice to manage and control it – to know the formula that puts it at our disposal – either by a religion of piety or morality or by a technology that puts it on call, (see Deuteronomy 18:9-14). But shalom is not subject to our best knowledge or our cleverest gimmicks. It comes only through the costly way of caring.
A Vital Hope
Shalom is an enduring vision. It is promised persistently and hoped for always. But there are 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 surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare (shalom) and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes. (Jeremiah 29:10-11, 13-14a)
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.
In a letter to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah uses our term twice. Jeremiah 29:11 has the affirmation that God wills shalom even for the exiles. God does not will evil, even though exile feels like evil. God wills a future and a hope – a promise thrusting to reality. We take the affirmation routinely. But its boldness can surprise when it is spoken in a time of despair and cynicism, when “the center cannot hold,” when everything has collapsed and everyone is weary, with hope exhausted. At the root of history is the One who wills shalom. At its end is the One who calls us to shalom, secure community, a golden calf that frequently seems to be against all the stubborn facts. A lesser resource will scarcely refute despair or enable alienated ones to care. Only being grasped by the Holy One will do this – the One who dares to promise and dream when the rest of us have given up.
And what does Jeremiah mean? Simply that God is there. We are not abandoned. (Note the affirmation in exilic texts, Isaiah 41:10, 14; 43:1-2, 5; 49:14-15; 54:7-10 and, in a quite different context, Matthew 28:20.) We are heard by God, who also answers, (Exodus 3:7ff; Isaiah 65:24). Ours is not an empty world of machinery where we get what we have coming to us. No! Caring, healing communication is still possible. There is this Thou who calls every historical I to community. Life is not a driven or an anxious monologue. The Lord is findable, which is a gospel theme of great importance when God seems dead or hidden. (See Deuteronomy 4:29-31; Isaiah 55:6, both texts from the exile.) 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. (author’s translation)
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 well-being of the chosen ones is tied to the well-being of the hated metropolis, which the chosen people fear and resent. It is profound and disturbing to discover that this remarkable religious vision will have to be actualized in the civil community. The stuff of well-being is the sordid collection of rulers, soldiers, wardens, and carpetbaggers in Judah and in every place of displaced, exhausted hope. It is an incredible vision even now for people of faith who feel pressed and angry about the urban shape of our existence, to say nothing about the urban shape of our vision. But again it is affirmed that God’s shalom is known only by those in inclusive, caring community.
The letter of Jeremiah to the displaced persons surely did not meet expectations. No doubt they hoped for a purer gospel, a neater promise, a distinctive future. But God’s exiles are always learning the hard way that the thrust toward viable unity must find a way to include the very ones we prefer to exclude. Depending on how deep the hatred and how great the fear, this promise of shalom with hated Babylon is a glorious promise or a sobering thought; but it is our best vision, a vision always rooted in and addressed to historical realities.
The Embodiment 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 of a mythical statement, but one facing our deepest divisions and countering with a vision.
The Pauline letters speak of this. There seem to be so many categories and divisions and discriminating marks that separate and pigeonhole, but there is also this:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)
Called to the Lord’s single community, bearers of God’s single promise, children of the one Abraham. Paul runs blatantly over our favorite divisions – black-white, rich-poor, male-female, East-West, old-young, or whatever – finding them unreal and uninteresting. Those factors count not at all – our anxiety, driveness, covetousness, injustice, chaos – none of these ever secures our existence. Yet we are secure, called to shalom from all our desperate efforts at security and our foolish manipulations to ensure dominance. Then Paul comes right out and says it ever more flatly: “He [Jesus] is our peace (shalom).” (Ephesians 2:14)
He got the lepers and the Pharisees all together again, the sons of Isaac and the heirs of Hagar, or so the vision lets us hope. He is known in the breaking of bread; he is crucified and risen; he is coming again – he who draws all people to himself, who rose from the dead and defied the governor, but who could not save himself. We say he embodies our vision and empowers us to live it.
We are sometimes children of the eighth day. And we risk an embracing of the vision. It is remarkable that lions and lambs share fodder, that widows and people of means have a common heritage, that our future is not in compulsive drivenness but in free caring. That vision surrounds us and addresses us, but we see only in a glass darkly.