7 Features of Shalom
What should the world be like?
My schtick is that the answer's actually pretty straightforward: God's desire is for shalom. But what do I mean by the word? If shalom is the character of God's Kingdom, what exactly are those characteristics?
A definition isn't too hard to come by either. Shalom -- mostly translated into English as "peace" -- is a wildly embracive reality in Hebrew that holds together multiple forces of wellbeing. The Strong's lexicon says it means completeness, soundness, welfare, peace, health, prosperity, tranquillity, safety, contentment, and friendship. Others would add words like salvation, freedom, justice, liberty, and love.
But all that leads to more questions: How would a Hebrew mind understand the nature of those terms? Would a word like freedom, for example, mean essentially the same thing to them that it does to our contemporary capitalist world in which freedom is largely reduced to the rights of an individual to seek and accumulate private property? And to what extent does the way those states of being come about matter? Said another way, do the process we use determine whether or not we've actually reached our goal?
I've been fiddling with some propositions to help bring this squishy word in the solid world. These are a working framework, ideas still open for debate. And though they can't contain the complexities of this beautiful word, I've believe these seven statements can help keep us oriented on God's will for the world and the mission of his people.
1. Shalom results from God’s actions centered in and through Jesus.
Whether God is acting as creator, king, judge, liberator, or redeemer, these roles are always carried out through love to establish shalom. This mission is centered in Jesus. He is "the fulfillment of former images, to the point where he is named not only as the shalom bringer, but as shalom itself, 'for he himself is our peace (Eph 2:14a)."(1) God’s pursuit of shalom thus provides a unifying theme of God’s activity in history.
2. Shalom is a relational construct in which creation lives in worshipful dependence on God and loving interdependence with others.
Identifying shalom and the opportunities for its creation requires focus on the ties between actors even more than the actors themselves. Shalom is seen in wholes and systems, not in isolation or individualism. Solitary, internal spirituality is virtuous only insofar as it empowers the follower of Jesus to live well with God and others. Shalom cannot be cultivated independently.
3. Shalom is God’s will for the entire community of creation.
“Shalom is never the private property of the few.” (2) It is either held in common or it is absent. Shalom is extended to plants, animals, soil and all the things that compose the ecological world along with every culture and class of humanity. People must find our appropriate place within this community as fellow creatures.
4. Shalom is the outcome of just systems, righteous living, equitable conditions, and reconciled relationships which are validated at the margins by the wellbeing and voice of the vulnerable.
It is a vision beautiful and mighty, cast by God himself, but the vision never obscures present predicaments of injustice. Rather, the vision electrifies our bodies and imaginations with dissonance. It refuses the easy peace of the powerful whose call for order seeks to maintain a self-serving status quo. In situations of domination, shalom demands liberation. Shalom is “the abolishment of the structures of oppression and violence.” (3)
5. Shalom is both an ethical praxis and a state of being.
Shalom the noun (the state of being that is our end goal) requires shalom the verb (the ethical praxis which provides the means to reach the goal). A godly lifestyle and society are responses to salvation, a post-liberation culture that in gratitude upholds the conditions of freedom made by God. “Biblical law was to be an instrument of shalom justice and as such a bulwark against oppression.” (4) Thus, shalom is never so much a static presence as it is an ongoing process of theological remembrance and performance. God’s acts of salvation set things right, but we must respond with uprightness for shalom to endure.
6. Shalom is concrete and located, physically manifested in ecosystems, political economies, social networks, and built environments.
It occurs in places, interconnected across geography and scale, and reflected in the health of bodies, societies, and bioregions. “Since in English we often use peace to refer either to relationships between people or to an inner state of mind, we must underline the fact that contrary to the English meaning of peace, shalom in the Hebrew Bible refers primarily to a physical state of well-being, to things being as they ought to be in the material world.” (5)
7. Shalom is an eschatological promise that breaks into the present.
Shalom’s full presence awaits the arrival of God’s full presence: that great and terrible day of the Lord, the second coming, the return of our King. Faith believes God for this future. And faith looks back at the resurrection with eyes that see a moment when the future burst into the present. The coming of shalom has already been inaugurated. Therefore Christians labor to expand its reach in the here and now. With Dr. King, we know that “although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness.” (6)
(1) Woodley, Shalom in the Community of Creation. p 13.
(2) Brueggemann, Peace. p 20.
(3) Yoder, Shalom. 6.
(4) ibid, 74
(5) ibid, 13
(6) King, Strength to Love. 8.