Peace Sunday | Micah 4:1-4 & Matthew 5:1-12
Shalom – the answer to every question? | a reflection by Dan Spragg
We often sing a song at the end of our services that says, ‘Shalom, my friend…’ as we are sent out from our gathering together we are sent with God’s peace. I would hope that we consciously carry this into the week ahead and that it makes an impact on how we go about things. I had a theology lecturer once whose favourite word was ‘shalom.’ So much so that there were bets placed as to how long the class would go for each time before it was mentioned! In our classes with him nine times out of ten if you answered with his favourite word then you’d be right! It did become a bit of a joke – but actually he was on to something. He would argue that the idea or concept that ‘Shalom’ represents is the biggest thread running through the entire Bible. There in the beginning, there at the end, and present as the engine that drives the whole thing forwards all the way through. For example, what is the vision of the world and our origin story mapped out in Genesis 1 & 2? Shalom. What is the vision of the world and the goal of our existence painted at the end of Revelation? Shalom. What was at the heart of God’s calling forth of Israel to be a light to the world? Shalom. What were the prophets constantly calling Israel back to and pronouncing hope in what was to come? Shalom. What was Jesus on about when he mentioned the Kingdom of God that had come near and was ‘at hand’, what was Jesus describing and teaching about in his parables, what was he participating in with his interactions with the poor and the outcast, what was he bringing forth into the here and now by setting people free from sickness, possession and oppression? To all this, the answer is, Shalom. And finally, and therefore, what was the early church pursuing as it sought to live in the way of Jesus, energised by the Spirit? Shalom. The ever-present nature of this concept suggests that there is a little more to the word ‘shalom’ than simply meaning ‘peace.’
Most of the time when we talk about peace we mean the absence of violence. But there is a clear sense with Shalom that it is so much more. I for one am convinced that words like ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’ contribute to the establishment and presence of Shalom. I would say too that Paul’s list of ‘fruits of the spirit’ in Galatians 5 point to the concept of Shalom – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ The word in Hebrew itself means quite a list of things which really paints an image of what it is pointing to: “completeness, soundness, welfare, completeness (in number), safety, …health, prosperity, peace, quiet, tranquillity, contentment, …friendship – of human relationships, [friendship] with God – especially in covenant relationship, peace (from war)…” There is in this a rich and full meaning of the concept that is so much more than simply the absence of violence. It paints for me a picture of a world in which all is flourishing, all is as it should be, all as able to live alongside and with the entire thing. There is a sense of interdependence and harmony – like the notes of a musical chord – all working together to achieve something far greater than what a solitary existence can. For me, it includes four key elements: 1. Our relationship with God. 2. Our relationship with ourselves. 3. Our relationship with one another. 4. Our relationship with the environment. Shalom is the synergy that occurs when all four of these are working together. Can you imagine a picture of Shalom? What comes to mind for you when you imagine all flourishing as it should? It is easy to see some other key ideas in the Bible as linked to this concept of Shalom. For example, the absence of justice – the right ordering of things, leads to the absence of Shalom. The absence of righteousness – living our membership in God’s household, leads to the absence of Shalom. The absence of reconciliation – the restoration of broken relationships, leads to the absence of Shalom.
I learnt a new word recently, ‘privation’. Privation is the loss or absence of a quality or attribute that is normally present, e.g. evil is the absence of goodness. The author of the book I was reading was arguing that evil is not a ‘thing’ in and of itself, it doesn’t exist as a standalone entity but rather evil is what occurs, or is what fills the vacuum when goodness is not present for whatever reason. My reasoning goes, therefore, that oppression, violence, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, unemployment, unfulfilled needs, etc… these are the ‘privation of Shalom’, in the absence of Shalom, these are what become present. Shalom is I believe intended to be how the world is. Shalom is the world’s default setting and it is intended to be our default setting… but for some reason, its absence is noticed more than its presence. The flip side is of course, that when even a glimpse, even a hint of Shalom is made present, a substantial difference is made. It may be for an individual for one small part of their life or it may be for a family or for a community but the injection of even a small amount of Shalom makes a big difference.
As I mentioned earlier in the service, Thursday was the anniversary of the nuclear bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. I have noticed recently a growing trend in recent movies and TV shows to highlight the presence of nuclear weapons or the destruction that the use of Nuclear weapons brings about. The movie ‘Radioactive’ tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie and her husband Pierre who discovered radium – and its radioactive properties. One scene in the film flashes forwards in time to see what some of the outcomes of their work is. We see a boy getting his first radioactive treatment for cancer, and we also see the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The movie ‘Red Joan’ tells the lengths a Russian spy goes to in order to share information about the development of nuclear weapons in Britain and Canada. Joan wanted everyone to share the information so that no one would be tempted to use it. The TV show, ‘Man in the High Castle’ highlights a similar train of thought albeit set in a fictitious setting.
Did you know there are an estimated 13,000-15,000 nuclear weapons in the world with 90% owned by Russia and the United States. (13,000-15,000!!) One google search will reveal that there is a lot of speculation about what is considered a ‘practical’ number of ‘nukes’ to have (practical??) and there is much speculation about how many it would take to destroy significant amounts of the planet. It seems from the research ‘practical’ that the global maximum should only be 900 nuclear weapons. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is an agreement which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament. It came into effect in 1970 and to date, 191 countries have signed. I think we can be encouraged by this, that even countries such as the US and Russia have signed this treaty, however, the rhetoric and the threats we hear of from the likes of Trump and North Korea tell us we have a long way to go. I have a number of questions arising from the presence of such destructive weaponry. Why do humans feel the need to create such destructive weapons in the first place? Why do we feel the need to ensure we ‘deter’ our so-called enemies? Why are we so afraid of the other? Why do we feel the need to live with the mindset of attack and defence? Why do we feel the need to get one over on the other, to prove to ourselves that we are somehow better than the other?
I believe that Jesus was on to something when he talked of loving God and our neighbours as we love ourselves. As we love ourselves, as in, at the same time as we love ourselves, we are to love our neighbours and love God – and of course, I would add loving our environment. Love is an action, it is something that we do. If we can love ourselves, we have more capacity to love others which is inextricably linked to loving God, and loving our world. The pursuit of Shalom is captured in the actions of love. It includes working for justice – economic, political and social as much as it includes paying attention to the ‘log in your own eye’ so to speak. It is so often our own insecurities that lead us to feel as if we need to prove ourselves as bigger, better, stronger, faster than everyone else and we so often give in to our insecurities and before we know it we hold a stockpile of 13,000 nuclear weapons. We are insecure as individuals and therefore as nations. We haven’t done the work of being ‘at peace’ with ourselves so it is not surprising that the way we relate to others often leads to destruction.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ The pursuit of peace, the pursuit of Shalom is the life that we are called to – for ourselves, for others, for our planet, for this is the life that God intends for us. It is the life that we are called to have hope for as Micah and the other prophets teach us – that even in the midst of what can seem like a myriad of hopeless situations, we can stop and remember that the trajectory of life is from God to God, from Goodness to Goodness, from Shalom to Shalom.
Living in the way of Jesus is to pursue the reality of Shalom, which may seem impossible because it is such a big concept and we are facing big and complicated issues but it doesn’t have to be. I think that because Shalom is such an all-encompassing concept it makes it quite simple to engage with. I think any simple and small thing you can do to help yourself, your loved ones or your community flourish and live better is an action that adds to the presence of Shalom in the world. Remember the idea of the ‘privation’, or of the absence of Shalom? That in its absence then oppression, violence, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, unemployment and unfulfilled needs will be what emerge. Well, then anything that seeks to address any of these symptoms in any small or big way will contribute to the greater presence of Shalom in the world. Of course simple doesn’t always mean easy but this is the pursuit that we are called to.
So, ‘Shalom my friends, God’s peace my friends, go with you now and stay with you in all you do, Shalom, Shalom.’