Peace Sunday – Micah 4:1-4 & Matthew 5:1-12
a reflection by Dan Spragg
Shane Claiborne is the founder of The Simple Way, an intentional Christian community in Philadelphia which seeks to live simply and follow the ways of Jesus in all of life. Living in New Zealand I don’t think we truly understand the extent to which gun violence, the military industry, and war have a significant impact on daily life for many who live in the United States. Gun violence is sadly growing here – evidenced by two shootings in Auckland very recently – but thankfully is nowhere near the levels seen there. Impacted by growing gun violence, the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, and the Iraq war, Claiborne took the imagination of Micah and Isaiah where it talks about turning swords into ploughs – weapons into tools, and wondered if there was something they could do to make real the imagination of these prophets – could God’s desire for a better world be shaped here and now? Here’s Claiborne sharing what they’ve got up to – Beating Swords Into Plowshares to End Gun Violence It’s both a symbolic and political action that they’re engaged in, as well as being one fueled by hope. Hope that the current reality isn’t all that there is. That the current reality can be temporary, that with a little imagination, a new way can be made visible.
The Old Testament prophets, like Micah, spoke of this hope quite a bit. They were constantly pulling Israel forward with visions of a future filled with a larger sense of fulfilment for everyone. This future is one where they are at peace with one another, with their neighbours, and with the land; and in being like this they are at peace with God. There is a sense in which this future is calling to them and pulling them forwards. Jesus used different language, which makes sense because he was in a different time and place than the earlier Israelites. He called it the ‘Kingdom of God’ but he was essentially proclaiming the same thing as those prophets of old. There is a better way, a different way, marked by different characteristics, one that works for everyone – especially those who have been disadvantaged up until now. Another difference between Jesus and the old prophets was that he announced this ‘kingdom’ as having already arrived, that it was ‘drawing near’ and ‘at hand’. The old prophets said, ‘One day there will be a time…’ Jesus said, ‘It is here… so come and see.’ A number of theologians have described what Jesus taught about as ‘already/not yet’. Which attempts to help us understand that Jesus taught God’s way is all around us and that we will see it if we allow ourselves to be aware of it; and we can acknowledge that there are places and situations in our world which don’t resemble anything of God’s way; there are situations and places in which evil seems to be the way things are rather than the ‘kingdom of God’. So we live in a tension – the tension between the already but also not yet nature of God’s way of life and love.
Another way to describe what Micah and Jesus were proclaiming is to talk of the Hebrew concept of Shalom. Shalom is Hebrew for peace. But its full meaning is far more than just the absence of violence. In its fullest sense, Shalom means wholeness and flourishing for all. Shalom means everything is well. It is, I believe, our beginning. Our origin story is one of Shalom. It is what’s contained in the essence of us and our world and it is what is the possibility of us and our world too. The Genesis 1 and 2 narratives show us this. The old prophets say this is what will be once again, and Jesus says it is here and it is coming. The very end of our Scriptures, Revelation chapters 21 and 22, paint a vision of Shalom. Our story in the framework of God’s story begins and ends with wholeness and flourishing for all.
As we live in the already but not yet it is helpful for us to latch on to things that help us recognise and work for Shalom in our here and now. Symbolic and visual aids like turning guns into gardening tools. 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 points to the concept of Shalom – ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ With Shalom, 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. When one or more of these is out of kilter, the presence of ultimate Shalom is diminished.
We could talk about this using the word ‘Privation’. Privation is the loss or absence of a quality or attribute that is normally present, e.g. evil is the absence of goodness. When we think along these lines 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, the world’s 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. Perhaps that’s why Jesus was so keen on everyone having ‘eyes to see’ and invited people over and over to ‘come and see’.
78 years ago today a nuclear bomb, named ‘little boy’, was dropped on Hiroshima. There is a trend in recent movies and TV shows over the past few years to highlight the presence of nuclear weapons and 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. And, a couple of weeks ago the movie ‘Oppenheimer’ was released which tells the story of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team who spent years developing and designing the nuclear bomb. Did you know there are an estimated 12,500 nuclear weapons in the world with 90% owned by Russia and the United States. One Google search will reveal 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 that ‘practically’ the global maximum should only be 900 nuclear weapons! The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is an agreement that 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 still hear 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 each 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. We cannot love our neighbours without loving our environment because it has such a large effect on us all. 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 12,000 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. The privation, the absence of shalom means that oppression, violence, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, unemployment, and unfulfilled needs will be what emerge. Anything, then, 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.’