The Biblical Vision of Shalom

“What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”

Recently, I came across the website of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an Anabaptist organisation that places violence-reduction teams in crisis situations and militarised areas around the world at the invitation of local peace and human rights workers. They “embrace the vision of unarmed intervention waged by committed peacemakers ready to risk injury and death in bold attempts to transform lethal conflict through the nonviolent power of God’s truth and love.” (from CPT website)

Essentially, they begin by asking the question: “What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?”

Naturally, what is right and just on a global scale is just as right on a national or local scale. We as God’s People should be working actively to seek peace and reconciliation among all people, not limiting ourselves to the context of the local church or community. In his post God’s People Reconciling, Ronald J. Sider examines the Biblical concept of Shalom and how Jesus demonstrated this kingdom principle.

Acknowledging past temptations and misunderstandings is essential. But we dare not remain mired in our failures. Instead we can allow the fullness of the biblical vision of shalom to transform us into a reconciling people ready to challenge the madness of the late twentieth century.

The richness of the biblical vision of peace is conveyed in the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom means right relationships in every area — with God, with neighbor, and with the earth. Leviticus 26:3-6 describes the comprehensive shalom which God will give to those who walk in obedient relationship to God. The earth will yield rich harvests, wild animals will not ravage the countryside, and the sword will rest. Shalom means not only the absence of war but also a land flowing with milk and honey. It also includes just economic relationships with the neighbor. It means the fair division of land so that all families can earn their own way. It means the Jubilee and sabbatical release of debts so that great extremes of wealth and poverty do not develop among God’s people. The result of such justice, Isaiah says, is peace (32:16-17). And the psalmist reminds us that God desires that “justice and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). If we try to separate justice and peace, we tear asunder what God has joined together.

Tragically, the people of Israel refused to walk in right relationship with God and neighbor. They ran after false gods, and they oppressed the poor. So God destroyed first Israel and then Judah. But the prophets looked beyond the tragedy of national destruction to a time when God’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace, would come to restore right relationships with God and neighbor. (e.g., Isaiah 9:2ff; 11:1ff).

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus, Christians believe, was the long-expected Messiah. And just as the prophets had promised, shalom was at the heart of his messianic work and message. But Jesus’ approach to peacemaking was not to lapse into passive nonresistance; it was not to withdraw to isolated solitude; it was not to teach one ethic for the private sphere and another for public life. Jesus modeled an activist challenge to the status quo, summoning the entire Jewish people to accept his nonviolent messianic strategy instead of the Zealot’s militaristic methods.

Jesus’ approach was not one of passive nonresistance. If Jesus’ call not to resist one who is evil in Matthew 5:39 was a summons to pure nonresistance and the rejection of all forms of pressure and coercion, then Jesus regularly contradicted his own teaching. He unleashed a blistering attack on the Pharisees, denouncing them as blind guides, fools, hypocrites, and snakes — surely psychological coercion of a vigorous type as is even the most loving church discipline which Jesus prescribed (Matthew 18:15ff).

Nor was Jesus nonresistant when he cleansed the temple! He engaged in aggressive resistance against evil when he marched into the temple, drove the animals out with a whip, dumped the money tables upside down, and denounced the money changers as robbers. If Matthew 5:39 means that all forms of resistance to evil are forbidden, then Jesus disobeyed his own command. Jesus certainly did not kill the money changers. Indeed, I doubt that he even used his whip on them. But he certainly resisted their evil in a dramatic act of civil disobedience.

Or consider Jesus’ response when a soldier unjustly struck him on the cheek at his trial (John 18:19-24). Instead of turning the other cheek and meekly submitting to this injustice, he protested! “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Apparently Jesus thought that protesting police brutality or engaging in civil disobedience in a nonviolent fashion was entirely consistent with his command not to resist the one who is evil.

Jesus would never have ended up on the cross if he had exemplified the isolationist pacifism of withdrawal. Nor would he have offended anyone if he had simply conformed to current values as we are often tempted to do when we abandon the pattern of isolation. Rejecting both isolation and accommodation, Jesus lived at the heart of his society challenging the status quo at every point where it was wrong.

Jesus upset men happy with the easy divorce laws that permitted them to dismiss their wives on almost any pretext. He defied the social patterns of his day that treated women as inferiors. Breaking social custom, he appeared publicly with women, taught them theology, and honored them with his first resurrection appearance.

Jesus angered political rulers, smugly satisfied with domination of their subjects with his call to servant leadership.

And he terrified the economic establishment, summoning materialists like the rich young ruler to give away their wealth, denouncing those who oppressed widows, and calling the rich to loan to the poor even if they had no hope of repayment (Luke 6:30ff). Indeed, he considered concern for the poor so important that he warned that those who do not feed the hungry and clothe the naked will go to hell.

Jesus disturbed the status quo — but not for mere love of change. It was his commitment to shalom, to the right relationships promised in messianic prophecy, that make him a disturber of an unjust peace. He brought right relationships between men and women, between rich and poor by his radical challenge to the status quo.

Repeatedly in our history, the terror of persecution and the temptation of security have lured us to retreat to the safety of isolated solitude where our radical ideas threaten no one. But that was not Jesus’ way. He challenged his society so vigorously and so forcefully that the authorities had only two choices. They had to accept his call to repentance and change or they had to get rid of him. Do we have the courage to follow in his steps?

Jesus approach was activist and vigorous, but it was not violent. A costly self-giving love, even for enemies, was central to his message. He called his followers to abandon retaliation, even the accepted “eye for an eye” of the Mosaic legal system. He said that his followers would persist in costly love even for enemies, even if those enemies never reciprocated.

It is hardly surprising that Christians have been tempted to weaken Jesus’ call to costly self-sacrifice — whether by postponing its application to the millennium, labeling it an impossible ideal, or restricting its relevance to some personal private sphere. The last is perhaps the most widespread and the most tempting. Did Jesus merely mean that although the individual Christian in his personal role should respond nonviolently to enemies, that same person as public official may kill them?

In his historical context, Jesus came as the Messiah of Israel with a plan and an ethic for the entire Jewish people. He advocated love toward political enemies as his specific political response to centuries of violence. His radical nonviolence was a conscious alternative to the contemporary Zealots‘ call for violent revolution to usher in the messianic kingdom. There is no hint that Jesus’ reason for objecting to the Zealots was that they were unauthorized individuals whose violent sword would have been legitimate if the Sanhedrin had only given the order. On the contrary, his point was that the Zealots’ whole approach to enemies, even unjust oppressive imperialists, was fundamentally wrong. The Zealots offered one political approach; Jesus offered another. But both appealed to the entire Jewish nation.

The many premonitions of national disaster in the Gospels indicate that Jesus realized that the only way to avoid destruction and attain messianic shalom was through a forthright rejection of the Zealots’ call to arms. In fact, Luke places the moving passage about Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem immediately after the triumphal entry — just after Jesus had disappointed popular hopes with his insistence on a peaceful messianic strategy. “And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!'” (Luke 19:4ff).

Zealot violence, Jesus knew, would lead to national destruction. It was an illusion to look for peace through violence. The way of the Suffering Servant was the only way to messianic shalom. Jesus’ invitation to the entire Jewish people was to believe that the messianic kingdom was already breaking into the present. Therefore, if they would accept God’s forgiveness and follow his Messiah, they could begin now to live according to the peaceful values of the messianic age. Understood in this historical setting, Jesus’ call to love enemies can hardly be limited to the personal sphere of private life.

Furthermore, the personal-public distinction also seems to go against the most natural, literal meaning of the text. There is no hint whatsoever in the text of such a distinction. In fact, Jesus’ words are full of references to public life. “Resist not evil” applies, Jesus says, when people take you to court (Matthew 5:40) and when foreign rulers legally demand forced labor (v. 41). Indeed, the basic norm Jesus transcends (an eye for an eye) was a fundamental principle of the Mosaic legal system. We can safely assume that members of the Sanhedrin and other officials heard Jesus words. The most natural conclusion is that Jesus intended his words to be normative not just in private but also in public life. (Read the full article here.)

While serving on an active Christian Peacemaker Team may not be your “thing,” living a reconciling life–a life that demonstrates the shalom of God–is a calling for all those who claim to be followers of Jesus. May we all be open to allowing God to bring His peace in and through our lives.

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