Tuesday 3 July 2012

A Bigger Peace

[An edited version of the piece below appeared recently in EG, a publication from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]
‘I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”’, says someone to a group of people at the back of the crowd struggling to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. ‘What’s so special about the cheesemakers?’, intones a woman with a slight sneer, to which her husband replies: ‘Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.’ Behind the satire of this scene from the admittedly irreverent Monty Python’s Life of Brian lies the uncomfortable truth that it is all too easy not to take Jesus at his word. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ can sound like an ethereal platitude rather than the accolade of a distinctive characteristic of those blessed ones for whom God’s reign has dawned.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is the English word ‘peace’. Either it’s understood as the avoidance of something – conflict, violence, war – or it’s a limp, passive word, used to describe something as relatively trivial as the opportunity to put up one’s feet, as when the children have gone to bed and we say, ‘at last, some peace and quiet’.
By contrast, the overtones of the Old Testament word shalom and its New Testament counterpart are expansive – positive and strong. Absence of conflict and violence is certainly a factor, but only because there is harmony, health, wholeness, flourishing, prosperity, a well-ordered society with the establishment of social justice – all flowing from the salvation God himself brings. The big picture that emerges from the Bible’s references to shalom is a wellbeing that is holistic and fundamentally relational – harmonious relationships with God, with fellow human beings, with oneself, and with the environment.
As it turns out, Jesus’ beatitude puts us in touch with a rich theme that extends across Scripture, which carries significant implications for how we live as God’s people.
The God of Shalom
We’ll be in a better position to reflect on those implications if we first stake out the ground on which the biblical house of shalom is built, and we can do so by outlining four undergirding principles.
The first stake is that shalom comes from God, as a gift, and not as something we manufacture for ourselves. In the Old Testament, it’s bound up with God’s covenantal relationship with, and commitment to, his people. In Leviticus 26:6, when God says that he will keep his covenant, that he will be their God and they will be his people, he promises that he will ‘grant shalom in the land’ – where neither the danger of wild animals or warfare will threaten the people. The link with the covenant is also evident when Ezekiel promises the exiles a shepherd from the line of David, when God will make a ‘covenant of shalom’ with his restored people (34:25-31; 37:24-28).
How this longed-for gift of peace will come about is made clear in the second stake in the ground – that shalom comes through Christ. The Old Testament anticipates that God’s shalom will be mediated through a royal, messianic figure. Along with the promised shepherd of Ezekiel 34, Micah foresees that one will come from the tribe of Judah, who will shepherd God’s people, whose greatness will reach to the ends of the earth, who ‘will be our peace’ (5:2-5). And Isaiah speaks of a child to be born, a son who, among other things, will be called ‘prince of peace’, who will establish David’s throne (9:6-7). In the larger tapestry of the biblical story, these and other such promises find their fulfilment in Jesus, great David’s greater son, the son of God, the Prince of Peace. What the Old Testament prophets began to hope for from the Davidic king is finally realised through King Jesus.
Above all, the New Testament is clear that this promised shalom comes about through the cross. ‘Peace’ in Paul’s letters is intimately bound up with the death and resurrection of Christ. Ephesians alone makes this evident, as does Colossians, 2 Corinthians and Romans. In fact, so dominant is the theme of reconciliation in Paul’s letters that some scholars have wondered whether it is the centre-piece of his understanding of the cross – as that through which God brings about peace with sinful humanity. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection results in an objective reality of shalom between God and human beings – the peace that comes with reconciliation – which allows us to experience a subjective sense of shalom as God’s peace guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
The ones to whom he gives this gift is the third stake in the ground – that shalom is experienced in relationship with others. Believers in Christ, recipients of God’s shalom, are incorporated into the body of Christ with fellow recipients of God’s shalom. And Paul is clear that the promised shalom from God comes to Jew and Gentile alike – and men and women, and slave and free. All are caught up in his reign of peace.
Already, then, some implications emerge. How will we learn peace? By accepting shalom as a gift flowing from God’s covenantal love, by being formed by the death of Jesus which brings shalom, and by being immersed in a Christian community which is constituted by shalom, which lives it out in relationship with each other and in the face of the surrounding world.
And we do so, from the perspective of the fourth stake, in the confident hope that shalom will last for ever, that it is God’s end-time goal for the universe. The Old Testament prophets paint a picture of shalom to come in the future – when crookedness will be straightened out, when deserts will flower and mountains will stream with wine, when weeping will be no more and people will sleep freely, when instruments of war will be turned into implements of peace, when a lion will lie down with a lamb, when all nature will be fruitful and all humans knit together. And, above all, when all will look to God, walk with God, delight in God, and worship God with shouts of joy. We’re not there yet, of course (just in case you were wondering). We still hope and yearn for these things.
In Ephesians too, Paul outlines an amazing vision of how God is bringing harmony and peace to the cosmos. He’s brought men and women back to himself, even when we were dead in sins. And he’s reconciled Jews and Gentiles to each other, restoring fractured relationships, making one new person in Christ – the church – and filling the church with his Spirit. But all of this is a first installment of the final day when all things in heaven and earth will be brought together under one head, Christ – with everything in final harmony.
Seeing shalom as woven through the biblical narrative – of harmony lost and harmony restored – prevents it from becoming a mere slogan, wrenched out of its place in salvation history. Shalom is thus bound up with the gospel – not as an optional extra, but at its centre and as the final destination of the story.
The Way of Shalom
But because shalom is the final destination of the biblical story, it is also the direction in which the story is moving. As such, it undergirds our evangelistic activity, our working life, our physical and emotional wellbeing, our relationships with others and the environment, and our personal integrity. How might the dimensions of shalom be worked out in the everyday contexts in which we find ourselves?
Once again, we take our cue from Scripture. Apart from its place in the overarching biblical story, shalom also permeates different genres in the biblical library, all of which contribute to its multifaceted perspective. There are stories in which God uses his people – think of Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Esther – to bring about wellbeing for others, sometimes cooperating with authorities, occasionally challenging them. There are laws which order relationships and address lack of fairness in the redistribution of land and restitution from slavery, which are concerned with the welfare and protection of the disadvantaged, which call for love of one another and aid of one’s enemy (e.g. Leviticus 19:33-34; 25; Deuteronomy 15:1-11). There is proverbial wisdom which commends a way of life conducive to human and societal flourishing – in the mundane matters of using honest scales, thinking before speaking, doing a good day’s work, being faithful to one’s spouse, and in bringing up children. There are expressions of faith in Psalms, where peace runs through both praise (29, 147) and lament (85, 120); where a prayer for the shalom of Jerusalem is not as a political end in itself, but ‘for the sake of my family and friends’ and ‘for the sake of the house of the Lord our God’ (Psalm 122:6-9). And there are prophetic calls to exercise the ethical dimension of shalom, where the desire for peace entails standing against oppression and striving for justice (e.g. Isaiah 26:1-6; 32:16-18; 59:1-9).
Most well-known, perhaps, is Jeremiah’s exhortation to ‘seek the shalom and prosperity of the city’ (29:7). This would not be so remarkable except that the city in view is not Jerusalem, but Babylon. How should God’s people live when their postcode puts them in exile? Jeremiah urges them to establish their presence there, to plan for the long haul – to get married, have children and grandchildren, build houses, plant gardens, grow produce, establish businesses – and to do so for the sake of the place and the people where they find themselves. The comprehensive nature of Jeremiah’s list shows that their ‘full-time ministry’ is to seek the shalom of the city in concrete ways. They still take their ultimate identity from the city of Zion, of course – which remains their true home – but something of that identity is lived out in ‘enemy’ territory.
That the New Testament uses the language of exile in describing Christian existence in the world means we too might learn what it means to ‘seek peace’ in specific locations – not just in cities, but in all the arenas where, as James and Peter say, we are ‘scattered’ (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). Neither taking over the institutions of society nor abdicating responsibility altogether, we exercise what sociologist James Davison Hunter has called a ‘faithful presence’ in the different places we find ourselves. Lest that phrase be misunderstood, the active seeking of shalom means that our ‘faithful presence’ is not to be reduced to a passive compliance with the status quo, especially where faithful presence is combined with faithful practice and faithful proclamation. And faithful prayer too – as Jeremiah’s exhortation reaches down through the centuries, calling God’s people to ‘pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (29:7).
Of course, we recognise that full and final peace will be brought about only by God himself, yet we can be confident that something of that final harmony reaches into the present. And we are called to be its agents, to embody it in the realms of arts, business, education, family, law, media, and politics. We live as those who know of God’s yearning for things to be put right, his heart for the restoration of human beings, of his creation, and of our role in that – in seeking peace, making peace, proclaiming peace, living peace – as God equips us to be agents of shalom, models of shalom, witnesses to shalom, seeking the way of peace in line with the Prince of Peace.
Further Reading
Graham A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009).
Amy L. Sherman, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011).
Ann Spangler, The Peace God Promises: Closing the Gap Between What You Experience and What You Long For (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

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