Perhaps at some point you have heard the word “Shalom” discussed in a conversation about peace. Talking about “Shalom” is increasingly popular in the Christian world today, but sometimes we sell it a bit short.
“Shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace. But shalom in the Hebrew consciousness is much different than in the American consciousness, or even in the consciousness during Jesus’ day.
For most of us peace means something like tranquility or the absence of conflict. As long as I am not faced with an active conflict, whether it be national, relational or internal, I am in a state of peace. So the pursuit of peace is more like the avoidance of conflict.
In Jesus’ day (and only then I am sure) peace was actually enforced with the sword. Rome, the dominant global superpower came to bring what they called “pax romana” or “the peace of Rome.” The pax romana meant you had peace as long as you did what Rome said. Disagree with Rome and they kill you. Peace was a way of keeping people in line by way of threat.
But as always, God’s version of peace is much bigger and much better. Peace is not the absence of conflict and it is not violent coercion into obedience. Peace is right relatedness. Peace is when things are as the should be. Peace is when we experience God, others, ourselves, and the world in the ways God intended, and as it will one day be again. This is the shalom of God.
So peace is not just absence of conflict because it is actually something we can experience in the midst of conflict. Peace is also something we are striving towards, and God actually invites us to partner with God in bringing more peace into the world.
And this has all sorts of important ramifications for our world today. Christians should be striving for shalom. Which means understanding just because there is no conflict does not mean we have peace. And it means we pursue peace not through through threat of force, but with the love and joy and sacrifice we see modeled on the cross.
Let’s use two examples – one from the Bible and one from our world today.
First: The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says this:
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.
Simply not murdering someone is not enough. Not murdering someone is the absence of conflict. But Jesus addresses the issue of the heart. Do not curse people or call them idiots or stay angry with people. I can harbor a great deal of hate without actually killing anyone. But then Jesus takes it further:
You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.
This is what it means to pursue the peace of God. It is more than not murdering. It is even more than not hating. It is moving toward those who are our enemies. When I am not killing people, it may look on the surface like I have peace. When I am not hating people it may look peaceful. But true peace is moving towards. True peace is restoring relationships and loving even if it is not returned.
So let’s take this to a social issue. Let’s think about race in America. (I bring this up simply because this is some of the work I am doing towards my dissertation.) Over the last 4 decades we have made great strides in civil rights. People of all races and cultures are now considered fully human and efforts are made to make sure they are represented well.
However, you look around the country and you see the issue of race is alive and well. On the surface, we have gotten rid of the systematic oppression through laws and movements. But there is still an enormous amount of work to do where people of all races and cultures are treated and affirmed as equals. We may not be systematically oppressing people, but people still lose lives and hate and anger still raise their ugly heads daily. We stopped the “conflict” but we forgot to move towards those who are different.
If peace is the absence of conflict, then as long as I am not hurting someone I am not responsible. If peace is the absence of conflict, I can hunker down and protect myself from harm, and I do not have to worry about the suffering of others. But if peace is moving towards even my enemy, then there is always work to do.
Advent is the time where we celebrate God’s movement towards humanity. We recognize that peace comes when we move towards the darkness rather than away from it. Peace comes when we love our enemy and we risk for others even if they do not return our risk and love. Peace comes when we remove the barriers that separate us and work against hate and violence. We move towards those who are different and invite others to join us.