Shalom as the Dual Approach of Peacemaking and Justice-Seeking: The Case of South Korea

Shalom (detail)


Shalom, usually translated “peace,” is a key theme in the Hebrew Bible. It refers to general well-being in all areas of life, which is given by Yahweh alone, since he is peace (Judg 6:24). Biblical scholars point out that shalom has a “public significance far beyond the purely personal.” It also has social and political dimensions. Moreover, the “divine covenant of peace” includes righteousness, or justice (Isa 48:18; 62:1–2).1 As Christopher J. H. Wright explains, the kingdom of Godas expected by Israel and preached by Jesusmeans both “true peace for the nations” and also “justice for the oppressed.”2 In the New Testament the kingdom of God is described as righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17), and Christians have the missional responsibility to seek and establish all of these by the grace of God. The Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Movement recognizes the public and social obligation of Christians to work for both peace and righteousness when it declares: “We are to be peacemakers, as sons of God,” and “We give ourselves afresh to the promotion of justice, including solidarity and advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.”3

In this short article, I will discuss the relationship between peace and justice, drawing on insights from peace studies as well as biblical reflections. I will then show how some Christians in South Korea under the rule of military-backed governments addressed the tension between peacebuilding and justice-seeking, and argue theologically for their integration as part of the mission of shalom.


We see that the concept of shalom contains a strong message about our engagement in society with a just attitude toward our fellow human beings (Amos 5:7; 6:12; Ps 33:5).4 In this sense, the meaning of shalom needs to be understood not only as the existential state of being in peace and being “without war” (peacekeeping) but also in the transformative sense of actively making righteous and just relationships with others, or peacemaking. For this reason, the relatively unknown biblical text “righteousness (justice) and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 85:10) is one of the most pertinent in the Old Testament when we try to understand and implement the biblical teaching of shalom. There are ample discussions on righteousness (justice) and peace in isolation from each other, but the psalmist particularly emphasizes their integral relationship.

The connection between justice and peace is recognized by secular scholars. Johan Galtung, perhaps the most well-known figure in peace studies, presented models of conflict, violence, and peace. He defined “negative” peace as the cessation of direct violence and “positive” peace as dealing with structural and cultural violence as well.5 He saw that both approaches could be implemented since both have strengths and weaknesses. The problem of negative peace is that it can be maintained through terrible injustice, as in the case of the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica. Yet, as Oliver Ramsbotham and others argue, positive peace is also problematic: the question of injustice usually amounts to “perceived injustice,” which involves the “whole of politics.” Often all parties involved genuinely believe they are victims of injustice, and their thinking can be manipulated by outsiders for their own agendas.6 Nevertheless, lasting peace is not achievable without justice-seeking, even if this is a fraught area. As the Roman Catholic Church has recognized:

Peace is more than the absence of war: it cannot be reduced to the maintenance of a balance of power between opposing forces nor does it arise out of despotic dominion, but it is appropriately called “the effect of righteousness” (Isa 32:17). It is the fruit of that right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society and which must be actualized by man thirsting after an even more perfect reign of justice.7

Shalom requires the dual approach of peacemaking and justice-seeking.


Those who are working on peacebuilding and conflict resolution agree on the integral nature of the two components of justice and peace. However, there is always the question of priority: whether peace or justice is most important in the process of building trust and resolving conflict in a sustainable way. Scholars of peace studies are quite divided on the priority of justice or peace. In the case of protracted war, Todd D. Whitmore, in his discussion of this issue, questions what he sees as the priority of justice over peace in Catholic social teaching and argues that negative peace could be a precondition for justice. He points out that starting with justice is a problem since the various parties are all accountable, and it is almost impossible to achieve positive peace until hostility is brought to a halt. So he concludes that, on the balance, the practical priority must be on the negative peace.8

Conversely, Pauline H. Baker insists on the importance of seeking justice in the peacebuilding process. She identifies the tension between peacebuilding, which involves conflict resolution, and justice-seeking, through establishing democracy and human rights. She regards those working for peacebuilding as “conflict managers” and those seeking justice as “democratizers.” However, she argues that “peace is no longer acceptable on any terms; it is intimately linked with the notion of justice. Conflict resolution is not measured simply by the absence of bloodshed; it is assessed by the moral quality of the outcome.” She further emphasizes the importance of public accountability and basic human and political rights and criticizes the “conflict managers” as seeking short-term solutions, insisting that a solid democratic foundation provides a better chance of sustainable security and peace.9

The above discussions are focused on approaches that balance justice and peace. One can say that, in a conflict situation, justice without peace leads to a fragmented and fragile situation that will continue to perpetuate injustice, and peace without justice is often used by those of power to continue to exercise their oppression over victims of the conflict. Justice and peace must “kiss each other.” However, very often the situation demands sacrificing one dimension to the other. In the complexity of human society, there is no absolute justicethe concept of justice is fluid and relative. Justice for one group or individual may be injustice for the other party. Justice can be misused for sectarianism, communalism, partisanship, and so on. “Justice for all” is an ideal concept, which in reality is always challenged by individuals and groups who differ for whatever reason. At the same time, peace can be misused for maintaining security, the status quo, and stability, which are priorities for those in power. Often temporary measures for keeping peace become the norm and there is little opportunity to pursue justice, which poses a great risk to lasting peace. This was a tension that the people and the government of South Korea encountered during the middle of the 20th century.


During its period of military-backed governments (1961–1988), South Korea faced various political and economic challenges: poverty and inequality in society, governmental human rights abuses, and confrontation with communist North Korea. In this period South Korean churches were deeply divided theologically into conservative and liberal positions, which posed a dilemma for Christians grappling with the political situation. Two key agendas of successive governments were economic development as well as peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula. In pursuing these goals, the government often legitimized its oppression of the opposition party and disregarded the civil liberties of the people on the grounds of economic growth and national security. The civil movement was sparked in 1970 when some Christian leaders started to stand for, and with, the poor and exploited. As a secular scholar acknowledges, this “marked the beginning of South Korea’s working-class formation” and “awakened the intellectual community to the dark side of the export-oriented industrialization.”10 These Christian theologians captured many people’s imaginations. They raised in the churches, and also in the wider society, issues of poverty and exploitation. They refused to accept the argument of the government and large companies that the labor rights and conditions of ordinary workers and farmers could be sacrificed with the justification that they would eventually reap the benefits of general economic development. They also rejected the government’s justification of human rights abuses on the basis of threats to national security, and so they led movements for civil rights and democratization.11

One of these theologians was Ahn Byeung-mu who, in a talk on “justice and peace,” criticized people who believe that peace can be achieved without discussing justice. He insisted that the basis of peace could only come with the achievement of “true justice” in Koreathat is, when people were liberated from exploitation, with democratization and human rights restored. He argued that when we discuss peace, we have to talk about sharing of material wealth on the basis of our faith that everything is under God’s sovereignty and authority. As the early Christians shared their food with one another, so we should share what we have with others. He related God’s kingdom to the concept of a food-sharing community.12 This concept of sharing food was highlighted in the poetry of Kim Chi-ha:

Rice is heaven
As you cannot possess heaven by yourself
Rice is to be shared
Rice is heaven
As you see the stars in heaven together
Rice is to be shared by everybody
When rice goes into a mouth Heaven is worshipped in the mind Rice is heaven
Ah, ah, rice is
To be shared by everybody.13

Against protests by the opposition party, the military-backed government tried to persuade the people to support its rule on the basis of peace, security, and prosperity. This is understandable, since the government was facing the enormous challenge of national reconstruction after the Korean War, in the face of a continued perceived threat from the North. The government argued that, in order to maintain security and see economic progress, peace, and well-being, citizens would have to sacrifice themselves. They asked people to sacrifice economic justice (fair distribution, workers’ rights, working conditions in factories) and political justice (aspects of freedom of speech, civil liberties, political opposition activities) for this end. Since overcoming poverty and maintaining security were critical issues for South Koreans, who still vividly remembered the Korean War that cost nearly 3 million lives in the early 1950s, South Koreans were prepared to accept limits on civil liberty for the sake of maintaining security. And many church leaders also supported the government’s efforts. However, successive governments gradually took advantage of this willingness to suppress opposition parties and groups and began to abuse their power. Through a series of emergency acts, any civilians could be arrested and charged without going through proper trial processes. There were numerous cases of human rights violations as many were accused of associating with the North.

The majority of the South Korean church leadership tended to hold an anti-communist position due largely to the persecution of Christians in North Korea. Many of the Christian leaders in the South had fled from this. During large Christian gatherings throughout this period, the association of Christianity with anti-communism was very explicit, and this close identification is still strong among many older Christians. Members of this generation also regarded the adoption of a capitalist market economy as a necessary measure, at least temporarily, and they believed that, despite injustices, it would eventually lead to benefits for the poor as the economy grew. Korean Protestant churches themselves adopted competitive approaches to gather congregations, which resulted in the rapid growth of megachurches in large cities. With hindsight, however, it seems that, in the debate over the emphasis on peace and security on the one hand and justice and human rights on the other, in the Korean case, people were too easily persuaded that peace, security, and well-being must take precedence. Movements for civil and human rights were eventually successful, overthrowing the military-backed government in 1987. Since then, South Koreans have enjoyed growing societal peace with a greater measure of justice, although the larger issue that protestors also raised of peace and justice for the Korean Peninsula as a whole is as yet unresolved.

My argument drawn from this South Korean experience, as well as from biblical and sociopolitical sources, challenges the notion that peace must take priority over justice. This article supports the idea that the two seemingly opposed ideas should be applied in equal measure. If one is pushed to prioritize, one should choose justice rather than “negative peace” in order to achieve lasting peace. Justice is not a value-free concept and differs from one group to another. In the Korean context, the twin aspects of justice-seeking and peacebuilding were vital in the struggle to meet the challenging economic and political problems in the era of military-backed governments.


This conclusion is also supported by political philosophers. Although there are shortcomings in his argument, John Rawls made an important contribution to integrating justice and peace in conflict situations. He challenged John Stuart Mill’s approach to the utilitarian concept of justice for the common good of the majority of the members of society. Rawls saw “justice as fairness,” which derived from the rational choice of individuals in a fair setting, resulting in a distributive principle that benefits the less advantaged. His theory is based on two aims: maximizing the liberty of the individual (provided it does not impinge on others’ freedom) and providing disadvantaged people in society with the best opportunities possible.14

I would like to go even further concerning the integration of justice and peace, pointing out that this question is also related to the ideological standpoint of any philosophy or theology: Does it support the status quo, or does it represent the interests of the minority, the poor, and the oppressed? Justice is not only fair treatment for all, but active support of the weak, oppressed, and poor. That justice requires not only impartial treatment or equal opportunity is another conclusion of biblical studies. Justice is not merely a legal matter but one of active compassion. According to Walter Zimmerli, justice in the Hebrew Bible is “never blind Justitia. It is always understood as an aspect of open-eyed compassion . . . divine demand for compassion towards the weak and the poor.”15 Conversely, compassion demands doing justice, as the Cape Town Commitment puts it: “love for the poor demands that we not only love mercy and deeds of compassion, but also that we do justice through exposing and opposing all that oppresses and exploits the poor.”

The Korean experience of the struggle for democratization in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrates the key importance of conceptualizing and practicing justice and peace together, as the scripture “justice and peace will kiss each other” implies. Shalom is most commonly translated as peace, but it is not achievable without compassionate justice. Our missional commitment to God and to others for actualization of the kingdom of God in our midst requires our active engagement in the dual approach of peacemaking and justice-seeking.

1. G. von Rad, TDNT 2: 402–3; H. Beck and C. Brown, NIDNTT 3: 777–79.
2. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Leicester: InterVarsity Press), 309. 3. Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (2011); available at www.
4. C. Brown, NIDNTT 3: 355.
5. Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilisation (Oslo: PRIO, 1996), 72.
6. Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 12.
7. Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; 1965), para. 78.
8. Todd D. Whitmore, “Peacebuilding and Its Challenging Partners: Justice, Human Rights, Development, and Solidarity,” in Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, ed. Robert J. Schreiter, R. Scott Appleby, and Gerard F.Powers, 155–89 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 160.
9. Pauline H. Baker, “Conflict Resolution versus Democratic Governance: Divergent Paths to Peace?” in Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict, ed. Chester A. Crocker and Fen Osler Hampson (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996), 563–71.
10. Hagen Koo, Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 70–72.
11. For further details see Sebastian C. H. Kim and Kirsteen Kim, A History of Korean Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
12. Ahn Byeung-mu, Christ in the Midst of Minjung Event (Seoul: Korea Theological Study Institute, 1989), 34–59. 13. Kim Chi Ha, The Gold-Crowned Jesus and Other Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1978), 30.
14. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 3–19.
15. Walther Zimmerli, The Old Testament and the World (London, SPCK, 1976), 96; see also Gerard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, vol. 1 (London: SCM, 1975), 370.