Sitting in a crowded airport waiting for a delayed plane, I tuned in to a heated debate raging on the television just above my head. I heard someone assert: “Violence is a natural reaction for people who are brutalized. We must not focus on the reaction but on the cause of the reaction.” As I gathered my attention, I realized that the response came from a black activist who was asked to condemn the violent clashes that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The rebuttal from the TV host, who seemed energized by the raw emotion of his guest, was swift: “I hear that, but why can’t they protest peacefully?” More conversation followed, but the guest’s initial comment stuck with me throughout the course of my journey.
Speaking just weeks before his assassination, which catalyzed rioting across America, Martin Luther King Jr. offered his thoughts on the type of civil unrest that devolves into violence and looting:
I would like to use these two comments as the catalyst for my discussion on the meaning and nature of peace as a biblical concept as well as how peace is commonly understood. What does peace look like through the eyes of the oppressed and marginalized? Why do oppressed groups often view advocating for peaceful reaction to their oppression as a camouflaged or muffled adaptation of oppression? Are popular notions of peace tantamount to the deflation or abandonment of striving to transform the lives of those whom Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth?”2 The consensual ideal seems to be: “Let’s differ, but let’s differ peacefully without conflict or violence.”
According to this reasoning, peace is the very antithesis of conflict and violence; therefore, anything that advocates or sup- ports violence is unequivocally “anti-Christian.” But is it? Is such an understanding of peace—or, to use the Hebrew expression, shalom—the antinomy of violence or conflict? Or is this a reductionistic or privileged rendering of the biblical concept that calls for a “hermeneutic of suspicion”? To answer these questions, I will briefly sketch what the Bible aims at when it talks about peace. I will look at the Hebrew meaning of shalom, with particular focus on the Old Testament prophets at the cusp of Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BC.
THE MEANING OF SHALOM
According to Old Testament scholar Perry Yoder,3 shalom has three shades of meaning. First, it refers to a material and physical state of affairs. This is important because shalom, far from having an abstract and intangible connotation, has to do with the physical well-being of a person or persons. Examples of this are seen in Genesis 37:14, where Joseph is asked by Jacob, his father, to check on the shalom of his brothers and of the cattle. Shalom, however, is not only concerned about the well-being of people but also speaks to situations in general: “Are things the way they should be?”4
The shalom generally invoked is one of abundance, blessing, and freedom from danger, disease, war, and poverty. These are the natural corollaries of shalom. Checking on someone’s physical shalom and that of their family is the first priority when meeting them, especially if you have not seen the person for a while. I experienced this during my time in West Africa. Whenever I would visit the homes of friends, they would first give me a glass of water to ensure that my physical shalom from the journey was cared for, and then they would ask about the well-being of my wife, children, and extended family before getting to the purpose of my visit.
The second shade of meaning according to Yoder is one linked to social relationships. Shalom refers to the healthy relationship between nations, society, and family groupings (1 Kgs 5:12; Judg 4:17; Josh 9:15; Gen 26:29, 31). Whereas shalom in this sense can be viewed as the opposite of war, as it is more commonly understood from the Greek eirene, it is so much more than that. Just as war marks the lack of shalom between nations, injustice is the measure of the absence of shalom within a society. In this regard, there is a close synergistic relationship between shalom and justice. In Isaiah 32:16–17, for example, shalom is clearly shown to be the fruit of righteousness (righteousness understood as the state or quality of being just):
This passage asserts that shalom will be the reward of righteousness/justice. We see this pairing of righteousness and shalom also in Psalm 35:27, which is a cry to God for deliverance from adversaries who are oppressing the petitioner. At the end of the Psalm, we read:
The prophets knew clearly that God’s help and restoration of their nation was predicated upon justice being done in the land and oppression removed. Passages like Isaiah 9:1–7 and Jeremiah 23:5–6 distinctly mention the presence of justice/righteousness as a mark of hope for the future. The reason prophets like Amos and Jeremiah proclaimed such messages of doom in the face of looming captivity was because of the degree of social injustice among God’s people. They pleaded for the exercise of justice and expressed indignation at the sight of oppression (Amos 5:21–24; Jer 22:1–17), which accounted for the absence of shalom in the present and possibly the future. For the prophets at least, shalom-making is working for justice and righteousness, which is at its core a quest for health-giving relationships between people and nations.5
The third and final major use of shalom is the moral or ethical one. Here there are two important moral distinctions. First, shalom is the opposite of deceit or speaking lies. To seek shalom is therefore to love truth and walk in integrity. Psalm 37:37 speaks of a “man [or woman] of shalom”—a person of honesty and straightforwardness. Shalom’s second moral meaning is blamelessness or innocence: to be without guilt. In this realm, we can say that shalom-making is working to remove deceit and hypocrisy and to promote uprightness, integrity, and straightforwardness.
To summarize, shalom speaks to material and physical conditions, to the quality of our relationships, and to moral behavior. In short, shalom defines how things should be; it is the music that indicates we are living in harmony with God, our material world, and our relational world. To grasp how shalom relates to our situation today, it is important to keep these three aspects in mind. Walter Brueggemann captures the goal of shalom beautifully when he notes, “The central vision of world history in the Bible is that all of creation is one, every creature is one, every creature in community with others, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.”6
SHALOM, MORE THAN PEACE
Our three aspects of shalom are linked critically to ethics, behavior, and practice; they are not merely abstract constructs. The kind of peace shalom represents, says Randy Woodley, is active and engaged, going beyond the mere absence of conflict.7 This takes us back to the conversation I heard at the airport, between the black activist and TV host about the clashes that resulted from the death of Michael Brown: “Why can’t they protest peacefully?”
Why were calls for peaceful protest in the face of brutality so readily dismissed by the activist? I would like to suggest two possible reasons. First, it seemed that peace, or shalom, meant to many a mere avoiding of physical violence at all costs. One ought to refrain from lethal force and oppose those who use such overt violence to challenge an existing oppressive social order. On the surface, such rhetoric appears incontestable, especially from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint. Yet it seems inconceivable to those who bear the crushing weight of the prevailing order that structures of oppression will ever be lifted off their shoulders without struggle and even violence. From their point of view, peace advocates are useless idealists far removed from the misery and existential structures of death that prevent human flourishing or shalom.
Second and more important, the binary characterization of peace as merely the opposite of violence, and as a value that condemns attempts to change the status quo by force, seems perverse to oppressed peoples—whether on the streets of Ferguson or under any other oppressive regime across the world. They, after all, feel daily the violence of existing hostile conditions, and see the benefits of this violence accruing to the very people who preach nonviolence to them and urge the moral higher ground of “peace.” They experience the present economic and social order as oppressive and murderous—leaving many landless, homeless, hungry, unjustly incarcerated, and, above all, in deadly fear and voiceless about their destiny. By no means do I sanction violence as a justifiable response to these or other miscarriages of justice. I seek rather to draw attention to the fact that the violent reaction of the oppressed is merely a rejoinder to the perceived systemic violence to which they are subjected day after day. They ask, “Is it not those people who, while advocating nonviolence for us, benefit, at least indirectly, from the violence that victimizes us daily?”
FALSE PROPHETS OF SHALOM
Like the false prophets in the days of Jeremiah and the impending fall of Jerusalem, these modern-day false prophets and peace advocates rush to a shallow and skewed idea of peace, seeking to rearrange deck chairs and tables on a sinking ship. They neutralize those sounding the alarms, branding them as troublemakers and enemies of peace; they pacify the people with what Martin Luther King Jr. called in another context “the fierce urgency of now.” They declare peace and safety when sudden destruction is looming. Not that they are against justice or necessarily have evil intent, but their understanding of shalom is dangerously defective. It is flawed because the foundation upon which they seek shalom is also flawed and built on “fallow ground” (Jer 4:3).
For the true ancient prophets in Israel, justice was indispensable for shalom, so they condemned social injustice and oppression. For the false prophets, however, peace was merely defusing conflict without addressing the cause, forcing harmony without dealing with the social dissonance and proclaiming security without pressing for justice. They proclaimed a cheap shalom that placed no demand on their daily lives or called them to repentance, and they ran roughshod over the three foundations of shalom. First, on the material level, though some people prospered—a sign of shalom as material well-being—this prosperity flourished side by side with misery and poverty. The rich lavished themselves with affluence while the cries of hunger outside their doors went unheeded. Second, this economic and material inequality fractured social relation- ships. The rich oppressed the poor for their own material gain and, in doing so, profited from their misery. Their prosperity gave them the outward appearance of shalom, which they held to be tacit divine approval for their position of power—a state of affairs that damaged social relationships (Amos 3:9–11).
Third, the legal system and political process was not working with integrity and due process. The moral and ethical foundations upon which the practice of shalom was built were flouted with impunity. As Isaiah (10:1–2) puts it, they were making unjust laws to support their own interest, with catastrophic consequences for the poor and powerless. They cheated the poor through lucrative bribes of legal officials, which created an unfair advantage for the wealthy and led to gross miscarriages of justice.
THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SHOULD BE!
The essential difference between the true and false prophets was their view of whether proclaiming shalom brought about justice and prosperity (the position of the false prophets) or whether justice and prosperity was a prerequisite for shalom (the position of the true prophets). If shalom referred to a state of well-being, or “okayness,” the promise of shalom could never cover up things that were not okay.8 This is the point behind Ezekiel’s harsh critique of the false prophets who proclaimed shalom when there was no shalom, thereby lulling the people to sleep with a false sense of security—as he put it, whitewashing a wall that was about to collapse (Ezek 13:10, 16). Are those who make peacemaking the highest good guilty of whitewashing in that they think we can have peace in spite of oppression, racism, exploitation, and injustice? Could this be what the black activist mentioned above was alluding to by making the comment, “Peace is a luxury we do not have”?
In the face of massive protest and rioting it is safer to focus on peacemaking and surface gestures of equality, yet these provide a smokescreen for the cancer of injustice that lies beneath the surface. This was the bait Dr. King refused to bite in his quote earlier in this article. To maintain a situation of oppression, material want, and deceit is not to keep peace but to do the opposite! Shalom-making means transforming these situations into ones of fairness, equality, and justice. Brueggemann aids our understanding here:
Shalom seen simply as “peace” is an anemic and convenient translation that serves the privileged class. Sometimes shalom will only come through the active creation of conflict. Where there is injustice, living out shalom dictates that the structures perpetuating the injustice be transformed. Where marginalization of the weak, the poor, the disempowered, and the “ethnic other” is present, living out shalom demands that we challenge the oppressive system and lift up those who are suffering from the bruising weight of oppression, because oppression is sin.10
Brueggemann’s insight at this juncture is illuminating:
God is for shalom and, therefore, against sin. In fact, we may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically (e.g., by disease), morally, spiritually, or otherwise.12 The work of shalom is therefore not merely the coming together of token representatives of the strong and the weak, grasping hands and singing “Kum ba yah”—but rather, to adjust Cornel West’s words, “Justice is what love looks like in public,” to say, “Justice is what shalom looks like in public.”13 Riots and violence are by no means acceptable or effective means of pursuing shalom, but they are symptoms that “things are not as they should be.” In the absence of shalom and in the face of oppression and injustice, the questions that dogged W. E. B. Dubois until the end of his life still perplex us today:
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. outlined the most perplexing evils of our time—and they are as evident now as they were then: racial injustice, poverty, and war. It is in the context of these three evils that today’s search for shalom is most challenging. We ask ourselves, what does shalom look like when a young black teenaged youth is shot dead in the streets and his body is left sprawled on the cold concrete for hours? Or when a young white man sits quietly in a historic black church during a Bible study and then kills nine black parishioners?
Do we speak about shalom when racism is a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in for-profit prison complexes and targeted police surveillance of black and brown people? When arbitrary uses of the law—in the name of the “war” on drugs—have produced, in legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s apt phrase, a new Jim Crow of mass incarceration?15 What should shalom look like when, in the richest nation in the world, one in three kids lives in poverty?16 Or when the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? When poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens, and working people? What should shalom look like when military force is being used actively to maintain an unjust and oppressive status quo and to stifle those who would change the situation? When the doctrine of peace through strength is experienced by its victims as oppression through violence? It is only when we recognize these death vices that the questions posed by Dubois can be seriously pondered and the true meaning of shalom be wrestled with in our time.
The questions posed by Dubois earlier stand as a roadblock to our hope for biblical shalom. Indeed, how are we to struggle, live, and act when things are not as they ought to be, when shalom is all but a distant dream? There is obviously no easy answer to this problem, but the prophet Micah gives us three key insights in Micah 6:8: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” These three insights are related to the three key foundations upon which shalom is based—the material and physical, social and relational, and moral and ethical. Beginning with the moral and ethical, to “act justly” would have been understood by Micah’s audience as living with a sense of right and wrong. In particular, the judicial courts had a responsibility to provide equity and protect the innocent. Shalom justice requires that we challenge the corrupt and unjust laws and practices that oppress and discriminate on the basis of race and class.
The social and relational piece is related to “love mercy.” Here mercy is the Hebrew word hesed, which means “loyal love” or “loving-kindness.” Along with justice, Israel was to provide mercy. Both justice and mercy are foundational to God’s character (Ps 89:14). God expected his people to show love to their fellow humans and to be loyal in their love toward him, just as he had been loyal to them (Mic 2:8–9; 3:10–11; 6:12). It is on the basis of this love that shalom justice will be based, not upon retribution or retaliation, but nonviolence. Lastly, related to the material and physical, the prophet admonishes us to “walk humbly,” a description of the heart’s attitude toward God. God’s people depend on him rather than their own abilities (Mic 2:3). With a heart of humility and an awareness that God is all-sufficient, we can look away from ourselves and tend to the physical well-being and “okayness” of others. It is through humility that we can live a life of kenosis, in which the physical well-being of the poor, the weak, and the oppressed is at the center of our understanding of shalom.