Shalom is God’s vision for the world where every person has all that they need to flourish. This is the heart and goal of biblical justice.
Do Justice, Week 2
Here we are in Week 2 of my five-week series on justice. Last week, I covered the foundation of biblical justice as the image of God, with a particular Pride Month focus on gender identity. This week, I am going to focus on the heart or goal of justice: shalom.
More than Just Peace
I would have to say that shalom is one of my favorite and most heart-engaging theological concepts (along with the highly-related “kingdom of God” which will be covered in Week 5). But what is shalom, and why do I insist on using the Hebrew word instead of the perfectly acceptable English translation “peace”?
I insist on using “shalom” because our English word doesn’t come close to encapsulating the entire meaning of the word (though sometimes I use “God’s peace” as an intermediary step). Our brains often get stuck on previously understood word meanings, even if we try to expand our definitions. It’s often helpful to teach a new (or less used) word instead. While our word “peace” mostly indicates a lack of violence or an inner state of contentment and quietude, my research (not having been educated in the Hebrew language) indicates that the word “shalom” comes from the Hebrew word for “complete, whole.” And so:
While there are personal and individual aspects of this shalom, it is primarily about community: “every person.”
The Opposite of Shalom
I see this most clearly when I try to find the opposites of “peace” and “shalom.” The opposite of “peace” is “violence/conflict” or “noise/disruption.” However, if shalom is when every person has what they need to flourish, then the opposite is when not every person has what they need to flourish.
This means that the opposite of shalom is poverty.
Poverty is when someone does not have “all that they need.” And note that since shalom is a communal concept, it only takes a single person who does not have what they need to flourish to disrupt shalom.
Not Just Surviving, Thriving
We often think about needs in terms of survival. Needs are basic: healthy food, clean water, safe shelter, sufficient clothing, and perhaps even supportive relationships/community. However, having “just enough” is not enough. We don’t have shalom when everyone has just their subsistence-level needs met. People need to have what it takes to flourish. It’s about thriving, not just surviving.
Flourishing (or thriving) is harder for me to define. Dictionaries tell me it’s about vigorous growth and healthy development. Both words bring to my mind the image of laughing, playing children. Survival gives us the resources to walk, but thriving gives us the resources to run and leap and play.
Now, our “peace” concepts of lack of violence/conflict and inner contentment are necessary and present in shalom. Our communities cannot flourish when there is violence anywhere in them. And not all needs are external. Contentment is critical to thriving. Loving, steady relationships are also necessary, both with other people and with God.
However important lack of conflict and inner contentment are to complete shalom, there is a major difference here. As we work for justice (shalom), discontent with injustice, disruption, and conflict (inner and outer) are necessary and inevitable (though conflict here should not be violence).
Justice and God’s Goal
Justice and shalom are inextricably intertwined. When justice reigns, everything is in a state of shalom. We can see that shalom is the goal of justice. And shalom is not just something good to work toward, it is creation how God has always intended it to be. In the creation story, the Garden of Eden was a place of shalom. In the visions of the age to come in the prophets and Book of Revelation, shalom is the defining factor.
These are not goals that we can accomplish ourselves. Injustice is ingrained too deeply in the structures and systems of human society and in our innate selfishness. The natural world is a place of danger, disaster, and scarcity. And shalom includes a healthy, loving relationship with God. Shalom is the reality that God intends for the entire universe, and there is no way we can get there without God.
Shalom and Faith Formation
But this doesn’t mean that we can only sit on our butts and wait for God to act. We might not be able to reach complete shalom by ourselves, but we can do an awful lot.
First, God has empowered all humans to love each other in word and deed, the ability to be generous, selfless, and kind. While our innate selfishness gets in the way, we can work to alleviate suffering and change harmful systems.
Second, God empowers us with the Holy Spirit so that we can be connected intimately to God and invite others into this intimate relationship, too.
So, what can you do as a faith formation leader?
- Paint the picture. This can—and should—be done for all ages. Every single person you can communicate with has experienced suffering in one or many ways. The brokenness and poverty of our world are visible to all who look around. And everyone, in their own way, can understand what it looks like to be in a community of love, joy, and plenty.
- Point out poverty. Not every type of suffering is developmentally appropriate to show every participant, but it is not difficult to find some aspect of the world’s lack of shalom near and far. Be clear for your participants that this is not how God wants the world to be, that there is a better way.
- Inspire action. “Fixing the world” is overwhelming to everyone, but we can all act to bring justice and shalom in some small way. Help participants to not feel powerless by challenging them to do small actions, and perhaps even do larger actions as a group.
I also found a webpage that has many interesting quotes about shalom.
I hope that God gives you a glimpse of God’s vision, igniting your heart and giving you hope.
Shalom to all,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
VBS, Summer, and 2022-2023 Faith Formation Resources
At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we have many resources for your faith formation needs:
- Learning Together: Five-lesson topical units for VBS, Sunday school, children, and intergenerational classes.
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (products for all ages)
- Resource for the Revised Common Lectionary (intergenerational classroom)
- Cross+Generational Confirmation
- Worship and Liturgy Education