>Toward a Definition of Shalom (Peace)

Walter Brueggemann (Peace, 2001, p. 18):

The consequence of justice and righteousness is shalom, an enduring Sabbath of joy and well-being. But the alternative is injustice and oppression, which lead inevitably to turmoil and anxiety, with no chance of well-being (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21).

[View more quotes from this first essay in Peace.]

Claus Westermann (The Meaning of Peace, 1992/2001, p. 40, 44):

“Shalom means the wholeness, or completeness, or intactness of a community.”

“In its most widespread and dominant use, the word means to experience well-being in a broad sense. It may mean the well-being of sufficiency and surplus. It may mean well-being in the sense of security (of having been preserved). Or it may be well-being in the sense of welfare or relief. It is used in many different connections, as applied to the individual (but who is always part of shalom only as a member of a complete entity), to a group, a people, a community, a family, or a given situation.”

(“Peace (Shalom) in the Old Testament,” 1969, 37-70, in The Meaning of Peace: Biblical Studies, Second edition, edited by Perry B. Yoder and Willard M. Swartley. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies.)

Perry B. Yoder (The Meaning of Peace, 1992/2001, p.12):

The Word may apply to a state or a relationship; it may be used in a religious or a secular sense. Shalom can be measured at least to some degree against an external standard which in the sphere of relationships is justice and conformity to the sovereignty of God.

(“Shalom Revisited,” 1-13, in The Meaning of Peace: Biblical Studies, Second edition, edited by Perry B. Yoder and Willard M. Swartley. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies.)

Amy Sherman quoting Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Kingdom Calling, 2011):

[Shalom is] the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight…. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or cease-fire among enemies. In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight. (pp. 33-34)

Craig Nessan (Shalom Church, 2010):

The idea of shalom is itself a reflection of a world perfected–where peace, justice, care for creation, and respect for human dignity are grounded in the love of God and neighbor, a restored creation. (p. 4)

At the same time as it is imperative to claim that the church of Jesus Christ is an evangelizing church or no church at all, this book argues that the church of Jesus Christ is simultaneously a shalom church or no church at all. By “shalom church” I am primarily talking about God’s mission through the church to mend the torn fabric of creation (tikkun olam)–God’s mission to reestablish created goodness in relation to human beings, the created world, and all creatures. The Hebrew word shalom has often been translated simply by the English word peace. However, the idea of peace, especially when it is understood merely as the absence of conflict, does not convey the magnitude of shalom.

Shalom involves all members of God’s creation living in harmonious and life-giving relationship one with another. Shalom begins with the prayerful and worshipful relationship of the human being with God. God is the ultimate source of shalom as God chooses to live in generous relationship with us. God desires to bless us with a sense of belonging and to provide for every need, spiritual and physical. Human beings respond to God’s goodness with lives of thankfulness, praise, and worship. Shalom at the same time entails human beings living together in harmony with each other, both sharing what is needed for the physical well-being of all and nurturing one another emotionally and spiritually. Living in shalom with one another, human beings pay particular attention to the needs of the most fragile and vulnerable. Furthermore…shalom involves human beings living in balance with and respect for the whole of creation. Ecology is teaching us many lessons about the costs of having neglected our solidarity with creation. Shalom leads human beings to foster the flourishing of God’s creation for God’s sake. (pp. 9-10)

Charles Scriven (The Promise of Peace, 2009):

So when the prophet Ezekiel spoke words of hope to the exiled people of Israel, he used the word shalom–“peace.” He did this because in the Hebrew tongue, shalom was about food, safety, and freedom; it was about prosperity, well-being, self-respect for the whole community. All this is what people need and want when they feel anxious or think their lives are hanging by a thread. Ezekiel, therefore, thought of God’s promise-the Great Promise–as a “covenant of peace.” The partnership between God and Israel meant that someday the things that hurt would lose out to the things that heal and restore. Someday, God’s people would flourish and be fully alive. (p. 57)

Ken Wytsma (Pursuing Justice, 2013):

God’s dynamic plan is predicated on shalom–the intended state of peace and wholeness that all of God’s creation is meant to experience. This isn’t peace as we Americans conceive of it, like snoozing in a hammock; rather, it is an active presence of what is right, true, nourishing, joyful, and the like. Shalom is the plumb line, and when we see injustice in the world, we see that things are not as they ought to be. Put another way, injustice and sin tear the fabric of shalom–and shalom is the all-encompassing desire of God for peace and goodness throughout His creation.

The astonishing reality is that we are also part of God’s plan for mending the fabric of shalom. God’s intended peace isn’t a neutral absence of conflict; rather, “[it] expresses completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment… [and] unimpaired relationships with others.” (pp. 24-25)

Without justice there can be no shalom. Shalom flourishes in the presence of justice. (p. 27)

Religion and Peacebuilding (edited by Coward & Smith, 2004):

The term shalom was familiar to Jesus and to his first disciples who were Jews, and it is central to the Christian understanding of peace. This word occurs often in the Hebrew Scriptures and it is and was widely used in daily conversation. It refers to a condition of wholeness, of complete welfare that encompasses the whole person. Shalom pertains to the individual, the community, and the web of relationships in which a person lives. It is a form of salutation that is both a wish and a blessing. It does not describe a political arrangement or an institutional system of power in which the absence of war is guaranteed by force. On the contrary, it is an expression of personal and collective well-being that occurs when justice exists in the relationships and systems of a society. (p. 154) [emphasis mine]

The Greek term eirene describes the absence of war. (p. 154)

Pursuing Just Peace (edited by Rogers, Bamat & Ideh, 2008):

Faith-based peacebuilding within Judaism and Christianity must begin with the Biblical understanding of shalom, and within Islam the similar concept of salaam. This terminology is used to designate a rich concept that carries broader meaning than the English term peace. In Hebrew, the term shalom (like the Arabic term salaam) conveys a desire for wholeness, fulfillment, completion, unity, and wellbeing, thereby encompassing both reconciliation and justice. (p. 5) [emphasis mine]

Biblical scholar John MacQuarrie traces the etymology of the word peace through numerous languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Russian, Chinese) and various stages of Western philosophy in an attempt to distinguish the Biblical perspective from other definitions and to demonstrate the depth of meaning in a Biblical perspective that, according to him encompasses both reconciliation and justice (MacQuarrie, 1973, 14–41). Theologian Daniel Philpott shares MacQuarrie’s understanding of shalom and conducts a similar review of the origins of the term reconciliation as understood in ancient Greek and Hebrew, as well as Latin and Arabic, all of which, according to him emphasize the process of restoring right relationships (Philpott, 2006, 14–15). South African theologian John De Gruchy also sets out the etymology of the Biblical terms for reconciliation and traces the development of this concept down through church history. He connects reconciliation to the maintaining of covenant relations and the Biblical concept of justification. According to him, Biblical justice also involves putting relationships right (De Gruchy, 2002, 41–95). Mennonite scholar Howard Zehr traces the etymology of terms used for justice in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, emphasizing, again, the Biblical focus on linking justice with righteousness, right order, or making things right (Zehr, 1995, 136–42). Shalom draws upon several other Biblical concepts — mispat, the act of doing justice; sedaqa, the practice of “offering” for the sake of others; hesed, just and righteous actions — and addresses not only fundamental attitudes about the way people are called to live together, but makes demands of the covenant people “Israel” in the economic, legal and social realms. Tension between justice and reconciliation efforts, however, has a long history within faith traditions. Those working on reconciliation are frequently criticized for attempting to reduce hostility too quickly at the expense of justice. “Peace with justice” has become a trademark of many faith–based initiatives fearful that mere pacification would result if justice were not seen as a prerequisite. (p. 5)

Tim Keller (Generous Justice, 2010):

It means complete reconciliation, a state of the fullest flourishing in every dimension–physical, emotional, social, and spiritual–because all relationships are right, perfect, and filled with joy. (p. 174)

This is a summary of definitions I once wrote for a class:

Before exploring the relationship between peace and justice, it is helpful to first address the meanings of these constructs. Peace is commonly thought of as calmness or the absence of conflict. However, the Hebrew understanding of shalom is much more expansive. For instance, it “is a vision of what ought to be and a call to transform society.”[1] More specifically, shalom means “wholeness, completeness, well-being, peace, justice, salvation, and even prosperity.”[2]

Perry Yoder highlights three major uses of shalom in the Hebrew Scriptures in an effort to draw out the depth of the word—material and physical well-being or prosperity, positive relations between individuals and groups, and moral or ethical straightforwardness.[3] Finally, David Leiter differentiates the uses of shalom further and finds fourteen ways the word is used. These include greetings, harmonious relationships, non-anxious presence, peace with God, God’s blessing, prosperity, righteousness and justice, safety, the absence of war and violence, well-being, wholeness, dying in peace, good or favorable conditions, and friendship.[4]

The inclusiong of “justice” in Leiter’s list indicates the close relationship between it and shalom. In fact, “if the people do not have shalom, there is no justice in their lives. The two go hand in hand.”[5] Temporally, the flow is from justice to peace, though the terms are interrelated. This can be seen in the peace mandates that Leiter highlights in the wisdom literature. “The primary concern of the peace mandates is justice—justice between individuals and justice within society. When such justice begins to emerge in response to these mandates, peace will prevail in accordance with God’s wishes and blessings for the community.”[6]

Injustice, or the misuse of power to fulfill one’s own desires at the expense of those who are by definition less powerful, is experienced as oppression. That is, those who are oppressed suffer injustice and are denied the wholeness and well-being inherent in shalom. Because God’s thrown is established on justice and righteousness (Ps. 89:14), it follows that God is highly concerned about oppression.

[1] Perry B. Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, 1st ed. (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing, 1987), 5.
[2] Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), 28.
[3] Yoder, Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, and Peace, 10-16.
[4] David A. Leiter, Neglected Voices Peace in the Old Testament (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2007), 22-28.
[5] Ibid., 25.
[6] Ibid., 131.

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