#6  The Main Characteristic of the Kingdom of God is Shalom

IF GOD’S DESIRE IS the realization of the kingdom of God, as articulated in the previous chapter, there are ample grounds for claiming that the main characteristic of that kingdom is shalom. The chief task of this chapter, then, is to unpack the meaning of that Hebrew word—and the Hebrew word is used for there is no English term that comes close to embodying all the richness of that Old Testament term.

The most common English word used to translate shalom is peace, and, to be sure, shalom means peace. Shalom, however, means much more than what is usually thought of when one hears the word peace. Peace is usually thought to mean primarily the absence of war. So does shalom—and much, much more.

What is Shalom?

The Hebrew word shalom, as seen below (and read from right to left), is popularly used as a greeting meaning hello or goodbye—as is the similar term salaam in Arabic. This is an excellent greeting when it includes the desire for all that is encompassed in the original concept of shalom.

Image result for shalom

Basically, shalom includes the idea of harmony, justice, and well-being for all. The harmony of shalom is all-embracing: it means the harmony of human beings with God (what has popularly been called peace with God), harmony of all individuals and all groups (communities, ethnic groups, and nations) with each other (what is usually referred to as world peace), and harmony among all parts of creation (which we might call ecological peace).

Harmony can be defined as “a pleasing combination of elements in a whole.” Harmony is the pleasing combination of sounds in music and the pleasing combinations of colors and shapes in art. Shalom seeks social harmony in societies, small and large. Those who have worked most for world peace have worked for that kind of harmony. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are two of the best examples.

Gandhi never became a professed Christian, but it can be argued that he understood and practiced the meaning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as well as anybody in the twentieth century. In a world seemingly dominated by violence and hatred, Gandhi propounded and practiced the ancient idea of ahimsa, non-violence, as the only way to live in peace.[1] In Gandhi’s thought, ahimsa precludes not only the act of inflicting physical injury but also mental states such as evil thoughts and hatred as well as unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty, and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence and, thus, incompatible with ahimsa.

Based on the ideas of ahimsa and satyagraha, Gandhi labored long and hard for peace and justice in South Africa and then in his home country of India.[2] His concept of satyagraha meant resisting the evils of society—but doing so without committing the evil of violence. His was not passive resistance but active and peaceful resistance to all forms of injustice. That was the way he endeavored to establish shalom.

Gandhi’s example influenced and inspired many later peaceful struggles—such as, for example, the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. A powerful Baptist preacher, King was a leader of those struggling for freedom from racial prejudice and discrimination, millions of people suffering various degrees of oppression. In short, he worked for a harmonious society where there was no discord or suffering based on racial or cultural differences. And, like Gandhi, his efforts to create such a society were peaceful at a time when some saw no hope except through violent protests and harsh actions. He, again like Gandhi, was energized by a concept of shalom.

It is certainly noteworthy that Gandhi and King were both assassinated; Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was also executed. Peacemakers are not always popular. Seekers of shalom are seldom appreciated by those who profit from an inequitable or unharmonious status quo, and there are always some who enjoy the fruits of injustice. But shalom always requires justice and is possible only where justice is a present reality.

Shalom and Justice

Shalom means societal harmony, and such harmony is possible only where there is social justice. The idea of punitive justice is easily understood. That means people get what they deserve for committing crimes, especially crimes resulting in the bodily injury of other people. (It also means, of course, that people are not convicted of crimes they did not commit.)

The concern of social justice, though, is seeking to form a society where all the hungry are fed, all the sick are cared for, and everyone is treated with respect. A society characterized by social justice is one in which everyone’s basic needs are met and where there is an underlying harmony among all segments of society—and also between people and the total physical environment. To achieve social justice, exploitation and all forms of prejudice and discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, or sexual orientation must be eradicated.

All such things are encompassed by social justice because of the recognition of the inherent equality and worth of all persons. The words, “All men are created equal,” is arguably the best-known phrase in any political document of the United States. It has long been evident that those words were much too insufficiently inclusive at the time they became part of the Declaration of Independence and many years following. “All men” did not include women or those who had been brought to this country as slaved people and their descendants.

Further, those well-known words of 1776 have also often been misunderstood: they did not claim that everyone was equal in every way. Rather, they declared the intrinsic worth of all persons: everyone has equal value as a person. In spite of how “all men” was interpreted in practice, those words should have meant that there is equality among whites, people of African descent, Native Americans, and all others. Thus, the slavery of African people and their descendants as well as the exploitation of Native Americans, the theft of their land and the destruction of their culture, are clear examples of injustice.

The lofty words of the Declaration of Independence to some degree included women as well as men since at that time “men” was an inclusive term, not just a masculine one. But in practice, women were considered inferior to men in many ways. The Declaration was ratified in 1776, but women were not even given the right to vote until 1920. And through the years from then until the present, women have been discriminated against in various ways; for example, they have usually not received the same pay as men in the workforce. There has been, and continues to be, injustice in society’s treatment of women.

Moreover, if everyone really has equal value, then there is insufficient justice if some people have too much food to eat while others are starving. There is inadequate justice if some people have luxurious houses or multiple dwellings while there are many who are homeless and living on the streets and sleeping under cardboard boxes, just as there is not full justice when some people are discriminated against because of race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexual orientation.

Lack of justice often leads to violence and even war. For that reason, one of the most important statements made by a Pope in the twentieth century was the one made by Pope Paul VI on New Year’s Day in 1972: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Probably everyone who hears those words wants peace. But here’s the rub: do we want peace bad enough to work actively for justice?

Waging Peace

In the previous chapter, I emphasized that people are called on both to work for and to wait for the coming of the kingdom of God. The same can be said about shalom. Just as the kingdom of God is never going to be completely realized on this earth, at least not by human efforts, neither are we humans ever going to be able to create a completely peaceful world. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying.

The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (BPFNA) is one of my much-appreciated organizations. In addition to The Baptist Peacemaker, their regularly published periodical, the BPFNA has an excellent website, and they post much informative and challenging material on it. One such post is titled “The Bible Speaks About Peace: 12 things every Christian should know.”[3] One of those twelve things asserts that “peace, like war, is waged.” They explain: “Peacemakers are not passive, but active. Peter, echoing the psalmist, urges us to ‘seek peace, and to pursue it’ (I Pet. 3:11; Ps. 34:14).”

It is quite evident that much more effort is expended by people training for and engaging in war than is ever expended by most people interested in peace. And the nation as a whole seems much more interested in preparing for and waging war than planning for and waging peace.

The federal government has waged many wars and long had a Department of War, although many years ago the name was changed to the Department of Defense. Specifically, from 1789 to 1947, there was a Department of War in the U.S. government, and the Secretary of War was a member of the U.S. Cabinet. In the first Cabinet, formed in 1789, there were only four Secretaries; the Secretary of War was one of those four.

In 1792 the first publicly known proposal for the establishment of an official U.S. Office of Peace was made,[4] and through the years similar proposals and numerous House and Senate bills have sought the same,[5] but at this writing no such Department has been established—and unfortunately, it is unlikely that it will be in the foreseeable future. But we can only wonder at how much difference there would be if our nation spent as much time, effort, and money waging peace as it has done in waging war over the past decades.

Christians, by and large, have supported the war efforts of the nation. But the call of Jesus is clear: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). How different the history of the United States, or the world, would be at this point if Christians had fully realized that the chief characteristic of the God’s kingdom is shalom and had striven for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (justice) more than anything else!

There are some groups, primarily non-religious groups, who are actively seeking to wage peace.[6] There are, happily, also some organizations founded by Christians actively seeking peace. One good example is The Carter Center, founded by Jimmy and Roslyn Carter. The Carter Center expresses its main goals on its website: “Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope. And back in 2007 there was an instructive article on the Ekklesia website titled “How American Churches are Waging Peace.”[7]

But the efforts of organizations like the ones just mentioned are too much the exception and too little the normal activity of Christian people. Still, shouldn’t seeking the kingdom of God by waging peace be the work of all of us who are followers of the “Prince of Peace”?

Working for Shalom

There are, of course, many who are, and many who have been from a long time back, waging peace by working for a more nearly just society. That includes many people who have served and who are now serving in the U.S. Congress. While strongly opposed by many, especially by most conservative politicians and many conservative Christians, the health care bill passed in 2010 was an attempt to expand shalom across the United States. Certainly, when far more than 10% of the population of the nation did not have health care coverage, that was an indication of an alarming lack of equality and provision for the well-being of the citizenry.

Let’s think about some of the progress toward shalom that has been made in this nation over the last 150 years. Between 1865 and 1870 the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified, eradicating slavery in this nation and giving former slaves the right to vote. By 1918 compulsory elementary education for all children in all the U.S. states was required by law. In 1920 women were finally given the right to vote by the nineteenth amendment.

The Social Security Act, signed by President Roosevelt in 1935, helped, and continues to help, a large segment of the population of senior citizens to be freed from the shackles of poverty. In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act legislated against child labor and instituted the minimum wage law. In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (347 U.S. 483), was a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities. That led, then, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, another landmark decision which extended voting rights and outlawed racial segregation in school, at the workplace, and in facilities that serve the general public.

In 1965, Medicare, a social insurance program administered by the U.S. government providing health insurance coverage to people sixty-five and over, was signed into law by President Johnson. In spite of criticism at the time, and even some still in the present, that bill has provided medical assistance to millions of senior citizens who otherwise could not have afforded adequate health care.

All of the above examples are not “religious” in the usual sense of the word, but are they not all related to the concept of shalom? Even though there are plenty of anti-shalom examples in contemporary society, there are these and many other examples which indicate some growth toward the type of society that is expected in the kingdom of God, where the main characteristic is shalom.

Christian people, of course, have been actively involved in all of these societal changes for the better—although, sadly, it has to be acknowledged that some Christians have been opposed to most of those changes, too. And it also has to be recognized that many who are not Christians, some who are Jews or Muslims or adherents of some other religion, or of no religion, have also supported those movements toward shalom. This means that work for the kingdom of God is not limited to Christians and that Christians should appreciate and work with those who are marching to the tune of a different drummer in their efforts to work for shalom and to wage peace.

[1] Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that literally means “not violence” or “not injury.”

[2] Satyagraha a Sanskrit term that literally means “insistence on truth.”

[3] Http://www.bpfna.org/bspeak.

[4] In that year, Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a proactive essay titled “A Plan for an Office of Peace.”

[5] Recently, in February 2017, H.R. 1111, the Department of Peacebuilding Act of 2017 was introduced to the U. S. House of Representatives. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the sponsor and there are thirty-seven co-sponsors. (See https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1111.)

[6] Waging Peace is the name of a non-governmental organization that campaigns against genocide and systematic human rights abuses, with a particular focus on Sudan, its website is www.wagingpeace.info. Another organization is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and its website is www.wagingpeace.org.

[7] Http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5858.