Spreading Shalom

A lot of people already know that the Hebrew word shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means peace. Fewer are aware that the concept of peace in the biblical sense entails much more than the English word peace does. English speakers usually think of peace as the absence of conflict or disturbance. In the Hebrew scriptures, shalom encompasses a lot more. Shalom means the kind of peace that gives rise to wholeness, justice, forgiveness, fulfillment, prosperity, and delight, not just for one person, but for all. It’s the kind of peace eighteenth century Quaker artist Edward Hicks portrayed in numerous paintings depicting the Peaceable Kingdom. Each one illustrates passages from the Hebrew prophets in which predators and their prey live safely together. (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25). Hicks’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, like the biblical one, extended to include its effects on the social realities of his time. In addition to lions and lambs lying down together, his paintings include images of Native Americans and American settlers signing peace treaties.

Biblical shalom is a community affair in which the integrity and well-being of individuals creates a healthy community, which in turn supports the happiness, fulfillment and delight of the people and creatures who live in it. When shalom covers us all, things are the way we instinctively know they ought to be: all people receive appropriate respect and acceptance, all have the freedom and support necessary to use their gifts, meeting their own needs and contributing to the needs of others. Relationships are healthy, life-giving, and filled with love, including how we treat the rest of creation. This utopian dream is just that – a dream and not the reality we experience, yet something within us yearns for and recognizes it as a profoundly good and right pursuit.

Psalm 34:14 instructs “seek peace, and pursue it.” Jeremiah’s prophetic word urged the Jews exiled in Babylon to seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where they were, for “in its welfare you will have welfare.” If we are supposed to pursue shalom, where does it come from, and how does it spread? The answer to this question matters to me, especially since my life and the lives of people dear to me are so far from being one big shalom-fest. Despite my idealistic hopes to see God’s “kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven,” I see very clearly that things aren’t all they ought to be. We are subject to death, illness, pain, anxiety and other types of emotional and psychological suffering. We are not all we’re meant to be, either, with our prejudices, greed, fears, violence, and injustices that harm each other and the earth. I have been to Africa to talk about gender justice with people who still practice female genital mutilation even though it is now illegal. I have survived rape and cancer. As a counselor and ordained pastor I have listened to many people’s experiences of spiritual and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and oppression due to gender, social or economic status, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I have had the privilege of walking closely with some of them through their suffering and their recovery. I say all this to show that I get it – I am not naïve, insensitive, or unrealistic – and yet still I yearn for shalom personally and in the world.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center, says “Every night, Jews pray to YHWH, the Holy Interbreathing of all life: ‘Spread over us the sukkah of shalom.’” The sukkah is a vulnerable hut, open to the wind and the rain. For one week every fall, the Jews celebrate Sukkot, the Festival of Huts or Booths, by living in these simple and humble shelters. Rabbi Waskow says that only in remembering our mutual weakness and vulnerability will we come to know the ways that make peace among us. Researcher Dr. Brené Brown’s work on the importance of vulnerability for our mental and emotional health echoes the same idea.

I’m interested in creativity, healing, spirituality, and justice. I want to explore these ideas with others and intend for this blog to offer a simple shelter where we can talk about them under the sukkah of shalom.

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