The Governance of “Sar Shalom”

lioin and lambIn February 2012, former Senator Rick Santorum made headlines in a controversial statement criticizing President Obama’s worldview. Santorum was running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Although his comment puzzled many news analysts, it was clear to many Christians that Santorum had implied that the president’s worldview was not sufficiently biblical to ensure wise political direction for the country. It’s far too easy, however, for us Christians to kick back and assume that we have a thoroughly biblical worldview about politics.

But let’s reflect on that assumption. Our country is poised for long, tedious, and potentially heated political campaigns to begin for the Republican and Democrat nominations for President of the United States. So this seemed like a good moment to press pause and reflect.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we need to ask ourselves how consistently do we see political life through the eyes of Jesus? How much of our political wisdom, to put it in words of Colossians 2:8, depends on the basic principles of this world rather than on a philosophy based on Christ?

More pointedly, through what filter do we interpret domestic and international issues and events, prescribe policies, engage with our political opponents – and elect presidents? Blue? Red? Liberal? Conservative? Libertarian? The mainstream media? Talk radio? The blogosphere? “Wisdom” is a good biblical word I often use as a replacement for “worldview,” and far too much of our wisdom, I believe, relies on American attitudes and allegiances rather than on Christ. Here’s why.

Jesus had a strange view of politics, at least according to American lights today. Think with me for a moment about the Palestine of his day and how he handled it. Ancient Palestine was not a land filled only with Jews. It was a land of great diversity. For one thing, Palestine was part of the Roman Empire, which was the superpower of the time, and, like all superpowers, you could not escape the presence of the Roman military, its legions, and soldiers.

Besides military personnel, Jesus’ audiences could at any time have included any cluster of ethnic, social, religious, political, and occupational vested interests and conflicting agendas that were daily in close contact with one another – Jews, of course, but also Romans, Greeks, religious leaders of various stripes, government officials, political zealots, a magistrate’s political spies, apostates, pagans, philosophers, fishermen, soldiers, tax collectors, lawyers – you name it. That land was not unlike the pluralism of our major cities today.

What can we learn from our Lord in the midst of all this human diversity, with its competing and conflicting interests and agendas? For one thing, we know what Jesus did not say in the Gospels. When people came to him seeking wisdom, Jesus did not regurgitate the vested interests, sectarian agendas, or partisan politics of the region’s economic and political powers, or those of the pundits in the media or on talk radio. He never told them, “Just get better at it; you’re being inconsistent.” Jesus did not say such things because he knew that their adherence to such views was what had landed them in the broken relationships and troubled situations they had come to Jesus to repair.

Neither did Jesus affirm the views that people might have been accustomed to hear from their religious leaders. Nor did Jesus – as many were doing – promote Greek philosophy or faithfulness to Roman ideology, any more than, today, he would align himself with American Exceptionalism or any other form of nationalism, be it Russian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern.

And when Jesus taught the crowds, he did not tell people that it would take becoming a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, of a Democrat, or a Republican, or even a Jew or a Christian, before they could have their broken relationships and troubled situations changed.

Instead, to his mixed audiences, whoever you were, Jesus taught such things as:

Don’t repay anyone violence for violence
Settle matters quickly with your adversary
Go the extra mile
Turn the other cheek
Stop throwing stones
Drop the hypocrisy
Repent of your to violence
Forgive, forgive, forgive
Love you enemies even

And I can image Jesus at times saying: If you hold a career in politics you are not precluded from this way of seeing and doing. No wonder Jesus’ teaching seemed strange!

white doveWhat’s going on? In short, Jesus was teaching people to apply God’s peaceable wisdom of shalom across the whole of life in their pluralist situations, with those who were different from them. Jesus called civic officials, religious leaders, and government authorities, not to mention ordinary folk, to commit themselves to shalom – to social, economic, and political well being. This meant not just shaking off dehumanizing habits of the heart as individuals but as communities, thereby creating opportunities and possibilities for living cooperatively and peaceably with one another amid the diversity of their land. This vision for life, as we have considered elsewhere, is a normative understanding of the biblical wisdom tradition.

Now the opposite of shalom is not war but brokenness, whether economic, social, or political. And as Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff once explained to me, “There is no shalom, even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, and souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology), must help mend and repair the brokenness of the world.”

His use of the word “repair” was a deliberate reference to the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” The phrase appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature for influencing both Jewish communities and the world at large toward societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, generosity, and suchlike – seen by some as a kind of rehearsal in this life for the anticipated Messianic age of shalom (creational and human well-being, wholeness, or flourishing).

Making possible shalom between God and human beings, and therefore between human beings themselves, is what Jesus died for. He was offering the peoples of Palestine samples of shalom with God throughout his itinerant ministry on the hillsides of Galilee and in the towns of Judea. So here’s how you do it, said Jesus the wisdom teacher to his mixed audiences. Follow my lead and you will create samples of the anticipated future of shalom in the here and now. It’s doable, he said, if you see it through the filter of God’s peaceable wisdom and act accordingly.

Peace with God and with others, across the spectrum of life, is what the governance of Sar Shalom is all about. Sar Shalom (Prince of Peace) is one of the stunning titles for the Messiah given in Isaiah 9:6:

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

“Prince of Peace” is Sar Shalom in the Hebrew Bible. And notice that the context is “government,” of which the next verse adds:

“Of the increase of his government and peace [shalom] there will be no end.”

A “sar” was a ruling or governing official, such as a prince or a king. The plural of sar is sarim, as used in the Hebrew Bible to refer a king’s high-level officials and advisers,
who are to rule wisely (Proverbs 8:16) and with righteousness (Isaiah 32:1). But here in Isaiah 9:6, the word is singular, “Sar,” a Prince (or King) who is given the title Sar Shalom.

A philosophy based on Christ giving direction to our politics, it seems to me, then, takes personally and very seriously Jesus’ call to shalom. Of course we are not only inconsistent at living this calling but at times fail miserably, so as part of our Christian discipleship we must steadily identify and exorcize from our wisdom (worldview) whatever voices, values, attitudes, and influences conflict with the peaceable way of wisdom that comes from above (James 3:17).

Shalom is God’s love offered to us for political life in this world amid its diversity. Does this seem strange to us today? I hope so.

Upon hearing it preached by Jesus and seeing it demonstrated, people “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers.” Dumbfounded, they asked, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matthew 7:29; 13:54). Yes, where?

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Mike Quinn and hapal respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


Swords into plowshares“Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” Ecclesiastes 9:18

The Diplomacy of Wisdom: Agency of Peaceful Change
by Charles Strohmer

In recent decades, the strong, religious-like faith that we have placed in the state to solve all of our social problems has given political ideologies an unprecedented authority to control how these problems are defined and solved. The same is true when it comes to ideological analyses of international problems. This ideological control over foreign policy thinking painfully limits what political imaginations consider wise or foolish analysis and policy, and greatly strains the foreign relations between states with conflicting ideological checklists.

In this second of two articles on wisdom and foreign policy, I want to introduce some ideas about the non-ideological nature of the agency of wisdom by considering three norms of wisdom – personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality – as understood from the biblical wisdom literature. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer us insight into a historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving IR conflicts.

The personal. The most frequent image of wisdom in the literature is feminine, particularly in the book of Proverbs. There, a woman of nearly divine stature is portrayed as attractive, prudent, virtuous, competent, and speaking in the first person, offering sage advice in public squares, in noisy streets, and at city gates. Lady Wisdom explains that she has been with God since the beginning of creation, and we see her engaging with people, crying out to them, insisting on a hearing. She is a “me,” writes Alan Lenzi, “a personal presence” in the world. Here, wisdom is portrayed not as a platonic Form (see part 1), or as any kind of an abstract body of thought, but as a personal-relational agency in human affairs.

The peaceable. Wisdom’s nature as “peaceable” appears in James 3:17, in a New Testament book that Ben Witherington, in Jesus the Sage, argues is “heavily indebted” to the wisdom material found in the Hebrew Bible. And in Proverbs 3:17, the Hebrew Bible indicates that the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom, that is, of the kind of peace committed to producing social, economic, and political well-being, or flourishing. Importantly, as Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff once explained to me, the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but disorder and brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, and souls, are still broken.” The paths of shalom, then, take us beyond cease fires and peace treaties to repairing social, economic, and political brokenness.

The mutual. Simply stated, since time immemorial everyone on the planet has participated in the same creation, shared the bond of what it means to be human, and held the same basic interests, such as to provide for their families, to see their children raised safely and educated, to be healthy, to enjoy economic well-being, to ease sufferings, and to live peacefully with others. People everywhere are so constituted, and the agency of wisdom draws our attention to this human mutuality, that is, to the deep interests, concerns, and goals shared by the human family as a whole before distinctions are made about ethnicity, nationality, or core belief.

global commomsThe wisdom tradition, then, has a vital interest in seeing relationships (domestic and international) established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity (often discussed today using the adjective “common”). The agency of wisdom is normatively committed to the development of peaceable attitudes, forms of communication, and individual and institutional behaviors, arrangements, and agreements that are essential to human flourishing amid its diversity.

Nearly ten years ago, in With or Against the World?, James Skillen wrote that the “American people need to gain a deeper understanding of what it means that the world’s people and states share a single global commons, the governance of which is becoming more and more difficult with each passing year.” He then reminded us: “American failure to think and act cooperatively over the long term for the international common good is part of what threatens even America’s future.”

It will be evident to those who work to ease adversarial international relations and build more cooperative ones that nothing completely new is being introduced in this article. Seeking wisdom, however, might help us to imagine and obtain peaceable arrangements and agreements that we might not intuitively perceive as possible from within ideological frames that have become second nature to us. Even against great odds, that might at least help governance of the global commons to become a little less difficult along the paths toward shalom.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.


“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein

waiting to changeWisdom: The Missing Agency of Foreign Policy
by Charles Strohmer

In The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright writes that in university she was taught that religion had no part in shaping the world of foreign policy. Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson, she writes, theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. Religion wasn’t rational. To talk about it invited trouble and diplomats were taught not to invite trouble. “This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state.” Because of the events of September 11, 2001, however, “I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world.”

Wisdom has suffered a fate similar to that of religion, and an adjustment is needed. The seeking of wisdom for foreign policy decision making often gets been trumped by rigid a priori reliance on forms of ideological thinking, such as American exceptionalism or political realism, idealism, or neoconservatism. Wisdom is often the first casualty when an ideological frame becomes the only grid through which leaders and their advisers analyze events and take decisions.

Part of the reason why wisdom gets such short shrift can be found in the universities. The philosophical starting point for studies in international relations and foreign policy can be traced historically to the roughly one-hundred-and-fifty-year period of classical Greek philosophy and its highly abstract thinking during the fifth and fourth centuries before the time of Christ. From this period, IR scholarship relies heavily on Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, especially Plato. As Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “All Western philosophical thinking consists of footnotes to Plato.”

This starting point is understandable given the foundational indebtedness that Western intellectual life owes to Plato’s theory of Forms, or Ideas, as archetypal ideals, including the array of Western political ideologies for shaping the state, for instance, or for what justice should be. Political ideologies affect analyses and decisions in many areas, such as the way leaders make sense of international relations and forge relationships with one another; the way one nation perceives another; the way states act toward one another; the momentum, or lack of it, in negotiations; and much more besides, including decisions about peace and war.

But IR studies do not go back far enough. There is much insight to be gained by going back to the wisdom tradition of the Ancient Near East, to a time when royal court officials were educated in the wisdom tradition and the agency of wisdom played a vital diplomatic role in creating and sustaining peaceable international periods. This area of research has been sorely neglected by IR scholarship. Even impressive works such as Amarna Diplomacy and Brotherhood of Kings do not consider the vital role of wisdom in ANE diplomacy. That role, however, is seen in many of the political narratives of the Bible and in its wisdom literature, as well as in the wisdom literature of other ANE cultures.

Granted, the Bible frequently shows ancient Israel and her neighbors at war with one another, and the prophets often criticize Israel and its kings for their failures to do justice. Also, the nations of the ANE were no less religiously ideological, for instance, than those of today’s Middle East. Nevertheless, in the wisdom literature, and in some of the Psalms, and in numerous political narratives elsewhere in the Bible, there is preserved for us evidence of the peaceable counsel of wisdom that rulers, their advisers, and the peoples should heed.

This has been the focus of my research on The Wisdom Project, part of which has included trying to approximate the sages’ wisdom-based way of reasoning about life, which is not the same as ancient Israel’s priestly or prophetic actors. One of the most remarkable discoveries has been to find that wisdom is not abstract, ideological, or theoretical, nor is it sectarian. Instead, the agency of wisdom is personal (relational), peaceable, and committed to the mutual good of all humankind within its diversity.

In the second article of this 2-part series, I want to consider three norms of the wisdom tradition: personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer insight into an historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving our thorny IR conflicts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.


jigsaw big picture“Thank you!” to all who replied to my informal poll, which asked you to name one or two post-9/11 issues and events that you would like to this blog take on during the months ahead. Some sent email, others replied in the Comments area. Thanks also to those I spoke to in person. The replies were thoughtful and identified significant areas of concern, although no consensus emerged. But now that I think about it, I should have known that would be the case.

Our post-9/11 world presents us with a wide array of consequential issues, events, and policies that we need to come to grips with, both in America and in the Middle East. And the reality continues to change dramatically, and at times dangerously. There are so many decisive areas of the post-9/11 big picture to tackle that it would be hard to find agreement any one or two. That was certainly true of my small poll, in which no two people expressed an interest about the same area.

There were also significant aspects of the big picture that were not mentioned by the responders. That was an interesting omission to me, because I thought these areas would certainly be mentioned. What the poll did for me, then, was to remind me that the post-9/11 big picture has many crucial pieces of different shapes and sizes. This was on my mind as I wrote the pool, and one of the email responders picked up on that. So in the next post I want to summarize the salient pieces of the post-9/11 big picture.

Following that post, we will begin to consider some of these areas in depth. I will take you behind the scenes, on a kind of crash course, to understand where are at (really at) and how we got here, and, importantly, to consider what some wiser ways ahead might be. What I have to say is not going to be some rehash of you have learned from the evening news or talk radio or the blogosphere.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why that is, really why, then wiser ways ahead cannot be formulated and implemented.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Lynette Cook & NASA

BRIEFLY . . . .

InteretsResponses to the question I asked in the previous post have been arriving via email and the Comments area. I am extending the time frame for responses for two more days. If you have not seen that question, just click here. I will be taking answers through Saturday. See you back here on Monday. Thank you.


InteretsWhat would you like to hear about on this blog during the next several months? Here’s why I’m asking. To date, we have explored vital features about the relation of wisdom to human diversity, focusing on the international relations of the old-world Middle East (Ancient Near East). This post lists the places we have been. Now that we have that foundation to refer to, we are transitioning from that ancient history to the contemporary scene. My general plan, now, is to write about issues, decisions, policies, and people that have loomed large during the past decade in U.S. – Middle East events.

I began that transition here, where we took a few posts to remember what is was like in America during the days of 9/11. But there are so many crucial, post-9/11 areas to consider, including current emerging situations, that I have been wondering where we might start doing that in this next series of posts.

I have some ideas of my own, but you can help. I would like to get your thoughts. What one or two areas would you like to hear about first? I would like to hear from as many readers as possible on this. If one or two post-9/11 areas stand out, I will seriously consider starting there.

So do make a suggestion. Brief or longish. You don’t have to be too specific. Send your suggestions via email or the Comments area. Thank you. I look forward to hearing for you. C. S.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


vision glassesThe monstrous dose of reality that would soon become known by the iconic shorthand “9/11” plunged America and its leadership into a collective worldview crisis, and many individuals and families suffered terribly as well. Although I did not suffer like many people did, my own experience of 9/11 was so unusual that I felt as if I had experienced it too much but missed it completely. Strange inner dissonance, that. The attack had taken place but I did not know that for many hours. I must have been one of the last people on the planet to learn about it. And when I finally did learn about it, the startling way that happened, and the next four days encamped at Shearwater Air Force Base, made 9/11 seem too much to me.

Despite being well-cared-for at Shearwater, I found it difficult to think, and though I consider myself a person of faith, I found it hard to pray. I often found myself with barely a thought in my head. I was pensive and, back home, became disoriented and could not concentrate to work. I had to postpone a speaking engagement and push two article deadlines further into the future.

But knowing myself, I knew that my only way out of the molasses – my back to “normal” – would be by gaining a good understanding of what had occurred and what responses would be wisest. I had too many questions that I needed answered. To ignore getting the answers would be, for me, like trying to live as if 9/11 had not occurred. And I could not go there. I had to understand. And I wanted to get it right. That would take time, but that path, I knew, would deliver me from the dissonance.

So I set out. I suppose this was quite a natural direction for me to go, given that I am a writer and that writers research their subjects. As well, the timing could not have been better. My seventh book had just come out, a co-author job with John Peck, and I had been wondering what the subject of my next book would be. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I should say that I felt more than a natural compulsion. For this new research and writing project I felt a very strong drive.

I should also say that, at the time, I had little interest in international relations and foreign policy. And I will embarrassingly admit to believing that it would only take several months, perhaps a year, to conduct the necessary research. I was foolishly mistaken about that. The most frequent question I get asked is: What’s going on in the Middle East? Unfortunately, many who ask are impatient. They want sound bites, as if sound bites could faithfully answer the persistent questions that have arisen. It takes time to understand how we got here, and why, and what are some wiser ways ahead. Most people reading this blog don’t have time for that amount of study, so I have done the homework for you, and want to offer it to you here.

Today we do not live in a time such as during the Cold War status quo, during decades when, although the United States and the Soviet Union made life interesting at times, international relations between the two super powers were nevertheless static enough. You pretty much knew what was what. Today, the “war on terrorism,” the war in Afghanistan, and the war about Iraq have not – to put it mildly – fulfilled anything even close to either Western or Middle Eastern expectations.

War is a wretchedly incompetent and perverse agent of change. No West – Middle East status quo has emerged. Instead, unexpected major events continue to surprise, and new violent realities emerge so often that it is impossible to put your finger in the script and conclude, “Ahh, this is where we are at. This is the reality. Now here’s what we can do.” So many analysts talk about “the long war.”

And you can forget about what you have heard on the evening news, or talk radio, or the blogosphere. You are not going to get three minutes of “in depth coverage” in the following posts, or sound bites, or cliches, or stereotypical or polemical answers.

We live in a dangerous period. If we do not know why, really why, and if we do not learn from the missteps, then we cannot formulate wiser ways ahead. I don’t claim infallible answers, but over the course of the next several months I am going to be sharing with you on this blog what I have learned from more than a decade of research, including taking you behind the scenes to hear from key people I have talked with on my travels. The unlearning and relearning has been a surprising journey to clarity. I hope it becomes that for you too.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by katerha (permissions via Creative Commons)


map readingToday we have considerable understanding about what occurred on September 11, 2001, and why. We forget that at the time we all grappled in the dark for answers. The irony was palpable. What was being called a defining moment lacked clarity. Why was that? The jumble of mixed messages about the “attack on America” that was coming from Washington and the media those days, and from political analysts and religious leaders, indicated a terrible collective worldview crisis into which the nation had been plunged.

In our more humble moments today, we might be able to remember that America had suddenly been forced to deal with problems so revolutionary and intractable that there was a shaking of the foundations. National life had been going along fairly well for a pretty long period. The Cold War had ended in 1991 and we all hoped for a more durable peace. But suddenly life was no longer normal. Things that had been taken for granted were now being seriously questioned, even by the “experts.”

Although it was refreshing to hear such humility expressed by many political analysts, the hard truth of it was that answers those days were few and far between. A terrible unknown had knocked America off its stride and the nation was scrambling to make sense of what had occurred. The nation was processing one of those (fortunately) rare phenomenon called a national worldview crisis.

In recent posts we have been discussing how deeply the crisis effected our personal lives and worldviews, as individuals. But it was, of course, a collective worldview crisis as well, one that deeply effected Washington as a political entity, despite the public image it put forward as being in control. Washington’s treasured and basic ideas for understanding and responding to such a national emergency had suddenly been called into question, for there had never been one like this one.

It was, in my opinion, worse than that of another attack from the air sixty years earlier – on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. Although that surprised the country and plunged it into a terrible national crisis, it was nevertheless understandable an act of war by one state, Japan, against another state, America. And as such Washington could immediately process what had taken place and lean on the traditional way of response: the war system.

In other words, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emerged from the modern way of thinking about war – state versus state. It was easy for that generation both to understand what had occurred and to recognize the kind of response in kind that would follow. America would go to war and was able to do so. Everyone got this. The nation could be mobilized. Washington could be confident that America could effectively meet the challenge.

The attack on the United States from the air sixty years later was not a Pearl Harbor kind of surprise. It came not from a state but from a group of non-state actors called al Qaeda, led by the religious militant Osama bin Laden. It struck the nation with fundamental unknowns on both preparedness and response. This left the President and everyone else uncertain about why it had occurred and how to respond. Significant books have been written about this early period of ambiguity in the White House. It was amid this kind of national worldview crisis that Washington had to try to identify where the rough ride had landed the nation, and what the response should be.

Sans a reliable map by which sense could be made of the attack, or what the wisest response to it should be, I hasten to add that I had some sympathy for the White House, its advisers, and the Congressional committees responsible for America’s national security.

Story continued next post…..

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Ed Yourdon (permission via Creative Commons)