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, which 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)

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