A few months ago in Capital Commentary, I shared some ideas from the biblical wisdom tradition about shalom and the vital work of repairing damaged and broken lives and relationships, socially, economically, and politically, whether domestically or internationally. I want to extend that thinking here. (The following was published in a recent issue of Capital Commentary.)
Many Christian and Jewish circles today talk about shalom as God’s vision for a future of peace and harmony for all of creation, including, of course, collective human life. And to give that vision legs in the here and now, shalom is also advanced as social, economic, and political “flourishing” or “well-being” in this world.
Those of us in the West already blessed with goodly degrees of well-being typically maintain the latter idea . But there seems to be a kind of relativity to shalom. We would see that the near-future goals of a Chinese peasant farmer, for instance, or an Indian woman seeking a micro-loan would most likely entail visions of flourishing that are much more modest than our own. And there are countless others whose lives can only be described as precariously lived – consider the refugee families who have fled ISIL for whom shalom in this world would be different still.
Beyond that, however, lies a blind spot. After a decade or more of Christians like me giving airplay to shalom in America, we haven’t been able to prevent the word from becoming equivalent to “getting ahead,” “succeeding,” or “moving up in the world.”
It seems that shalom is becoming synonymous with pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. If so, the biblical sense of shalom as “gift” has been lost.
The contradiction between shalom as “gift” and “trying to improve one’s lot in life” hit me hard last autumn as I learned about the Cradle of Christianity Fund, which has been implemented by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to supply immediate- and long-term aid and support to thousands of displaced and refugee families who have fled ISIL/ISIS. At the time, I had been talking with friends about the staggering changes of life that have been forced on these families. We wanted to help alleviate their misery, but were got stuck. We were here. They were there. And we knew of no bridge. But with the Cradle Fund we had not only a bridge but an inspiring this-world reminder of biblical shalom.
Policies by Western governments to address the crisis have been slow in developing, and in November, 2014 the UN reported that a huge shortfall in funding meant that winter aid from the UNHCR would reach only 240,000 of the 600,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The Cradle Fund and other NGOs, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Heart for Lebanon, have stepped into the gap with manna: food and water, insulation kits and boards, heaters and kerosene, and other essentials needed by families to survive the winter while holed up in small tents, abandoned buildings, and other makeshift shelters
In the Exodus narrative, the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, I’ve “come down to rescue them.” That rescue was a poignant example of the gift of shalom.
“For the precarious,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “shalom can be understood as the assurance that there is a hearer for our cries, an intervener who comes to transform our lives.”
Today, the cry of despair and the hope of an intervener coming from persecuted Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim families in Iraq and Syria is analogous to the Exodus narrative, when the only thing that matters is survival and the form that faith takes is one that cries out for deliverance. Brueggemann notes that because the Exodus generation lived their lives amid the acute precariousness of their situation, they “were interested in the question of survival – either actual physical, historical survival or at least the survival of faith and meaning.” Similarly, the crisis among Christians in Iraq evoked this cry last year from Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church: “We feel forgotten and isolated” and wonder about the reaction of the world.
Neither the giving of shalom nor its receipt must wait for the bullets to stop flying.
For me, the Cradle of Christianity initiative has brought a necessary corrective in my thinking, bringing me back to the biblical meaning of shalom as gift to the most helpless. This fund enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees.
The current exodus may not be over. But the vital work of rescuing and repairing damaged and broken lives has begun, but only just.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Neil Howard (permission via Creative Commons)
For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.
Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.
Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.
Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, founding director of The Wisdom Project, and a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice.