“WAR NO MORE”

skill in wisdom

“When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Those words are from Jim Skillen. Some years ago we were talking about the kind of justice that must exist between peoples internationally if peace among nations is to be achieved. Jim said that he had been thinking about this, “trying to find an image to capture the sense of a larger communal whole.” He came up with symphonic justice.

With so much war ongoing in our world for thirteen straight years, and which shows no signs of ending but of becoming increasingly worse, it almost seems abnormal to think about orchestrating peace. But we must. We must. And we must not only think about it. We must engage in orchestrating peace sans weapons of war if there is to be any hope of reversing the trend.

Sometimes when I get overwhelmed by it all, I turn to music, so I leave you today with this, an exceptional five-minute music video: War/No More Trouble.

Someone heard it in his head first, saw the possibilities, arranged it with like-minded others, and then put it out there for all to learn what is possible. I hope it inspires you as it always does me. (Heads up – You actually need to watch the video, not just listen to the song, if you want to experience the full force of what is possible.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image via permission of Creative Commons.

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Shalom, the Grace of God, and You

giftI have posted a number of times on this blog about the vision of shalom as “well-being,” or “flourishing,” and the vital role that the wisdom of God plays in our activities to make that vision real in this world, in small or large ways. See this post, for instance. Having looked at this a great deal, I am coming to the conclusion that there is an ontological inseparableness between God’s wisdom and his shalom, and that a lack of grasping this results in strivings after well-being that resemble worldly patterns more consistently than they do God-envisioned ones. Here I want to consider an equally inseparable relationship, that of shalom to the biblical theme of grace as “well-being.”

In the early 1980s, I was playing around with some ideas about the grace of God that ended up in a little book on the subject, first published in 1993. The book was not so much a theological treatment but an attempt to look at grace as a practical dynamic for living a faithful Christian life, day after day: the life of grace. The very personal question I had been struggling with was: after “saving grace” gets us up and running in the Life of God, what then? How could that Life be lived in full bloom day after day? I had been taught that the Christian’s life was a life of grace, but what did that mean, what would it look like, whether in church on Sunday but especially from Monday through Saturday? I wasn’t finding much help with that.

Mind you, this was back in the days before everybody and his brother was writing books on grace. There was Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which is worth reading for sure, but during the 1980s and 1990s, the big emphases in contemporary Christian teaching and publishing lay elsewhere, such as with books on family, the end times, worldview, and Moral Majority politics. Whatever books one could find on grace were, like Bunyan’s, focused on theological aspects of “saving grace,” such as its relation to sin, and to Christ’s work of redemption, and to the individual’s response. If you should happen to hear a sermon on grace, it was typically enclosed with the frame of “unmerited favor” or “free gift” and centered on getting sinners saved. But such language wasn’t answering the question I was asking.

I’m not in the least disparaging theological understandings of grace. I have benefitted greatly from them. But for me it left “grace” too abstract, which the cross of Christ is anything but. “Unmerited favor” seemed a bit of a lazy answer, and the tautological “free gift” merely drew a joke about “What gift isn’t free?” In short, my own deep itches about the grace of God for daily life remained unscratched.

human eyeThey began to get scratched when I plunged into the biblical text myself, along with assistance from some good study aids and the especially blessed help of my tutor those years, the British theologian John Peck, who also teaches Hebrew and Greek. So I plunged in at the beginning of the Bible, with the first two statements where “grace” is overtly disclosed. (The following two texts are from the King James Version because the more contemporary ones – unfortunately, in my view – typically translate the Hebrew chên as “favor” instead of as “grace.”)

“Noah found grace [chên] in the eyes of the Lord.” And Lot “found grace [chên]” in the sight of the Lord (Genesis 6:8 & 19:19).

These two short statements about the grace (chên) of God can seem oddly out-of-place because the narratives in which they appear emphasize the judgment of God and the widespread destruction that resulted. But God’s grace can be found hidden amid distress and suffering.

“Grace” in Genesis, and in every other Old Testament (OT) narrative where God is the initiator of grace (chên), carries two main thoughts. One is that of “God coming down, which is a bit of an awkward-sounding way to put it today. But think of it anthropomorphically. Many times, the OT speaks of God “coming down” into human history to have a look around, so to speak, as if he were spying out the land before deciding on just what sort of intervention he should take.

One time, for instance, God came down to bring judgment during the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5-8):

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will he impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not be able to understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”

Another time, God came down upon Mount Sinai to bring the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19:10-11):

The Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes and he ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”

In another incident, God comes down to wage war (Isaiah 31:4):

The Lord Almighty will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and on its heights.

A central theme of these OT narratives (many others too) is that God actively engages in human history. In the above texts, God came down in three different ways: to bring the Law, to execute judgment, or to wage war. Now this idea of “God coming down” to engage with human life is also inherent in the chên narratives of Noah and Lot. This brings us to our second main thought about chên, which is “well-being.” So chên, then, is not about God coming down to wage war, or to execute judgment, or to bring law. Instead, God is “coming down to move people to places of well-being.”

“God coming down to move people to places of well-being” became the working definition for “grace” developed in my little book on grace for everyday Christians living. I see it as the hidden narrative in the lives of Noah and Lot and their families during eras when, and for reasons not entirely clear, human “wickedness” had increased so greatly that “every inclination of the thoughts of [everyone’s] heart was only evil all the time,” and the earth was “corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (Genesis 6:5, 11). That’s Noah’s day. In Lot’s, the “sin” of Sodom and Gomorrah was “so grievous,” the even God seemed surprised by it: “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20).

But even in these darkest of times, with injustice and violence having become organizing principles of society, God came down to Noah and Lot to move them to places of well-being. God’s grace for Noah and his family was a large wooden boat to ride out the storm. For Lot and his family it was the helping hands of angels to lead them out of the city. They did not earn this, they could not have provided it for themselves, and apparently they did not even ask for it. It was initiated by another party, God, to those who were in mortal distress.

SunsetIt is just here that we can find the nexus of God’s grace and his shalom, for both are gifts, both seek to rescue and restore, both seek to provide degrees of well-being that previously did not exist for the objects of the intervention. A dramatic OT example is the Exodus narrative, when 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” (Exodus chapters 2-3). It was the grace of God moving people out of their misery and into what for them would be a place of shalom.

Everything I have just spoken of is grace straight from God to human beings. Now here’s the rub. Having modeled for us Person-to-person grace giving, so to speak, God then puts the onus on us. We mere mortals are called to move one another to places of well-being, or shalom. This, too, is the witness of the OT. I call it “person-to-person” grace giving. Many OT Narratives bear this out, such as the grace Potiphar gives to Joseph (Genesis 39:40), or that Jonathan gives to David (1 Samuel 20:3), or that Boaz gives to Ruth (Ruth 2;13), and that even the pagan king Ahasuerus gives to Esther (Esther 2:17). There are many such stories. I recommend reflecting on them.

These many and diverse person-to-person chên narratives of the OT describe beneficent actions of human beings freely given. They contribute to the well-being of the recipient, an active generosity, particularly toward those in need. And certainly with the coming of the various and diverse gifts of the Spirit to the body of Christ, person-to-person grace giving, with Christ as our example, is not meant to mean sporadic actions but an ongoing shape of our lives.

So the question for us becomes: “Who has found grace, and therefore some degree of shalom, in our eyes lately?”

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, the theme of person-to-person grace giving is the subject of my little book Explaining the Grace of God. (I was never a fan of that title, which was chosen by the publisher.) If you can’t find a reasonably priced copy on the Web, let me know. I may have a spare copy.)

Top image by Sarah McKagen, middle image by Cesar Cabrera (permissions via Creative Commons)

Today’s Sons of Thunder and the Call of Jesus

peaceful water sceneDuring a church luncheon recently, I landed in a long conversation with new friend who is on a self-imposed learning curve about Christian – Muslim relations. He is reading what Muslims themselves think about their religion, currently in the area of what Islam teaches about love and mercy.

Driving home that afternoon, I found myself giving this Christian high marks for reading original sources. He is avoiding a number of traps. (1) Of making up his mind about Islam based solely the news media’s continual barrage of reporting on terrorism. (2) Of drawing conclusions without having read anything other than non-Muslim sources. (3) Of taking his cues from the diabolic rantings of the militant extremists. I’m hear to warn you that if those are your only sources, that militant radicalism may subtly, over time, begin knocking even the most well-meaning Christians off their stride of following the Price of Peace.

I don’t mean that they will suddenly grab a gun and start shooting. It’s subtler than that. For instance, and briefly, in a milder form, the path of military solutions to the knotty problems of backing down the appeal and the spread of the jihadis militant ideology has displaced the tough slog of inter-religious dialogue and what Chris Seiple calls relational diplomacy.   And in extreme forms, even some long-churched believers can now be heard singing “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.

All of this plunged me, not for the first time, meditatively into what it means to be an ongoing follower of Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace, and this day my thoughts turned to those of Jesus’ followers whom he knew as “sons of thunder” (James and John; Mark 3:17). I want to conclude this post with the text I reflected on, and leave you to do your own soul-searching.

Now it came to pass, when the time had come for him to be received up, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before his face. And as they went, they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare [things] for him. But [the Samaritans] did not receive him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But he turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”And they went to another village.  Luke 9:52-56 (NKJV)

The Son of God is not the son of Zeus, Ares, the god of war and of weapons of war. He is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Sar Shalom. Just as those two first century sons of thunder needed that rebuke from Jesus, and then had to think through and work out the implications of being ongoing disciples of Sar Shalom in their own lives, perhaps Christianity’s sons of thunder today need a reminder that it is not the militants that Jesus pronounced as blessed.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Christy Rush (permission via Creative Commons)

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)

THE DIPLOMACY OF WISDOM: AGENCY OF PEACEFUL CHANGE

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.

SYMPHONIC JUSTICE

sparrow symphony“If we shall not have two states we shall have one conflict. And neither them or us should condemn our children to fight all their lives.” Recent words from Israel’s outgoing president Shimon Peres, who is leaving office at the end of this month. He was speaking to television journalist Charlie Rose at a synagogue in New York City, during an emotion-packed trip last week to the United States.

Peres is 90. His service to Israel spans the entire 66 years of the state’s history. He has worked with 10 U.S. presidents, labored for 40 years for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and seen Israel sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “I am leaving office,” he said in Jerusalem before he left for the U.S. “But I am not leaving the battle for peace.” Nor should we.

We have been looking into the distant past of the old-world Middle East (the story of Moses and Jethro), to consider the wisdom of impartial justice as vital to peacemaking. Peres’s remarks gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the current Middle East, specifically on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

A gut-wrenching sense of impartial justice has for decades gripped the majority of both domestic populations. Both have recognized that neither side is going to attain perfect justice in a peace deal. Both have been willing, against great odds, to compromise and to show an inordinate amount of collective patience to reach an equitable solution. Both have absorbed acute pain and suffering, hope deferred, and tragedies of death as a witness to their strong, common commitment to a negotiated settlement. There may be a more poignant present-day illustration of two peoples seeking peace with each other, but perhaps not.

“A two state solution is not an empty desire,” Peres told Rose, as he then immediately reminded the synagogue audience about Moses. Moses, Peres noted, said that all people are equal and that nobody is superior or inferior because all are made in the image of God.

soul symphonyThe perennial drive for a negotiated peace in the Middle East is truly remarkable. I believe we can find a lot of wisdom about it in what James Skillen calls “symphonic justice.” Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has been a public theologian and a policy adviser for more than thirty years, working with elected officials, advisers, and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC to create and implement just policies and agreements for the common good. Some years ago, during some conversations we had about justice in this world, Skillen explained that he had been thinking about justice as symphonic.

“I was trying to find an image,” Skillen said, “to capture the sense of a larger communal whole. When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picking up on Skillen’s analogy, Gideon Strauss, executive director of the DePree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, wrote that before we vote for political candidates we ought to ask whether they are committed to helping our communities and institutions toward a more symphonic justice. “In a symphony orchestra, there are a multitude of instruments, each with its own tone and timbre. The conductor, working off a common score, makes room for and sets limits to the unique contribution of each section of instruments so that the variety of voices and melodies, rhythms and tones do not result in either an anarchic cacophony or a monotonous conformity, but instead produce a rich and beautiful harmony.”

Strauss, an adviser to portions of the 1996 South African constitution, goes on to argue that a “government has a responsibility to make room for and set limits to the great variety of persons, communities and institutions subject to its authority, so that each can flourish according to its inherent and unique potential, while interacting in peaceful and mutually beneficial harmony.”

Symphonic justice is what Jethro, a non-Israelite, counseled Moses to teach the diverse, exodus orchestra to play in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. And play it they did. Symphonic justice is what the majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desire and work hard at to play today, despite the region’s political cacophony.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by stevehdc & Temari 09, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS part 2 of 2

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Wisdom TraditionThe previous post set the stage to say that when the wisdom literature talks about shalom (see Proverbs 3:17), it is saying more to us that just “peace” as it is commonly understood today. Shalom refers to collective well-being and wholeness, including in economic, social, and political life. “Flourishing” seems to be entering into the English lexicon as a synonym for this deeper meaning of shalom. Its force can be felt in the second half Psalm 34, which many scholars agree has an affinity to the wisdom tradition. In a Proverbs-like passage in the middle of the psalm (34:14), the people are exhorted (collectively) to seek shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and to pursue it (for the entire community).

Texts such as Proverbs 3:17 and Psalm 34:14, I believe, indicate the kind of peaceableness – shalom – that is normative to the wisdom tradition. It points to what I call the wisdom norm of peaceableness. (In the previous post we saw that the meaning of shalom is distinct from typical contemporary notions of peace.)

Identifying it as a “norm” is a significant, because norms, of course, can be broken. A norm is not like a physical law, which cannot be broken, and if you try to break it, immediate consequences result. Take, for instance, the law of gravity. Anyone jumping from the roof of a twenty-story building will suffer an immediate consequence. Break a norm, however, and the consequences may not be evident for quite some time.

The force of this can be felt in the prophetic literature when the scarcity of shalom is being lamented due to rampant injustice. For instance, in Jeremiah’s time both the prophets and priests do not seem to have taken seriously repairing what had become an utterly broken society, including economically and politically – a brokenness that the nation’s leadership bore a huge responsibility for, but was in denial about. These leaders superficially treated what the prophet calls “the [deep] wound” of society. Also, the nation’s leaders, apparently, had a history of collaborating among themselves in the royal court to enact policies designed to line their own pockets rather than to foster justice. Their goal was not the good of society but to increase their own comfort and affluence and to build more resilient shelters for themselves from life’s vicissitudes.

How’s that been working out for them? Quite well for a long time, evidently. Never mind that the larger society has fallen into conspicuously bad disrepair. Having fattened their portfolios and their standard of living, they are not going to stop now, just because a major city (Detroit?), is going down the tubes. So they (foolishly) reassure the nation. Shalom, shalom, they proclaim. All is well; all is well. The message from the royal court to its subjects couldn’t have been clearer: Don’t expect anything better for yourselves. But to this Jeremiah replies, There is no shalom. No well-being, no wholeness, no flourishing. Society is broken.

This narrative in Jeremiah chapters six and eight, in which the vital role of shalom plays a large role, is clear enough. It seeks to compel us to go beyond just saying “peace, peace” to the work of establishing shalom. (There may be a some subtext at play too: a tragic irony or a superficial blessing. That is, are the leaders saying of themselves “We are flourishing,” and to that the prophet is replying, “No, you’re not.” Or are the leaders saying to the people, “Be well; keep warm and well-fed,” to which the prophet is replying, “That’s no policy of shalom.”)

Working toward shalom should have been prominent in the wisdom of the Jerusalem leadership, but instead the leaders have a long history of breaking the norm of peaceableness. Perhaps it is because of this long history that they are chided for being worse off than animals. The force of this can be felt in Jeremiah 8:4-12, a section that would be at home in the wisdom literature. There, prophetic rebuke moves seamlessly into a wisdom-based way of reasoning with the leaders. This is done two ways. Once by invoking a lesson from creational order, which is typical of instruction found in Proverbs: Even though the stork, turtledove, swift, and crane know their own times and respond to them properly, these leaders do not (verse 7). And once by implicating “the wise” and their policies as hugely responsible for the society’s brokenness: Lacking even bird-sense, “their wisdom amounts to nothing” (verses 8-9; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation).

Having a long history in which they broke the wisdom norm of peaceableness, seemingly without consequences for them, the consequences are now at the door. Not many years later, it must have been shocking for the leaders who were left alive after the destruction of Jerusalem and exiled in Babylon, to receive a letter from Jeremiah instructing them to “seek the shalom” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). That would have been an especially hard pill for the exiled Jews to swallow: working for the well-being of a city filled with non-Jews.

An equivalent today might be the challenge to Christians, Muslims, and Jews to pull together to work for the good of the “secular” city. Yet if that is the reality, the wisdom norm of peaceableness would insist on nothing less. We will look at that the next post in this series.

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS part 1 of 2

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

PeacemakingAmong non-Christians, “Blessed are the peacemakers” may be the most well-known of Jesus’ sayings. What is not so well-known, even among Christians, is that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom and that he would have been drawing on an understanding of “peace” known as shalom. This post and the next one will explore that idea.

I mentioned in the two previous posts that there’s much more to the wisdom tradition than books such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. One way that has helped me immensely to start seeing that “much more” has been a continual wonder about what was going on in the minds of the sages who gave us the views of life that we find in the wisdom writings. They were not thinking like priests or prophets. So what were you guys thinking about? And why were you thinking that way? And what’s the point of it for today?

It’s not possible to know such a subjective reality infallibly, of course. After all, what we have today are written texts, redacted ones at that, sourced in what was originally an oral tradition of the sages that goes way back. Nevertheless, we can at least approximate the mind of the sages by a close engagement with the texts over a period of time, as well as by standing on the shoulders of good wisdom scholarship. I’m not asking you spend years doing this yourself. That’s not the point of this series of blog posts. I’m just saying how I got here, and I’m sharing some of my homework with you in this series of posts.

From my own close engagements I’ve seen that the sages had a peaceable way of reasoning about human relationships, diversity, and activities across the spectrum of life. This seems to be a core, but an often missed, feature when it comes to understanding the wisdom tradition. This post and the next one will open up some ideas on this wisdom’s peaceable way of reasoning about life and suggest why it is vital for wisdom in today’s increasingly diverse relationships and communities.

We can begin simply by noting two wisdom texts, Proverbs 3:17 and James 3:17. The former states that all of the paths of wisdom are paths of peace (NIV translation); the latter states that the wisdom that comes from above is peaceable (AV translation). In short, the literature itself seems to indicate that wisdom is fundamentally about peace.

But this is where things get interesting. A close look reveals that this “peace” is not about ambitions such as the attainment of personal peace and affluence, or even shelter from life’s vicissitudes. Neither can the meaning be reduced to the absence of conflict or to balance of power arrangements (as “peace” is often understood in international relations). It does not even indicate the so-called Pax Americana of today’s world, any more than it would the Pax Romana of Jesus’ time.

The word for “peace” in Proverbs 3:17 in the Hebrew Bible is shalom (the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom). But even that Hebrew word today, like our English word “peace,” has lost its depth and richness with some of us, having been reduced to a greeting of good wishes, for instance. Nothing wrong with that greeting per se. Others, myself included, occasionally sign their emails with shalom as general blessing. Nothing wrong with that either. In fact, that kind of sentiment begins many of New Testament epistles, such as the apostle Paul’s formulaic greeting, “Grace and peace to you.” The word shalom, however, points beyond mere greetings to a depth and a richness, and to a challenge.

shalom salaam tatooFor one thing, shalom has something of an Arabic equivalent in the word salam (sometime spelled as salaam). Both Hebrew and Arabic trace back to a Semitic language in which slm is the root word for both shalom and salam (vowels are added to help with pronunciations and nuances of meaning). In the English Bible and the English Qur’an, shalom and salam, respectively, are typically translated “peace.” And both words are heard today in common greetings such as “Peace be upon you,” as in the Hebrew shalom aleichem and in the Arabic salamu alaykum. (For those who like interesting rabbit trails, slm appears in transliterations of the English Bible, as in “king of Salem,” to describe Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18, a priest mentioned in Hebrews 7:1-2 as “king of peace.” Slm is also found in “Salem” in Psalm 76:2, where it is an early word for Jerusalem, and in the names “Solomon” and “Absalom.”)

Still, this does not enter us into the depth and the richness shalom. To say it another way, the word on our lips only as good wishes, or greeting, or general blessing can act as a kind of religious conceit that gives us permission to escape grappling with ways in which shalom challenges what we may think of as wisdom today. For shalom denotes well-being, wholeness, and flourishing, including economically, socially, and politically. We’ll pick this up in the next post.