In 1976, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, then a rising star in biblical interpretation, published Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom. That was also the year when, quite unexpectedly, I became a Christian. I don’t know if there was any divine synchronicity in the air between those two events that year, and it would be decades before I would be underlining sentences and scribbling margin notes in that book, but when I did I was surprised to see how much of the book’s reflections on shalom had been worked into my bloodstream by the Holy Spirit since 1976. Perhaps this is because a praxis that takes the vision of shalom seriously is not bound to any one time, place, or people, and Living Toward a Vision brings out that timelessness. Today, perhaps especially today, I think readers will find the book’s deeply biblical treatment of shalom – in the contexts of exodus, exile, rescue, return, and restoration – prophetically challenging to personal, national, and international peace agendas. The following conversation with Dr. Brueggemann about such matter and shalom took place by phone on March 19, 2015.
Charles Strohmer: You’ve been thinking about shalom for a long time. Do you have a working definition of shalom? (I won’t hold you to it!)
Walter Brueggemann: Well [laughing], I would say that it’s about the flourishing wholeness of creation into the purposes of God. Something like that.
CS: And what do you see as a vision for shalom, for Christians to participate in and work for today?
WB: I think it means peace and justice – peaceable life together among the nations and tribes and religious traditions, and economic justice so that everybody has enough resources to live a life of safety and dignity.
CS: So shalom is not just for some future time but something to actualize in the hear and now.
CS: Shalom, of course, is about peace. But in America, “peace” has come to mean things like “personal peace and affluence,” which was how Francis Schaeffer described a particular American idol. Living Toward a Vision interprets the text of Scripture to show that the Hebrew word “shalom” gives us a very different understanding of peace. Shalom is about social, economic, and political well-being, or flourishing. Sometimes I wish the English translators had left that word alone, not translated it as “peace.”
WB: That’s right, yeah. Although there are a lot of people now who just use the word shalom. But we need to do that more.
CS: In the book, you reference Ezekiel 34:25, to discuss what the prophet calls the covenant of shalom. And about that covenant, you write that “persons are bound not only to God but to one another in a caring, sharing community.” So shalom is very relational, isn’t it? It gets us involved in moving others along into places of well-being.
WB: Yes, that exactly right.
CS: So you write that our job is to put substance into the claims of shalom. It’s got to be done very concretely. Your text for that is the Exodus narrative.
WB: I think it’s useful to think of Pharaoh’s regime as being anti-shalom. In Egypt there was abuse, violence, and sharp social stratification. After the Exodus, I think that the covenant at Mount Sinai is an attempt to order social relationships in a shalom-like way, in contrast to the way social relations worked under Pharaoh. If you take Pharaoh’s narrative as the backdrop, then you can see that the covenant at Mount Sinai was aimed at creating communitarian well-being and protecting all the neighbors. And that’s carried more concretely into the book of Deuteronomy, with all of its economic regulations, which were designed so that the big ones could not eat the little ones.
CS: To many people, this communitarian shalom would mean that we’ve first got to get everyone on the same page with us, before reaching out. But I think you’re talking about shalom even for the outsider, the foreigner.
WB: That’s right. And I think that both in the ancient world and in our contemporary society you can see that you really have to regulate and restrain the most powerful actors in order to protect the vulnerable. That’s what much of the law in the Old Testament aimed to do. You can see this today with the attempt to pass regulations that will restrain the big banks who are essentially predatory. At a practical level, I think that kind of regulation is indispensable for arriving at anything like social shalom.
CS: A shalom way of reasoning, then, would not be a fan of the noxious social and political polemics that now seem entrenched as the organizing principle of our country, and which keep getting worse, incessantly dividing us. A house divided…
WB: That is exactly right, because the single components of shalom are always neighbors. So it’s always about neighbors and the neighborhood. Obviously, the way our society is organized now is against neighborliness, and it’s busy destroying neighborhoods. So shalom is a very subversive idea, when you think about the ordinary practices that we think we ought to do.
CS: Besides its relationality, I also see a relativity to shalom in this world. You don’t use that word in your book, but I think I see your argument supporting it. What I mean, for instance, is that the economic well-being of many of us in America might seem like heaven on earth to people in another country. So our gifts of shalom to them move them along to places of well-being that they might consider as shalom for them. So it seems there’s spectrum to shalom.
WB: I think that’s right. Shalom is a very dynamic notion. It’s always under way, always in process. So we never finalize it. We take incremental steps along the way to try to create safer space for the flourishing of more people.
CS: We really need to get our heads out of the clouds, don’t we? I think of the letter that Jeremiah sent to the Jews in exile in captivity in Babylonia. He has the audacity to tell them to work for the shalom of that place!
WB: Because he had figured out that if there was not a larger, stable kind of social order, that the Jews in Babylon were always going to be vulnerable. You can’t have a private shalom to address. You have to address large, sustained questions.
CS: That letter must have been a huge shock to them, because it would have meant working for a very different-looking kind of shalom than they were accustomed to back home, in Israel.
WB: Yes. It was a context for which they were not prepared.
CS: Have we Americans lost the shock of what that means for us today?
WB: I think that’s right. But you’ve got to remember that Jeremiah was a big renegade in his own society. We do have voices like that now, who are insisting that we have to think and act that way, even though the dominant value system wants to silence people like that.
CS: In the book, you use the words “coerced” and “coercion” as the antithesis to the freedom that God intends for human beings. The cruelest forms of coercion today are being perpetrated by those I call the “submit-or-idea ideologues,” such as the ISIS militants. Any thoughts on ISIS as a coercive power?
WB: Well, I don’t have any direct information, just want I read about them. But I think ISIS is a totally violent movement committed to disturbing tradition and norms. It is the antithesis of shalom. And how we can even have a conversation about shalom in that circumstance is exceedingly difficult to imagine.
CS: Too right. Yet even though working for big-picture shalom does not seem possible in the chaos of Iraq and Syria, we may be able to work in small ways to be gifts of shalom to the countless displaced individuals and families who have fled ISIS for refuge in makeshift shelters and camps. For instance, some friends and I have been raising awareness of and support for initiatives such as The Cradle of Christianity Fund and Heart for Lebanon, which are getting all sorts of immediate and longer-term aid to the most marginalized of these families, which number in the tens of thousands.
WB: What you’re suggesting to me is the mantra: Think globally, act locally. That is, you have to have a huge picture of shalom, but when you go to address it, it requires concrete, immediate, local actions.
CS: And this often means creating an imagination for Christians to be free to practice this kind of obedience.
WB: Yes. I’ve been spending energy thinking about Palestinian rights. I think that is a case in point. The threat is not as immediate as ISIS, but we will never have peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians have some guaranteed rights. And in that particular case, the shalom responsibility is to try to influence American policy, because the state of Israel could not get by with what it’s doing if it did not have the U.S. behind it. I think that needs to be rethought, certainly now in terms of the statements made recently by Netanyahu, which were violently war-mongering statements.
CS: Have you landed on strategies for shifting policy?
WB: I think it requires a political voice and political actions, and being out in front and loud and noticeable about Palestinian rights. The media monopoly that Israel has makes it very difficult for us to get any perspective from the Palestinian side. We have got to let people know, in every way we can, that this is an important issue, that different actions need to be taken or we will never have shalom in that part of the world.
CS: I think that one of our American Christian problems is that we know a lot about Israel but not about the plight of the Palestinians. We need a revelation of that. But many people don’t want an imagination for the Palestinian narrative. How might that be changed?
WB: I think the access point is probably concrete narratives about specific persons who have suffered or been done in by military power that is brutalizing. By telling stories of individuals we’ve got to make the point that these are real human lives that are at stake. We can’t reduce everything to an ideology about the security of Israel. These are real people. I think the only way you get real people out front is by specific narratives about people whose names we know. These narratives are never reported in our press.
CS: Too right. And there are many such stories. These days, it seems like ending the cycle of violence is going to take something even greater even than the wisdom of Solomon. So I know I speak for many people when I say Thank you for you’re ongoing contributions to this.
WB: Well we all have to do what we can. I think that the level of anxiety is so high everywhere that it’s so hard to think rationally about these things.
CS: Right. And even some who want to think more wisely about this seem to be locked into an irrational fear and they’ll hit you with the “But what if?” question.
WB: Sure. Worst case scenario.
CS: And when you say to them, “Okay, so you now know about the goals of the submit-or-die ideologues, what are you going to do about it?”, they have no answer.
CS: Because if you follow that logic to the end and act on it, you’ll be picking up a gun.
WB: That’s right. That’s where it leads.
CS: And here’s where we come full circle back to the way of shalom.
WB: Yes. Shalom calls us to do something radically different. And I’m really glad that you’re staying at these hard issues. It’s hard, slow work isn’t it? And it’s so urgent.
©2015 by Charles Strohmer
Click here to see a series of short posts on “shalom and wisdom.”
Top image by Mohammad Usaid Abbasi (permission via Creative Commons). Middle image courtesy Heart for Lebanon.
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