©2014 by Charles Strohmer.

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus chose twelve close followers, and most of them were so different that they would never have come together on their own in any sort of initiative. We do not know much about any of them from the Gospels, and some we don’t know anything about. But here are some things we do know.

There were four professional fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, a guy who was sort of the “nobody” of the group, a man who held huge doubts about who Jesus really was, and the guy who betrayed Jesus. Some of these guys would have had some pretty serious issues, if not hostility or enmity, with some of the others.

If there is any one thing this motley crew had to get to grips with early on, together, it was that Jesus didn’t start discipling them – his inner circle – by bringing a bunch of friends together. This would have been deliberate on Jesus’ part and disruptive for the disciples. On the road with Jesus, they were now not only away from their old friendships, family, and established careers; they were also traveling physically with the other in their midst, and for the express purpose of learning from Jesus about fleshing out, modeling, the life of the kingdom of God.

wisdom tradtionHere is why we should grasp this. In these current posts we have so far chiefly been focusing on ways in which Jesus taught his peaceable wisdom among the diverse peoples of ancient Palestine and counseled them to apply it, whomever they were. Stories and incidents in the four Gospels show different responses. Some got the vision and applied it. Some said, That’s interesting; I’ll think about it. And to others it was either foolishness or a stumbling block. At the very least, almost everyone was  surprised by Jesus’ way, even if they did not take that wisdom to heart.

Personally, I think many were surprised, if not shocked, by Jesus’ teaching when they understood, and at times saw in action, the shapes of that peaceable wisdom applied, for instance, in family, social, political, or economic life after folk took Jesus at his word and changed how they lived or worked. Jesus called to repentance those whose obedience to attitudes, ideologies, or actions were, through various ways and means, tearing apart the fabric of life. In the four Gospels many, though not all, of the narratives focus on this.

Mind you, Jesus was not putting this on others and not on himself. I think one of the most stunning things that the people of his time saw and learned about Jesus was that he wasn’t a hypocrite. He personally modeled his wisdom, quite publicly, in his own daily actions, from the get-go. It was by bringing together the twelve – with their diverse, and sometimes conflicting, interests and visions; with their grievances, fears, and biases; with their partialities, rivalries, and prejudices – that Jesus first gets everyone’s serious attention about what he is on about. It is the strange witness and potential of shalom amid diversity amid ancient Palestine with all of its strife, conflict, violence, oppression, conspiracies, and everything else that tears at the fabric of life and that has analogies today to which we may find ourselves in obedience.

Jesus deliberately stuck himself with twelve others into an ongoing initiative in which the thirteen of them had to grapple for three years with contradictions, competing interests, misunderstandings, personal issues, perceived lack of parity, and much more. And I  haven’t even mentioned, and won’t here, what the twelve must have thought about their teacher at times.

This motley crew of twelve diverse disciples had to learn to get along with each other. No, I did not say that right. It was more than that. They had to understand which values, ideas, and principle informed the choices they made that militated against expressing their diversity among one another peaceably everyday. This wasn’t about uniformity. It was about learn where and how to shake off the bogus stuff and follow Jesus in their diversity but a diversity focused on fleshing out Jesus’ vision of life, which was meant to become their normative public witness amid the cosmopolitan diversity of ancient Palestine. It would change them personally. And it was what Jesus himself, their teacher, was modeling. “A student is not above his teacher,” Jesus said, “but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

Of course the twelve failed terribly at times. But Jesus was afterward always showing them what course corrections they then needed to make, if the were going to continue to follow him, Sar Shalom, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Sure, what  Jesus was modeling was controversial, and in the next post we will explore some of those narratives.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

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©2014 by Charles Strohmer

tikun olamOne of the ways we learn wisdom is from other people. I’m a big believer in that. It happens to me so often I could write a book about it! Sometimes the received wisdom is so pertinent to something I am doing that it is utterly amazing. Fills in a huge blank in my thinking.

So, a story about one time. I occasionally have conversations about the wisdom tradition with Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, a friend who is a gifted negotiator and mediator. During dinner a kosher deli in Washington DC, we were discussing shalom as human flourishing and the conversation came around to Rabbi Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who emphasized shalom. Later, back home, while writing a magazine article about Jesus and politics, I wanted to include some thoughts about shalom and tikkun olam (the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”). But I was stuck. It’s never fun getting stuck when you are under a deadline!

Something was missing in my understanding of tikkun olam, so I shot off an email to Arnie. This led to a fascinating email conversation for a couple of days. The penny dropped for me when Arnie explained that the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology) must help mend and repair the brokenness in the world.” That piece of wisdom helped me finish the article.

Tikkun olam (repairing the world) appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature and in Judaism for building Jewish societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, and generosity, and also for influencing the greater welfare of the world at large. (Some rabbis see the Sabbath as a kind of rehearsal for the coming for the messianic age of shalom, with the practice of tikkun olam during the preceding six days of the week as anticipating that future.)

I do not know if Jesus ever used the phrase tikkun olam, but its meaning sure seems to me to describe what he was on about as a teacher of wisdom during his itinerant ministry in the towns and on the hillsides of Galilee and Judea. You cannot read the Gospels without seeing Jesus continually urging his mixed audiences to get their act together> Jesus is frequently urging people to work more willingly and tirelessly to heal their relationships, love neighbor, and practice shalom in their communities. That might not repair the entire world, but it would repair the world around them. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Jesus was not being idealistic or utopian. Like the sages of old, he was realistic about human nature. He knew its limits and its penchant to turn ugly. Yet it is clear that Jesus’ gospel-shaped wisdom, even amid the highly-charged throes of the religious and political alchemy of Palestine under Roman rule, always meant putting away the sword. If there is any one first step toward the practice of shalom today, surely it is this.

Jesus oft-quote admonition to “put away the sword” came during his own end-times, just before his death on the cross. It hearkens back with perfect pitch to the beginning of his public ministry to what may be the most oft-quoted of Jesus’ words heard in the world today. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to what may well have been the largest mixed multitude ever assembled to hear him (Matthew 5:9).

The peace he spoke of on that mountainside was not that of the Pax Romana. Neither would it square with the Pax Americana of our time. It is the peace of shalom. Of repairing the world around us.

The agency of wisdom urges us in the here and now, amid our own diversity, to seek to repair adversarial or broken relationships and situations. It seems to me that if there is any first step toward that today, it must begin by putting away our swords, figuratively and literally, and become blessed peacemakers.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

community projectThis is the third of three posts of personal stories that illustrate internal obstacles to following wisdom’s peaceable paths amid diverse cultures. The previous two posts focused on Christian – Muslim – Jewish relations in the larger context of U.S. – Middle East relations. But obstacles also exist, of course, outside of that context. So I thought we would look at one story about that here.

Personal struggles with the implications of actually following wisdom’s peaceable (shalomic?) paths amid human diversity is in fact everyone’s perennial challenge. We all know this. It is just sometimes hard to admit the truth of it. It is easy for the like-minded to be cool, calm, and collected among themselves. But what about when all different kinds of people are engaged in a community project to improve their neighborhood? Any hope there? In the context of community diversity, cooperation in proximity with others who do not look or sound or live as will be challenging.

When there is a community project that we are all trying to accomplish together, the challenge to be wise, productive agents of shalom in proximity of diversity may at times mean abandoning as unpromising some social or ideological, or even some religious, ways of thinking about other people that have become second nature to us. Especially when the implications of changing hit us. We may balk at that.

Some years ago an old friend of mine, Pastor Mike Osminski, and some of his friends, planted a church in an impoverished, mixed-race neighborhood on the border of Detroit. They had been part of a White, middle class suburban church, and they had a strong desire to “bring their resources” to help heal that broken neighborhood. They found a building near Eight Mile Road and things seemed to be going pretty well for the church’s mission until its embedded, White middle class religious views got in the way of furthering the reach of shalom. The church then faced the difficult choice of either holding to its existing theologically-driven values and practices and risk closing its doors or ditching the limiting bits of its religious views and do mission a different way.

It took them several painful years to sort this out, while the leaders chose to go with furthering shalom instead of hanging on to some question-begging theology – a situation further complicated when key people left the congregation. Making the changes was one thing; living out the implications of the changes for the church’s mission was quite another thing. It was only after the changes were made and their implications felt that some people balked and left.

Since then, however, the church’s mission has been having considerable, multi-dimensional impact on improving the neighborhood, including getting City Hall to pitch in. Further, in 2013, the church made the pages of Christianity Today as a key actor in a large and powerful network of urban and suburban Christians, called EACH (Everyone A Chance to Hear), which is working to bring shalom into many of Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods through an impressive array of very practical initiatives.

Today, diversity in community has become more normative than ever, making the challenges to healing human brokeneness more demanding than ever. Like it or not, the world today holds all of us, each in our own way, inescapably in fulcrum of struggle through which, by our actions, we will be known either as wise or foolish.

Patience, humility, and prudence will be required when we are seeking to be empowered by wisdom to explore and develop ways of seeing and doing that are more pluralistically cooperative and peaceable. Efforts will be demanding and results often experimental. And it may take a long time, shepherded by carefully orchestrated effort, even to realize modest progress, especially amidst storms.


©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.


©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.