Editor’s note: This article is the last in our series, “Seeking Shalom in the Midst of Polarization.” The series, in collaboration with The Colossian Forum, aims to examine the state of polarization in the U.S. and Canada and explore Christian strategies to overcome it. To read more articles in the series right now, visit TheBanner.org.
This series has been digging into today’s political polarization in the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada, a situation of deep division that has also affected the Church. Left and Right have moved more starkly away from one another. Many folks on each side have grown accustomed to dismissing or even demonizing those on the other side. And both sides of the polarity have increasingly gravitated toward media outlets that only further fuel each side’s distaste with the other, as well as their sense that the other side is ruining society. Many of the issues at the heart of this polarization are extremely serious—racial justice, abortion, voting rights, responses to a pandemic, how best to encourage a flourishing economy. These are not small things. But we’re also left wondering whether we’re really that far apart on these important topics. How deep do these fissures cut into the body of Christ?
What can Christians do to inhabit this fraught moment in a way that reflects the peace of God, the reconciliation of Christ, and the fruit of the Spirit? Given that the church has been painfully afflicted by these divisions, it’s clear that there are no quick fixes or magic Christian answers. A renewed way of being in community with one another will take patience, hard work, and a reconsideration of the vision that guides our engagement with one another. One key biblical image that can refresh that vision in this divided moment is that of shalom.
The Depths of Peace
The word shalom, which we find throughout the Old Testament, is often translated into English as “peace.” We sometimes use the word “peace” to describe the absence of overt conflict. Think of a parent frustrated with bickering children: “I just want some peace and quiet!” Shalom is sometimes used similarly in the Old Testament, such as when King Abimelech departs from Isaac “peacefully” (literally: “in shalom”) after an episode of simmering tension that could have broken out into violence (Gen. 26:31).
But “peace” in that sense only begins to scratch at the surface of the richness of the concept of shalom. The Abimelech story, for example, ends with more than just swords staying in their scabbards. It ends with a renewed relationship between the two parties, the sharing of blessings and promises, and even a feast. Similarly in English, for example, there is talk of what a “genuine peace” would look like after a war or finally being “at peace” after a time of grief or trauma. Even with the frustrated parent, the desire for “peace and quiet” is usually a yearning for flourishing relationships within the family, not simply quiet children. Such ways of using the word “peace” connect us to the depths of the biblical notion of shalom.
To express the fuller sense of shalom concisely, it is hard to improve upon the definition provided by Neal Plantinga in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” Shalom is a way of encapsulating God’s creational desire for the world. In view of the world’s sin, however, God’s desire takes the form of redemptive promise. Shalom is a big-picture vision of what God wants and what God will eventually accomplish for the world.
Shalom in the Bible
The notion of shalom appears prominently in some of the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah and Zechariah:
- Isaiah 65 and 66 only use the actual word once but present us with one of the most poignant visions of shalom. In these chapters we glimpse the promise of “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17), where long and full lives will be the norm (65:20), and work will result in enjoyment and blessing (65:21-23). “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (65:25). This promise of a renewed Jerusalem, which Scripture ultimately broadens as a promise for all of creation, will involve God extending shalom “like a river” (66:12), resulting in prosperity, comfort, rejoicing, and justice.
- In Zechariah 8 we again encounter promises regarding Jerusalem that have a broader creational horizon. God promises to return to the city (vs. 3). The old and the young will flourish (vs. 4). The people of God will return home (vss. 6-8). In contrast to a time of scarcity and danger, “there shall be a sowing of shalom; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew” (vs. 12, NRSV).
These prophetic passages that envision shalom occur as bursts of hope in situations of turmoil, judgment, hopelessness, and uncertainty. In Isaiah they take place in exile, far from the promised land and the temple, at a time when the people wondered if they had been abandoned by God. In Zechariah the vision of shalom is found in the tenuous context of returning home from exile.
Isaiah 9 also promises a child who will be named “Prince of Shalom” (vs. 6). Christians, of course, see this as a messianic promise fulfilled in Jesus and his work. In the New Testament, Jesus is revealed to be the only one who can bring enduring peace/shalom. Ephesians 2 uses the key division of Jew and Gentile to make this point:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (vs. 14-16).
Agents of Shalom
Christ creates the possibility of shalom. Through Christ, shalom is the very mission of God in the world—reclaiming creation from sin and brokenness. But one of the truths of the biblical storyline is that God tends to use people as agents of the divine mission. Tellingly, Zechariah 8:19, after describing God’s promised shalom, includes the command to “love truth and shalom.” And after proclaiming Christ as our peace, Ephesians “urges” us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:1-3).
In other words, the shalom of God’s mission has consequences for the life of discipleship to which we are called. While shalom is ultimately the gift of God, it is not the kind of gift we just sit around waiting for. Rather, it is the kind of gift that invites and empowers our participation—a task to which we are called. We are called to give witness to God’s promised shalom through our own actions, practices, and patterns of life, including in times of political polarization.
Shalom and Polarization
This is where things get complicated. Christians on various sides of today’s divisions sometimes appeal to the biblical picture of shalom to defend their views. They usually believe that their side’s perspectives and policies are a more reliable path to justice, flourishing, and wholeness. The notion of shalom is thus not a silver bullet that will automatically or easily vanquish our disagreement and contention. Part of Christian work related to shalom is to make the case that certain approaches to political and social life together are more resonant with the biblical notion of shalom than other approaches and policies. And one of the biggest challenges is to do so with words, actions, and attitudes that are in keeping with shalom. This can be hard when we would rather go on the attack or remain bitterly in our own self-assured confidence that our side is right.
Not only is work for shalom complicated, but it can also be overwhelming. The biblical vision of shalom is a grandiose, all-encompassing vision: The wolf resting gently with the lamb, the lion going vegetarian, flourishing and delight for all. How can we contribute to that? Can we really contribute to that?
Much of the time witnessing to shalom takes place most effectively through small steps—through commitments, attitudes, and practices that run considerably against the grain of today’s cultural and political moment. Such commitments, attitudes, and practices can accumulate over the course of time, often by simply giving witness to a better, more joyful, more promising way.
Here are a few practices and habits that Christians could foster in their own lives as a witness to Christ’s promised shalom in the face of polarization and conflict:
- Resist letting political markers identify us, at least not as our primary identity. First and foremost, we are disciples of Christ, servants of the triune God. Second, we are members of our communities and citizens of our nation, hopefully committed to the overall well-being of all who dwell therein. Only then, thirdly, should we identify ourselves as liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, etc.
- Check our media consumption. Have we confined ourselves to media messages that reinforce the polarization (which can be very lucrative for media companies)? Do our media choices frequently demonize people and viewpoints? Are we taking in media that feed our sense of self-assurance in our opinions without challenging us to consider other points of view?
- Seek out conversation with people, including other Christians, who disagree with us on political and social matters. (I must confess that this is one where I especially need to grow—I often shy away from such conversation, perhaps out of a sense of insecurity or fear or even just exhaustion). Are we regularly encountering real people of different perspectives and listening carefully to the reasons, hopes, and fears behind their views?
- Search for common ground, including common ground related to faith. There might be viewpoints on the far extremes of today’s political spectrum where this is impossible to do. But the vast majority of people who identify as conservative or liberal, progressive or traditionalist, are closer to the middle than our media or perceptions usually allow us to believe. Might there be important things, quite human and even Christian things, that motivate them? That can reframe the conversation.
These first few suggestions might seem too small and mundane to be a form of witness to God’s promised shalom. But if we remember that a biblical sense of shalom has everything to do with reconciled relationships, with our noblest needs and desires being fulfilled, with shared dwelling with a sense of safety, justice, and mutual flourishing, then the very act of decentering our political allegiances, thinking about the messages we are ingesting, and entering into genuine conversation with others is a crucial step toward shalom.
In addition to that, I suggest three more items that intersect even more directly with the notion of shalom:
- Consider the vision of shalom in our voting and policy advocacy. If we see a candidate or platform whose message or effects seem out of keeping with the biblical picture of shalom, perhaps we should ask some hard questions about that platform.
- Let the spirit and vision of shalom inform the way we think about others and the way we interact with them. If I am using the vision of shalom to inform my political preferences but acting on those preferences in ways that are out of keeping with the character of shalom, something has gone awry.
- Recognize that the prophetic message of shalom is often nestled next to a message of judgment against those who are self-assured. True shalom in our attitudes and words means being open to the new thing that God is doing in the world and the surprising insights and gifts we can glimpse through the people of God who surround us.
Receiving Hard Gifts
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has challenged Christians to seek to discern signs of obedience in other Christians who hold different social, political, or ethical viewpoints. Even if we think they are seriously, even dangerously, wrong on this or that issue, if we see something in them that seems like the life of Christ—a genuine wrestling with the Bible, a sincere life of prayer, diligent service of their community, etc.—that might indicate that hidden somewhere in (what we regard as) their wrong view is something we need to hear. It is a gift that they are offering to us, even though it might be a painful gift to receive.
If we as Christians can allow the Spirit to train us to seek a surprising gift in those whose minds we’re trying to change, our way of living amid disagreement may take one step closer to shalom. And that might be a contagious step, one that opens up further surprising possibilities beyond the bitterness, anger, and division of our current polarized moment.
- What does “shalom” mean to you? How have you heard it used and/or explained?
- The author suggests we “check our media consumption.” How does your current media consumption measure up to his questions? Is there anything that needs to be changed?
- How has the spirit and vision of shalom informed the way you think about and interact with those you disagree with? Can you think of specific examples?
- Think of one person or group that you strongly disagree with. Can you discern at least one thing about them that reflects the life of Christ or something that you need to hear?