Peace on Earth: Longing for Shalom

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, by French painter Luc Olivier Merson (1846-1920), 1879. Painting is held by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

By M. Andrew Gale, Executive Director of Global Strategy

In this holiday season, we hear a lot about peace, but rarely do we stop to think about what peace means. And sometime I think the depth of the word gets lost.

The angels, as Luke records it, tell the shepherds:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

And it’s picked up in the songs we sing, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”

“Peace on earth and mercy mild…”

and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

“Peace on the earth good will to men…”

And the words of the prophet Isaiah are often in the air in this season, calling the newborn child the Prince of Peace:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

In the Isaiah passage quoted above (9:6), the writer uses the title Prince of Peace, and shalom is the Hebrew term translated as peace here. But in English, peace often has a very narrow meaning. Peace is understood primarily as the absence of conflict. We contrast it with words like war and compare it with words like quiet. It’s passive.

But the Old Testament word shalom refers to something much deeper and broader; it refers to welfare or well-being. Rather than the absence of something, shalom is about the presence of something—the presence of relationships that work. Shalom is about right relationships—relationships that are healthy, balanced, and complete. And these right relationships are a part of who we are. They are more than just our relationship with other humans. Shalom is an all-encompassing peace that includes all aspects of our lives: our relationship with God, with ourselves, with others, and with creation.

In recent years, shalom has been applied to how we think about poverty. In their book When Helping Hurts, Stephen Corbett and Brian Fikkert note that poverty is the absence of shalom. In other words, poverty is the absence of relationships that work, and not merely a lack of resources. When relationships are broken (between God, ourselves, others, and creation), we are unable to live into the completeness that God intends. Poverty is something that we all experience at varying levels because we all experience broken relationships.

Shalom is how things ought to be. Sadly, we live in a world where things are not the way they ought to be. We experience war, violence, and oppression. Our relationships with one another, with God, with ourselves, and with creation are broken. And yet God offers peace. God offers us the opportunity to walk towards a peace that heals all relationships, all creation. We are not there, but we are not alone.

And shalom is at the heart of all we do at Global Strategy, in working for right relationships with the church around the globe, in working for right relationships with God, in working for right relationships with one another, in working for right relationships within and between communities.

In this season of Advent, as we remember the God who humbled himself and came to live among us, may we find the boldness to seek God’s shalom in all facets of our life (with God, ourselves, others, and creation).

For more on shalom, I recommend The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper.

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