Cultivating Shalom in a Violent World, Part 1
In college, I joined the right-to-life movement, having been profoundly convinced that abortion-on-demand was the unjustifiable taking of human life. Years later, while serving as a pastor, I joined with many other clamoring voices and marching feet in protesting the preemptive war that the United States declared on Iraq in particular and on global terrorism in general. And now as I write, I am a part of an interfaith movement in my city that seeks to prevent gun violence, which cuts short the lives of thousands of youth not only in the streets of inner cities but also in the school hallways of the supposedly safer suburbs. As I reflect upon the causes that have inspired me to action through the years, a common conviction has driven them—namely, the sacredness of life and the ethical call to resist the violence that seeks to destroy it.
To fight against violence and destruction—or more positively, to protect life and to work toward peace—seems agreeable enough to all. After all, “only psychopaths and sociopaths can without remorse destroy the lives of others,”(1) and “No sane human being would say that war and conflict are preferable to peace.”(2) And yet, just from the short list of issues in which I have been involved as an activist through the years, I can verify that good Christian people find themselves on the opposite sides of each of these issues. Most of my allies in the fight against abortion, for example, are conservative evangelicals, who view protesting U.S.-declared war as unpatriotic and who see efforts to prevent gun violence prevention as somehow trampling on the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And many of my allies in denouncing war and curbing gun violence are political and theological progressives who see a woman’s right to choose as paramount over the life of her unborn child. In my own deepening understanding of the values of the kingdom of God, I cannot help but see the inconsistency within both conservative and progressive positions.
Cultivating shalom, a culture of life and peace
Peace activists Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja make a biblical case for the church to become “a culture of peace . . . in which unreconciled enemies are reconciled . . . unforgiven people are forgiven and . . . they are given a common mission—to share the ‘good news of peace’ with all nations.”(14) I am drawn to this description of the church as “a culture of peace.” And given the connection between life and peace, it makes sense to extend it to “a culture of life and peace,” i.e., a culture of shalom. What are some characteristics of Christians and churches that are being cultivated in the fertile soil of shalom?
Respect for life at every stage
I have already laid the groundwork for this characteristic, but a brief expansion of it here locates it among the core elements of a shalom person and a shalom church. To ones who have been restored in Christ to a right relationship with God, the Creator and Giver of Life, life takes on intrinsic value. Lutheran bishop Lowell Erdahl points out, “While Christianity has no monopoly on reverence for life, it is a central Christian affirmation.”(15) Biblical faith teaches that life has intrinsic value because God created it (Gen. 1–2). Furthermore, human life carries particular value because humans were created in God’s own image (Gen. 1:26-27). Zac Niringiye notes, “Whereas the other creatures are made ‘according to their kinds,’ humanity is made ‘in [God’s] image, in [God’s] likeness.’”(16) As such, although all life warrants our respect, human life deserves our deepest and highest respect.
As if it is not enough to value life simply because God created it, we should also consider the truth that “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). “It is crucial to see,” asserts Ron Sider, “that the biblical teaching about eternal life does not refer to some ethereal, spiritual fairyland totally unrelated to human history and the created order.”(17) In other words, the idea of eternal life is not limited to a future bliss but also to abundant life now (John 10:10). Apparently, God deemed the world valuable enough to heal, and every human life as valuable enough to save in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, asserts Baptist ethicist David Gushee:
Every life means every life, without exception. That includes two-month-along developing human beings in the womb, poor babies in Bangladesh, impoverished children in ghettos, abused wives and children, civilians in war zones, wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, imprisoned detainees in the war on terror, aging people in nursing homes, mentally handicapped people, people convicted of heinous crimes. Everyone.(18)
Based upon the life-giving doctrines of creation and redemption, a person’s worth is not based upon his or her age, physical or mental condition, socioeconomic status, or usefulness in society. As Christians, we need no other reason to affirm the value of human life than the fact that each and every human being is made in the image of God and is profoundly loved by God. To do violence to the living therefore—to harm, injure, kill—is wrong. “Thou shall not kill” (Ex. 20:13).
One of the most powerful and beautiful truths about the death and resurrection of Christ is that the final enemy of death has been defeated (1 Cor. 15:54-57). Through Jesus’ ministry of life-giving words, liberating deeds, atoning death, and resurrection power, life—and not death—has become the final word for all time. As a result in the power of the Spirit, followers of Jesus—shalom people—challenge death and all its ways, resisting unthinking absolutism and respecting life at every stage from womb to tomb.
We need to be prayerfully sensitive to extreme cases in which the tragic choice to end a life may be permissible, such as when one life is endangered by another. However, I believe societies go tragically awry when they make exceptions the law of the land, such as abortion-on-demand, capital punishment, and preemptive war.(19) I could say more here about these types of exceptions (and probably should); but rather than focus on them, I want to stress the normative rule for shalom people—namely, to respect, defend, and protect life, from the unborn to the elderly and all in between who are threatened by the death-dealing violence of this world.
But shalom is not satisfied with merely the defense and protection of life; it seeks the fullness of life. Another way of putting it is that shalom people are ultimately not “anti-” people but “pro-” people. We are truly “pro-life” in the sense that we participate in activities and institutions that cultivate human flourishing. Although human flourishing is a largely philosophical term that has synonyms such as happiness, self-actualization, empowerment, or transformation, I believe the term is especially effective in conveying the shalom image of human beings blossoming to their full potential in harmony with God, one another, and the rest of creation. An InterVarsity Christian Fellowship document introducing a conference on human flourishing states, “We are called to nurture life within ourselves, our communities, and in our world. Abundant life is a quality of the kingdom of God, and from this root grows our commitment to human flourishing.”(20) Being truly for life and not just against death, shalom Christians seek to enable all persons, from conception to old age, to flourish in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Spirit.
Practically, this commitment to human flourishing means helping broken, vulnerable people—those diminished by poverty, oppression, and conflict—move toward wholeness. In the words of theologian Vinay Samuel, “[The poor] need their personhood . . . restored.”(21) Samuel goes on to elaborate on ten dimensions of personhood, which include the physical, psycho-emotional, social, ethical, and spiritual areas of the human person that need restoration and development.(22) For those who are against abortion, for example, a commitment to human flourishing should manifest in activities such as finding adoptive homes for children, taking in foster children, and supporting ministries to assist young, single mothers. And for those who protest gun violence and war, a commitment to human flourishing should be expressed in activities such as caring for veterans, grieving with families who have lost loved ones to war, and participating in reconciliation work between warring factions.
Our mission toward human flourishing—our proactive striving to help fellow human beings reach their God-envisioned potential (even as we strive to do this ourselves)—is the necessary affirmative aspect of our commitment to shalom, which “calls us to reverence life, to support everything that enhances and ennobles life and to oppose everything that degrades and destroys life.”(23)