There is probably no better place to begin looking at the meaning of peace than the great Aaronic blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26: The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His face upon you and give you SHALOM. “Sholom aleichem” is a traditional greeting among Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. In Hebrew it literally means “Peace be upon you.” The appropriate response is “Aleichem shalom,” or “Upon you be peace.” However, it is very similar to the Arabic-language greeting used by many Muslims throughout the world, assalamu alaikum. The very name ISLAM is derived from the Arabic word meaning peace— just like the Hebrew word shalom. The Christian Maltese phrase ‘sliem ghalikom’ shares the same linguistic roots with its Arabic and Hebrew equivalents. It may come as a shock to you but some 15 million Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East pray to Allah. While our respective understandings of revelation clearly differ, Christians, Muslims, and Jews are all talking about the same God and are called to the pursuit of Shalom. The ancient city we all share, Jerusalem, gets its name honestly.
A word study in the New King James version for SHALOM says: Completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord. Peace is our English Bible’s word for Shalom. It is the hope of the prophets: enemies reconciled, injustices righted, hurts healed, fears calmed and communities prospering. Shalom is not only the hope of the prophets it is at the very heart of the Gospel. Followers of Jesus are invited to collaborate with God in this peace-making; to become ‘shalom activists’. It is God’s intent to bring the whole of creation into harmony; peace with God, peace between the nations, peace within the created order. Today, I’d like to explore the meaning of shalom in all its richness and depth and to consider what it means to be ‘shalom activists’ in todays world.
In more recent years the contemporary church has been seduced into a truncated vision of shalom as personal peace. We have to confess that in losing this broader vision we, the church, have colluded with injustice and coercion and believed the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. Or we have confused peace with passivity. Amos warns us about that (8:4-6) when he writes: “Listen to this, you who grind the distitute and plunder the humble, you who say, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell corn? When will the sabbath be past so that we may open our wheat again, giving short measure in the bushel and taking overweight in the silver, tilting the scales fraudulently, and selling the dust of the wheat; that we may buy the poor for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes?’ It’s reminescent of Jesus’ words to those who both cared for and those who did not care for the ‘least of these’.
As Quakers we, along with other ‘Anabaptists’, belong to the historic ‘peace church’ tradition. For clarity, I didn’t say anti-baptists, quite the opposite. Anabaptists, or re-baptisters , required that their members, most of whom were born into and thus baptisted as children into state sponsored religion, needed to be baptised again as adults, a beliver’s baptism. Of course, Quakers within that discussion held to our unrelenting witness that such true baptism could only result from one’s relationship with the Holy Spirit. As part of our anabaptist dissent from the consensus of the mainstream churches of the Christendom era, Quakers were convinced that peace can never be achieved through violent means. But that doesn’t suggest that we are to be passive or disengaged. The task ever before us has been to minister to an unjust, divided and violent world in non-violent ways. As I learned when we went shopping for toys for some boys this Christmas, finding alternatives to violence isn’t as easy as you might expect.
Recently in Great Britain there was a ‘Shalom Activist’ conference sponsored by Anabaptists including Quakers. The goal was to learn from each other’s experiences the different roots of our commitment to peace and our current insights on peace making. It was an opportunity to explore fresh ways of thinking and acting.
It raises for us the question of how Friends want to be about the task of forming the Blessed Community. How as Friends do we do this? Quakers especially in the early years of the Religious Society of Friends spoke of something called gospel order. Gospel order is what Friends believed was the way God designed the world to be and the way it will be when God succeeds in making a heaven on earth, where everything will exist in a state of God’s grace. However, as we are human, we have strayed from the right order of things. Friend originally practiced living with the testimonies and following callings in an attempt to rediscover gospel order and place it once more at the center of their lives. Lloyd Lee Wilson wrote “for early Friends to admonish one another to keep to the gospel order, therefore, was to remind themselves that they were citizens of the Kingdom of God, not a worldly government, and should act accordingly.”
Jean Zaru, a Palestinian who is a Quaker Christian, reminds us that neither the phrase “Palestinian Christian” or “active, empowered pacifist” is an oxymoron. In her book Occupied with Nonviolence she notes with sadness the shrinking population of Christians in Palestine—Palestinians who have left the West Bank because they have little support from Christians in the West and now feel forgotten and ignored. Calling attention to the structural nature of violence and discrimination in the cultures involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Zaru suggests that we consider factors beyond weaponry in thinking about violence that occurs in relations between neighboring countries, between individual neighbors, and between peoples of differing religions. It requires that we find other ways of conceptualizing local human rights and the economy. To break down the institutions of violence, Zaru advises that those who seek peace must not only change the actions of dominance to peaceful actions; we must also change ourselves inwardly into humble and self-reconciling individuals. “But,” she cautions, “ the inner peace of which I speak is not simply being nice, or being passive, or permitting oneself to be trampled upon without protest” (p. 69). Wisely, she admits that there are contributors to unrest that are out of one’s control and also that those under oppression are not always blameless and not always gracious. The goal, however, to is resist the structures of violence, to recognize them and to not be silent, to speak truth to power—a long held practice in the Quaker tradition.
Wes Daniels, a young new pastor in our Yearly Meeting, in a message he posted on his blog, said that “The peace testimony, the testimony against war, is the truth as Quakers have understood it. It is a conviction that has shaped the entire story of Quakerism. It is primarily a belief that because Christ is resurrected from the dead, he is our contemporary now empowering the church to live in virtue of a life that reflects that reality. Thus Quakers believed that Isaiah 2:4 has been fulfilled, Christ is here now: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
When we look through history and can see the conviction that this time of “learning war no more” had arrived Quakers we led to create alternatives to the options available to them by the world. Early Quakers, while persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred for their convictions, responded peacefully, without force to a brutal society that loathed their existence and prophetic message. When we think about the underground railroad, we recognize it was a nonviolent response to the grave injustices happening in our society (and it was an alternative that cost Quakers not only their livelihood but sometimes their own lives). When we think about John Woolman’s work among the Native Americans it was again part and parcel of a broader vision of how Christians were now a part of a different time formed around Christ’s presence: Quakers believed, as Ched Myers writes of Jesus’ greatest commandment, that “heaven must come [had come] to earth – there is no love of God except in love of neighbor”.
But this strong conviction is not just embodied through nonviolence (as many examples attest to), it is the very blood in the veins of the Quaker church. It shows up through the ways we worship God, how we practice business, how we understand who is welcome in our community, how we understand leadership and ministry, how we interact with one another and the world. If Quakers believe we live in the reality of Christ’s presence in the here and now, then everything we do, whether it is here in our building, or out in the world, will flow from this.
What do we do with scriptural passages like in Luke 6: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Or Mark 12:28-31 “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
George Fox’s own testimony in 1651 was: “But I told them [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars, and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust according to James’s doctrine. … But I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.
Robert Barclay in his thoughtful Apology of 1678 wrote: “Whoever can reconcile this, Resist not evil, with Resist violence by force; again, Give also thy other cheek, with Strike again; also Love thine enemies, with Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword; or, Pray for those that persecute you, and those that calumniate you, with persecute them by fines, imprisonments and death itself;… whoever, I say, can find a means to reconcile these things, may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the devil, Christ with Antichrist, light with darkness, and good with evil.
In my life time, Henry Cadbury challenged us beautiful with his words: “Common folk, not statesmen, nor generals, nor great men of affairs, but just simple men and women, if they devote themselves … can do something to build a better peaceful world.” Most, if not all, Friends Yearly Meetings have well developed statements about our corporate testimony to peace, including our own. Most, unfortunately, speak of Quaker efforts toward securing peace in the past tense: “Friends opposed war and practiced peacemaking.
Somehow living on the laurels of those who went before us isn’t quite satisfying. As part of my work with the Yearly Mtgs. Board on Global Outreach I have been encouraged to read Walking With the Poor by Bryant Myers. It is an attempt to get people with a heart for missions to mature their understanding of what that work really entails. Our mission work must be involved in a developmental process that unmasks the distortions and lies to which the poor are captive. The author shares the perspective that we need to reread the history of the poor from God’s perspective; a perspective that restores their identity as “children of God.” For us that should bring to mind that the reason early Quakers had good relations with native populations was that, unlike other European settlers who characterized them as children of the devil, Friends saw them as children of God. Gospel Order is nothing less than Quakerese for Shalom – a way of seeing all of God’s creation from God’s point of view: Complete, wholeness, healthy, cared for, safe, sound, tranquile, prosperous, perfect, full, rested, harmonious, free of agitation or discord and endowed with peace.
Numbers 6:24-26; Amos 8:4-7; Matthew 5:14-16