Cosmic and Communal Shalom

The Second Sunday in Advent is traditionally associated with peace. There are two Advent sermons on the blog focusing on peace as well as a three-part series entitled “Shalom” I wrote in August of 2021. In today’s article I want to share insights on shalom by Walter Brueggemann, the greatest biblical scholar of our time. These insights come from his book entitled Living Toward A Vision: Biblical Reflections On Shalom. I highly recommend all of Brueggemann’s books. His book on shalom is awesome! 

Brueggemann begins his book writing, “The central vision of world history in the Bible is that all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.” (p. 15) Brueggemann maintains that the term which best summarizes this controlling vision is shalom. “Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective.” (p. 16) This communal and cosmic nature of shalom is assumed throughout Scripture. The Bible knows nothing of a private peace tucked away in our hearts which is not part of the all-embracing shalom destined to include everything and everyone. In biblical faith, the individual is always understood as related to the community. The central concepts of Scripture like love, justice, peace, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and righteousness are always relational in nature and are always found within community.

Brueggemann maintains that there are three dimensions of shalom. 

  1. “Shalom is a vision encompassing all of reality, expressed in the mystery and majesty of creation images.” (p. 17) The prophetic passage which perhaps best reflects this cosmic, all-encompassing nature of shalom is Isaiah 11: 6-9. These verses are part of a messianic passage which begins with verse 1 and, therefore, are appropriate for Advent. 

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard shall lie down with the kid, 
And the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed,
Their young shall lie down together,
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The suckling child shall play over the hold of the asp
And the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea. 

  1. The second dimension of shalom “is the historic political community. Absence of shalom and lack of harmony are expressed in social disorder as evidenced in economic inequality, judicial perversion, and political oppression and exclusivism.” (p. 20) The prophetic literature of the Hebrew Scriptures contains hundreds of prophesies condemning injustice. Here are just three:

Woe to those who devise wickedness
And work evil upon their beds!
They covet fields, and seize them; 
And houses, and take them away; 
They oppress a man and his house. (Micah 2:1-2)

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; 
Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

According to the prophets, God judges the health and goodness of a nation by how well the most vulnerable in that society fare. The vulnerable most often mentioned are the poor, orphans, widows, and immigrants. 

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
And righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
And the effect of righteousness will be shalom,
And the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
(Isaiah 32:16-17). 

“The consequence of justice and righteousness is shalom—an enduring sabbath of joy and well-being. But the alternative is injustice and oppression, which lead inevitably to turmoil and anxiety with no chance of well-being.” (See Isaiah 57:20-21) (p. 19)

(RZ) We must always remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jesus’ teachings, righteousness is a synonym for justice. This can be seen in the above passages where we find synonymous parallelism in the Hebrew poetry. (All Hebrew prophecy is in the form of poetry which should tell us something about how to interpret prophetic passages.) When Jesus, the Messiah, says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness,” he is talking about justice, something too many churches just don’t get. 

  1. The third dimension of shalom points to its cosmic and historical-political aspects. “It is the shalom sense of well-being, experienced by the person who lives a caring, sharing, joyous life in community. By way of contrast, covetousness is presented as one aspect of the self-seeking life which is never satisfied but always pursues selfish security only to discover that it leads to destruction.” (p. 20)

Because of the iniquity of his covetousness, I was angry,
I smote him, I hid my face and was angry. . . 
Shalom, shalom, to the far and to the near, says the Lord; and I will heal him.
But the wicked are like the tossing sea; 
For it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no shalom, says my God, for the wicked.
(Isaiah 57:17, 19-21)

Jesus warned of the destructive power of such covetousness. 

Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15 Read the parable of the rich fool which follows this saying.) For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life/self/soul. (Mark 8:36)

Brueggemann concludes this section on the dimensions of shalom with these prophetic words: “In historic community the forces of injustice and exploitation are opposed by God’s will for responsible, equitable justice, which yields security. In personal existence, driven, anxious self-seeking is opposed by God’s will for generous caring. The biblical vision of shalom functions always as a firm rejection of values and lifestyles that seek security and well-being in manipulative ways at the expense of another part of creation, another part of the community, of a brother and sister. The vision of the biblical way affirms that communal well-being comes by living God’s dream and not by idolatrous self-aggrandizement.” (p. 20)

Today, the second Sunday of Advent, churches will sing praises to the Prince of Peace. The Advent Candle of Peace will be lit. None of that matters if the peace we celebrate is not the shalom God dreams for this world. That little bit of peace we think we have in our hearts has very little to do with the shalom Jesus came to bring into this world unless it is part of the cosmic and communal peace that alone is worthy of our praise and lives. 

[The two Advent Sermons on peace mentioned at the beginning of this article may be found on the blog under the titles “Where Is Peace? Ephesians 2:13-15 II Peter 3:8-15a” and Isaiah 11:1-9 “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them.” There is also on the blog a three-part series on peace entitled “Shalom.”]

Tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.