Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Peace and Shalom

The most common greeting in the Islamic world is “es salam alikum”. This is translated into English as “peace be upon you”. Traditionally, when a Muslim greets you with this phrase there is an implied understanding that they are willing to take responsibility for your well-being - to the best of their ability. I have personally experienced the power of this phrase while traveling in Jordan, Egypt and Israel. People who struggle to survive on a day-to-day basis have given me help and hospitality in ways that I could never repay. And when I tried to give them something in return, they refused. I was a guest in their country and they had taken me into their care. It was no longer between me and them - it was between them and God. “Es salam alikum” implies much more than the passive “may peace be upon you”.

The Hebrew word Shalom is the equivalent to the Arabic word Salam. Similar greetings are used, like Shalom aleikhem which is translated as “Peace be unto you”. In fact, John’s gospel records that the resurrected Christ used this expression to calm his frightened disciples as they cowered in a locked room. For an interesting contrast, the English translation of the gospel of Mark records Jesus saying “Peace be still” to calm the wind and waves. However, John used the Greek word “eirene” and Mark used “siopao” - this is like comparing to “Shalom” to “BE Quiet!”. The English word “Peace” can hardly do justice to this range of meaning.

Then what does Peace mean?

Most English speakers think of Peace as the absence of conflict. This is like saying that light is simply the absence of darkness. Yet we know that Light is the active principle and all life on earth is a response to the power that resides in sunlight.

In spite of this inconsistency, there is good reason to define “peace” in this way. The word first entered the English language around 1140 AD. The word was brought into the English language from Old French by the descendants of William the Conquerer. Originally the word was understood to mean “freedom from civil disorder”. In fact this word was originally derived from the Latin “pax”. Pax Romana referred to a type of political and social stability where everyone was free to pay taxes to Rome, follow Roman law, and do business as long as Roman interests where not threatened. This stability was maintained by threat of extreme violence.

Interestingly, the word “peace” replaced an old English word “frio” which meant something like “peace+happiness”.

The biggest problem is that the word “peace” is a passive principle. Shalom/Salam is an active one. Shalom comes from the verb Shalam (Arabic salam) which means to complete, fill-up, perfect, make whole or secure. It is related to the word “Shalah” which is connected to salvation. Shalom is a state of wholeness, well-being, safety - having reached a state of perfection.

While “frio” means “peace + happiness” Shalom means “peace+joy+hope+love” or something like that. By this logic, the Community of Christ vision statement would look something like:
"we proclaim Yeshua ha mashiach and promote communities of Shalom"

Perhaps this is why the Jewish faith does such a good job in understanding the role of humanity on the earth. God created heaven and earth. When everything was completed, God declared it very good. It was in a state of shalom. When Adam (heb. mankind) turned away from God, this opened a huge flaw in creation. Separation from God caused all creation to fall short of its ultimate potential. Our duty is to perform tikkun olam - and under God’s direction- help perfect or bring shalom to all of creation.

In line with this, my favorite Jewish prayer is:

Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu
V'al kol Yisrael
V'imru, v'imru amen.

Ya'aseh shalom, ya'aseh shalom
Shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael
Ya'aseh shalom, ya'aseh shalom
Shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael

(May he who makes peace in high places,
make peace for us and for all Israel,
and let us say, amen.)

Most importantly, we must receive “shalom” for ourselves before we can bring it to others. Something worth remembering in these trying times.

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