“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” (Prov. 29:7, NIV)
Shalom has become a popular buzzword in certain evangelical circles, particularly around the whole ‘justice for the oppressed’ debate. What, exactly, do we mean by the word Shalom? Tim Keller has certainly written more material on this than you can shake a stick at. There is also an interesting (and excellent) little book by Greg Gilbert & Kevin De Young entitled, What is the Mission of the Church? Clearly, all positions in the discussion have both their fans and their detractors.
Seek Biblical Clarity
But, more importantly than American pastors, what does the Bible teach? For instance, Paul says, in reference to Jesus, “he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). In Numbers 6:24–26 and Isaiah 9:6, we discover that the Lord is our Shalom. In Isaiah 57:7, the word Shalom is used in the context of light. In Ezekiel 37:26, it is used in connection to a future spiritual blessing.
Interestingly, Shalom appears in the Hebrew (OT) about 250 times, but not once in the NT. However, it does have a Greek equivalent, eirene. The word ‘irenic’ in modern parlance means peaceful. We find it in Luke 2:14, Acts 10:36, and Romans 1:7, where it is used as a greeting. In Philippians 4:7, it is used to bless the people of God. Of the 90 times it used in the NT, it is used in almost exactly in the same way that Shalom is used in the OT.
But, we can’t stop there. Shalom is also used in unusual ways. It is mentioned in the context of war in 2 Samuel 11:7; breaking down towers in Judges 8:9; and in terms of punishment in Isaiah 53:5. It is a hard word to get to grips with. Because it has such a broad meaning across the Scriptures, I am always wary when people try to push for one urgent meaning of it and seek to particularise it to apply solely to the debate around the poor and the oppressed.
Types of Shalom
Tim Keller has defined Shalom in the following way:
The webbing together of God and man with all creation to create universal flourishing and wholeness. In Ps. 102 God has made the world like a garment with billions of entities interwoven to make up the beauty of all that is created. Sin has come in and torn a hole in the fabric.
In other words, Shalom is in need of repair. He goes further and pinpoints three types of Shalom.
1. Physical Shalom
When all the parts fit together in a body, then we know something of ‘Physical Shalom’. So, for example, when you have cancer, you experience a loss of this physical Shalom.
2. Psychological Shalom
When the mind, conscience, and passions tell me to do something and I do it, I experience psychological Shalom. If you want to do something but your conscience says “no”, and yet you still do it, a loss of psychological Shalom occurs.
3. Social Shalom
When those who have connections are threading this throughout the community, then there’s an interwoven-ness. This breaks down when people feel excluded from society. They are, in fact, experiencing a break in social Shalom.
Now, it is clear that I see the breakdown of Shalom, as defined by Keller, in Niddrie. That is without any doubt whatsoever. Certainly, it doesn’t take a theological genius to trace the original fault line back to The Fall and the terrible physical, psychological, social, and cosmological effects that this has had for our world. The real question comes when we ask: What are we to do about the breakdown of Shalom in our communities?
Should we just ignore the issues going on all around us—as some do—and just proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or, should we seek the welfare of our scheme by looking at ways we can ease the pain and restore some of the Shalom back to our neighbours? As a church, should we be seeking to make Niddrie a safer, happier, and more peaceful place to live? Or, should we be seeking to remain faithful to the Great Commission which charges us to preach Christ and make disciples? Is there a happy medium?
These questions aren’t new to people who read my writings regularly. We must assert, firstly, that the NT offers us no direct imperatives with regard to actively repairing any of the above ‘Shaloms’. Timothy, for example, was urged to continue preaching the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim. 4:2). In Ephesians, we read that the main gift set given to the church—preachers, teachers, apostles, etc.—were all Word-based ministries (Eph. 4:11). In Jude, we are challenged to contend for the gospel (Jude 3). Romans is clear that it is only the gospel that has the power to transform any believer and thus, by definition, society.
So the answer, surely, is to preach the gospel first and foremost. Yes, we care for one another, love one another, and feed and shelter the ‘alien’ (those outside the covenant community) but these are as a result of hearts of faith expressing themselves through love (Gal. 5:6).
For example, in Niddrie, I preach Christ to Mr. X who has a history of alcoholism, burglary, and abusing his partner. He comes to Christ. What happens?
1. His physical Shalom begins to improve under the influence of the Holy Spirit as he stops poisoning his body.
2. His psychological Shalom improves as he bows the knee to King Jesus and seeks to live under his rule.
3. Social Shalom kicks in as he stops abusing his neighbours, burgling houses on the scheme, shoplifting from the local store, beating his partner, and tormenting his children. Instead of contributing to the breakdown of social Shalom, he begins to become a force for good.
All of these things are a result of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person who has heard the Word of God proclaimed first and foremost. We preach and teach the gospel above all, and then Shalom comes not as a means of personal evangelism but as proof of God’s Spirit at work in a person and a community.
By all means, let’s pray for the Shalom of our schemes, but let’s remember that without a return to fearless, faithful gospel proclamation, these places and people are going to remain in darkness. Utterly lost and broken.
That’s why we have such a problem in our country right now. There are no shortage of social work agencies and para-church organisations offering all sorts of social help. The deeper need, however, is for the growth and establishment of gospel-centred churches in which people can truly grow and flourish spiritually, which will be for the benefit of their particular communities.