“Pursuing Peace”

The Hebrew word, “Shalom” is hard to translate. Rabbi David Zaslow says this:

Contrary to popular opinion the Hebrew word shalom does not mean “peace,” at least not in the English sense of the word. It comes from a Hebrew root-word that means “wholeness.” And what is wholeness? In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. That’s why we say “shalom” when we greet friends and when we are wishing them farewell. In the most opposite of situations (coming and going) we use the same word, “shalom.” There is a hidden connection to all our comings and goings; they are wondrously linked together. . . . When I realize this, I feel “wholeness,” and that is the source of peace—the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole.”[1]

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I. For many years, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at eleven o’clock, it was a tradition: church bells would ring and people would keep silence. This was not an observation meant to glorify war, but to remember its cost. It was a collective cry for peace, for shalom. Preparing to preach today has provided quite a history lesson for me. And certainly made we aware of many things I probably should have learned in high school. I had heard H.G. Wells’ infamous claim that World War I would be the war to end all wars. But I had no idea that, following the armistice in 1918, citizens of the world did try to outlaw war. A Minnesotan, Frank Kellogg, serving as the US secretary of state, won a Nobel Prize for his role in negotiating the 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact. In this treaty, which almost every nation on earth eventually signed, countries promised “not to use war to resolve disputes or conflicts.”[2] This treaty is still in force, and there’s still a huge debate going on about it. Is it idealist nonsense? Or has it actually played a role in decreasing the frequency of war?

Perhaps war continues not because shalom is impossible, but because, as Poet Carol Ann Duffy argues, we, as a human community, have not yet learned what we need to learn from war.

What happened next?/War. And after that? War. And now? War. War./History might as well be water, chastising this shore; for we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice./Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

This poem, “The Wound of Time,” was written for this hundredth anniversary day, and is being read on beaches around the United Kingdom and Ireland in a remembrance called “Pages of the Sea.” As part of this ceremony, artists are sculpting the faces of some of the millions of ordinary men and women who departed from their homes by ship, never to return. As the faces are washed away by the tide, those present will have a chance to grieve the incomprehensible losses of war.[3]

Big forces, ocean-like in their strength, also frame today’s story of Elijah and the widow. Chapter 16 of I Kings describes the years of political tumult that precede the reign of the current king, King Ahab. As the authors recount the various dynasties, there is a refrain: “And king so-and-so did evil in the sight of God. . . . He did more evil than all who had come before him.” In time of morally bankrupt leadership, there was also a prolonged and terrible drought. The prophet Elijah believed that God was withholding the rain from the land as a punishment for King Ahab’s worship of foreign gods. But I don’t believe that God is simply another name for circumstances beyond our control. Indeed, our history, and our present, of war and war and war does call for the end of that God in the poisonous shrapneled air. In his poem, “Narrative Theology #2” poet Padraig O’Tuama writes: “God is the crack/Where the story begins/We are the crack/Where the story gets interesting.” He also says, “God is the bit/that we can’t explain—/maybe the healing maybe the pain.”

In order to escape the angry Ahab, Elijah had to go into hiding by a wadi, a seasonal stream.

And, there in that desolate place, God commanded birds to feed the prophet, ravens to be exact. Ravens are not known for their nurturing qualities; they typically scavenge the carcasses of dead animals. But the ravens brought Elijah bread and meat in the morning and in the evening. For a while the prophet had water, but then the wadi dried up. And again, Elijah found life-sustaining help in an unlikely place. God commanded a widow to feed him. A widow, as biblical scholar Roger Nam puts it, who was living “at the brink of death.”[4] Most histories in ancient times focused on the royal elites. But the Bible is different. The Bible bothers to tell us the story of a woman and her son with one meal left to eat before they died of starvation. The God of the Bible is not really the one who withholds the rain. The God of the Bible cares about those who are powerless, those who have no safety net, those who are at the mercy of forces much bigger than themselves. This God sneaks in through the cracks, and makes an opening for shalom, for wholeness, turning isolation into community, hunger into abundance, death into life.

Dr. Amy Blumenshine is a Diaconal Minister in the ELCA with a call to address the suffering of veterans and their families. She is a cofounder of the Coming Home Collaborative. Fifteen to nineteen million people—soldiers and civilians—died in the war itself.[5] But, as Blumenshine points out, fifty to one hundred million people died from the Spanish flu. Blumenshine’s piece illuminates how, in the name of winning the war, world leaders ignored public health strategies that were well-established even in those times. She writes:

Soldiers became sick in training camps, on troop ships and in the trenches, but that was kept secret from the public. Under wartime censorship journalists were forbidden to mention the problem. [6]

Albert Einstein said, “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” When Jesus talks about salvation, he’s not talking about life after death, but about human wholeness in the here and now. Our truest identity is shalom. And yet living into that identity requires a fundamental transformation of who we are. It means, as the author of 1 Peter says, becoming willing, in cooperation with Christ who dwells in us, to meet evil with blessing, to “seek peace and pursue it.”

Rabbi Zaslow, in his reflection on shalom, also says this:

It is the people you do not agree with who have the greatest gift for you—the gift of the potential for wholeness. . . . The peace movement I belong to refuses to create an “other” out of the people with whom I may disagree on a particular issue. To the contrary, the peace movement I belong to is one of dialogue: tough dialogue, heart-wrenching dialogue, gentle dialogue, but always dialogue—speech that goes back and forth—with each side constantly challenging, refining, and purifying the “other” until we recognize that the “other” is none “other” than a reflection of our own selves. 

Amen.

 

[1] https://rabbidavidzaslow.com/the-deeper-meaning-of-shalom/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kellogg%E2%80%93Briand_Pact

[3] https://www.pagesofthesea.org.uk/

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1450

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties

[6]“The Forgotten Pandemic” by Amy Blumenshine, link available at http://oursavioursmpls.org/hiro_naga.html