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Discerning Shalom in Mission

23 Nov 2018
Biblical StudiesConferenceSend Conference

Professor Mark Brett • BUV Send Conference • November 2018

When used in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “shalom” can imply wellbeing at many different levels: personal, social and ecological. [1] In day to day use, shalom doesn’t normally encompass all these levels all at once, but in thinking about mission today, discerning the interrelationship between the various aspects of shalom is crucial. [2] This holistic thinking was especially advocated by Israel’s prophets, as we can see in two key chapters in the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah 7 and 29, each equally shocking in their own way. Through a discussion of these chapters, we will find fresh inspiration for mission today.

Jeremiah 7 and the Temple Sermon

Jer 7:1–7 is a blistering attack on state religion, delivered at the gate of the most powerful religious institution of the day, the temple. The state religion not only blessed with the security of God’s promises to king David, but  Zion theology had also received an overwhelming confirmation when the Assyrian armies crushed the northern kingdom of Israel and invaded Judah’s countryside, stopping short at the walls of Jerusalem. The Judeans at the time then had all the evidence that they needed: Zion had withstood the tide of divine judgment against impure worship everywhere outside Jerusalem, and the temple witnessed to the sovereign borders of the city. But Jeremiah takes a stand outside this very temple, and calls it a lie: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.”

This prophet apparently made a habit of satirizing orthodoxy by highlighting its vain repetitions – “The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yhwh, the temple of Yhwh.” In the previous chapter he attacked its prosperity gospel by mimicking its repetitions in the same way: “They have treated the wounds of my people lightly,” preaching “shalom, shalom, where there is no shalom” (6:14). Who had been repeating these meaningless slogans? Everybody who counts, apparently, priest and prophet alike are all “greedy for unjust gain,” Jeremiah claims. In Hebrew this phrase is even more confronting, and we can imagine him spitting this out in his poetry slam: from prophet to priest they are botzea’ batza’ (Jer 6:13–14). A lawyer at the Royal Commission into clergy abuse could hardly speak with a more acid tongue. “How can you?” Jeremiah says in 7:10 “come and stand before me in this house, which is called by name and say ‘We are saved?’ – only to go on doing all these abominations?”

So what does this heretical-sounding prophet want, you ask? Does he want more warmth of heart?  Or perhaps a more creative worship band? Not at all. He is even willing to strike down the core business of the temple: “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice” (7:22). The legitimacy of Moses’ ceremonial law is swept aside.

So what does repentance imply for Jeremiah?

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (7:5–7)

We would do well to notice the order of priorities here: first the alien, then the orphan and widow. One other verse that has the same order as here in Jeremiah’s temple sermon is found in Deut 27:19: “Cursed be anyone who subverts the justice of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  And all the people shall say, Amen.” How might we translate this more sharply into our own context? Cursed be anyone who subverts the justice of the stolen generations. Cursed be anyone who allows children to languish in immigration detention. Cursed be anyone who disregards the plight of the single mother.

Little wonder that Jeremiah was not well liked. As the Babylonian armies approached, he was accused of treason on more than one occasion. It was said that he did not understand the nature of shalom. At one point we hear the officials saying to the king: “This man is not seeking the shalom of these people but their ruin” (38:4). Here speaks the voice of people who cannot grasp any larger perspective on shalom beyond the national interest.  And this was indeed the crux of the matter: the prophet had discerned a deeper shalom that the institutional religion had lost sight of. And the unthinkable did happen: the Babylonian armies laid siege to Jerusalem, the people starved, and the city was destroyed – the city, the palace the, temple, and as the blood flowed in the streets, the lifeblood of the old Zion theology drained into the dust as well. “The LORD has scorned his altar,” said the poet in Lamentations, “and disowned his sanctuary” (Lam 2:7).   Perhaps we can identify with this as we contemplate the decline of the churches in the West, or more particularly, the decline of the Anglo churches.

The biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor has suggested that almost every poem, narrative and sermon in Jeremiah in some way relates to the experience of trauma and loss. But Jeremiah is still able to move from warnings to visions of restoration. The warnings in the first part of the book seem to mainly about laying blame  – some would say blaming the victims as well, since all the Judeans suffered when Jerusalem was destroyed, not just the aliens, widows and orphans. A number of trauma studies have suggested, in fact, that survivors often blame themselves so as to keep their own world of meaning in some kind of order. In this way an authority figure can remain reliable – whether a parent or a pastoral leader. Thus O’Connor has suggested that “the theology of blame that courses through the book of Jeremiah like a river in flood, bringing guilt, shame, and the burden of responsibility, also gives structure and meaning… Blaming becomes a strategy of survival.” [3]

But Jeremiah also has a vision for what can be done on the far side of trauma. He emphasizes Israel’s capacity for action, even in the face of immensely powerful social forces. Even with the seemingly overwhelming weight of the empire bearing down on them, the people have a calling to “live in fidelity, justice, and right relationship with others, with the cosmos, and with God.” [4] Through the traumatic loss of Zion as the centre of meaning, it became possible to see extraordinary new possibilities.

Jeremiah 29 and the Letter to the Exiles

In the second text selected for reflection, we find Jeremiah writing to the first generation of the exiles with a new vision of the shalom that could be built even in that far country, even where the songs of Zion could no longer be sung. He turns everything upside down by suggesting that the shalom of the enemy, Babylon, might turn out to be inextricably linked to Israel’s own shalom. Let’s translate that into the present tense: the enemy’s shalom might be our own. So, in the present context of the church in Australia, we might pause and ask ourselves: who are our enemies today?

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom (Jer 29:4–7).

This is an ethic for people in exile. Jeremiah could have simply repeated his older message to care for alien, widow and orphan, but in this new context of exile he adopts some new language – to build houses, to get married and to plant gardens. Why these domestic activities?, we may ask. For one thing, these are precisely the activities listed in Deut 20:5-7 as the kinds of unfinished business which would exempt a person from military service. The message for a marginalized and humbled people, apparently, is to live non-violently with former enemies – to treat them as neighbours, perhaps sharing vegetables from the community garden. This is a vision of shalom for exiles – not unlike the vision of peace in Gospels where, similarly, the followers of Jesus can still see God’s ultimate sovereignty above the traumatic reality of the Roman empire. God opens up the possibility, even when we have no control of the public space, to love our enemies. In Australia, one might say, we are not called to engage in the culture wars.

Jeremiah’s short letter to the exiles established one of the foundation stones of what would later be called Diaspora Judaism – that extraordinary innovation in the history of God’s mission, which was almost unthinkable during the centuries that Yahwism reigned as an established religion within the Judean state. [5] It is hard to appreciate just how revolutionary Jeremiah’s letter was. Yahwism at the time appeared bound to its geographical centre in Jerusalem, and many of the prophetic visions of redemption that were to arise during the exile did not shift that fundamental geography of salvation. Salvation was often pictured as a return to Zion. Yet Jeremiah proposed a common good in the day-to-day discernment of a shared shalom away from the old securities of worship and identity.

I can’t resist drawing attention to the Hebrew verb used in the command to “seek the shalom of the city” in Jer 29:7 – dirshu.  This is a plural imperative, so it’s a communal activity, and this is also the verb for “study,” indeed, it’s the verb from which “midrash” or “interpretation” will later be formed in Jewish tradition. This is a call for study and thinking about what is actually going on out there in the community, as we seek to find common ground in community development. This is not an easy thing to do; it implies that the people of God will be called beyond the preconceptions of the good that were formed when they enjoyed the status of an established religion. They – we ­– will no longer be able to presume that the laws of Moses will prevail in the public realm (nor even within the church, as we find in Acts 15).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, puts it this way: “So you can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said. It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.” [6] Rabbi Sacks has a way with words; he can put extremely complex issues into very simple terms, and this quotation is a fine example of that. He manages to set before us exiles a complex series of challenges, which I think we can re-state in another order: first, embrace cognitive dissonance, because this is the beginning of all deep learning; secondly, have the courage to be creative, and thirdly, be prepared to have your identity reshaped through dialogue. For this is the way of shalom in exile.

One could also say that this is the way of love. And at this point we might compare one of the hardest of sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matt 5:43–48.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Clearly, we should not aspire to perfectionism – that’s often an intolerant practice that rejects any fall from the highest standards of performance. Or as Walter Wink once put it: “Perfectionism has a secret and unacknowledged need for enemies.” [7] Quite the opposite: instead of presuming that our own community has a privileged grasp on ideas of the good, and all we need to do is bond with like-minded people, Jesus calls, in effect, for cognitive dissonance. Get beyond the ordinary reciprocities of mutual exchange, he suggests, and engage with your enemies. The perfection of love lies in the love of enemies, not self-development.  Let your live-giving rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.

At the same time, Matthew wants to insist that his radical vision of love constitutes the fulfilment or “filling up” of the law, rather than invalidating it (5:17). Even in the old law of Moses, we find not just the requirement to “love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18), but also this extraordinary demand: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (19:34). Lev 24:22 says that you “You shall have one law for the native and the alien.” This is not the one law of the empire, of course, but the habits of thinking and practice that should be found among the people of God.

Implications for Mission Today

So what does this all mean for us today? Let me draw out a few simple conclusions. First, we should be careful not to overstate the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament when it comes to the discernment of shalom. There is, of course, an obvious contrast between the state religion of Judah and life at the colonial margins of the Roman Empire, but Jews had been living at the imperial margins for about six hundred years before the time of Jesus, and they had already learned what it meant to live under the sovereignty of God without attempting to control the political mainstream. They have provided many valuable models for how to live in Diaspora, and Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles begins that tradition by boldly claiming that the enemy’s shalom might actually be our own ­– which in effect transforms the enemy into a neighbour.

Secondly, it takes imagination, and maybe even some study, to turn enemies into neighbours. We need to examine the conceptions of wellbeing, the ideas of the good, the notions of human flourishing that our now circulating in our culture, and find creative ways to engage with them. Once we have given up the pretensions of Christendom, or more accurately perhaps, once we have given up aspirations to revive a dominant Christian culture in Australia, then we can get on with loving our neighbours. We have perhaps grown accustomed to hearing about the “mission of God,” but let’s be clear, if we are to discern the difference between the missio Dei and our own cherished ideas of mission bequeathed to us from the past, we will need to go more deeply into the experience of cognitive dissonance: the extent to which we hold on to the old visions of Zion or the church will be precisely the extent to which we fail to grasp the new vision of shalom that comes only through engaging with our neighbours and even with our enemies.

Thirdly, I think we need to study the character of secularism today, because it is no longer what it was a few decades ago. There is a militant form of secularism in Australia which suggests that the public sphere needs to be purified of all references to God. This is what some philosophers have called “the subtraction theory of secularity”. This is on the rise, but it is not yet dominant. A more subtle account of secularity suggests that religious or spiritual perspectives are now a matter of choice; faith might have its “take” on the idea of human flourishing, its particular expression, but it cannot impose this perspective on the public space. [8] This version of secularity can be aligned, in fact, not just with the older Baptist idea of separating church and state; it is much more ancient than that, and it goes back to the death of state-based Zion theology and the rise of a Diaspora people of God. It goes back to Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles and his call to study the shalom of our neighbour, because in their shalom, our own shalom is to be found. And this is our call: to leave behind the certainties of the past, and to rediscover the fidelity, and justice and love of God in the places where we least expect God to be at work.



[1]   Randy S. Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).

[2]   Steve de Gruchy, “Integrating Mission and Development: Ten Theological Theses,” International Congregational Journal  5/1 (2005), 27–36.

[3]   O’Connor, “Surviving Disaster in the Book of Jeremiah,” Word & World 22 (2002), 372.

[4]   O’Connor, “Surviving Disaster,” 372.

[5]   Stephen B. Chapman, “The Old Testament and the Church after Christendom,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 9/2 (2015), 159­­–183.

[6]   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Creative Minorities,” First Things, accessed January 2014,

[7]   Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 270.

[8]   James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).