It’s a typical Saturday morning. I’m at a local coffee shop, sipping my espresso and enjoying some peace and quiet. I take out my books and my laptop, preparing to read and write.
But someone doesn’t get the memo. A few minutes into my peace and quiet, I hear a voice behind me say, “Shalom. That’s an interesting word.”
I pretend I hear nothing, hoping the voice will go away. The voice gets closer though, creeping up right behind me and repeats. “Shalom.”
I sigh inwardly and turn to see who’s talking. She’s wearing a dark hijab and is an older, grandma type. She’s referring to the book I have in my hand, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision1, by Randy S. Woodley. The word Shalom in the title has caught her eye.
“Yes, this is a book written by a Native Christian writer,” I start to explain, but she wasn’t really listening. She searches her purse, finds her phone, and takes a picture of the book. “I’m interested in Shalom. I’ll have to get this book.”
What is Shalom
Shalom is a Hebrew word commonly translated as peace. But many rabbis and Christian scholars would agree the English translation doesn’t adequately capture the meaning of the word. In the article, “What is Shalom: The True Meaning2,” Susan Perlman writes, “The ancient Hebrew concept of peace, rooted in the word ‘shalom,’ meant wholeness, completeness, soundness, health, safety and prosperity, carrying with it the implication of permanence. She cites a quote from Rabbi Robert I. Kahn of Houston, Texas on the difference between “Roman” peace and “Hebrew” shalom:
“One can dictate a peace; shalom is a mutual agreement.
Peace is a temporary pact; shalom is a permanent agreement.
One can make a peace treaty; shalom is the condition of peace.
Peace can be negative, the absence of commotion. Shalom is positive, the presence of serenity.
Peace can be partial; shalom is whole.
Peace can be piecemeal; shalom is complete.”
Shalom isn’t just the temporary absence of war or conflict. It is a positive and permanent state of wholeness and completeness, not just at an individual level but at the communal level. In his book1, Randy S. Woodley writes, “Shalom is communal, holistic and tangible. There is no private or partial shalom. The whole community must have shalom or no one has shalom.”
Woodley’s definition of community extends beyond humans to all of creation. He also describes shalom as a by-product of justice and righteousness. “The consequences 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.”
Where is Shalom
Our standard for peace is generally low. Not only is peace temporary, inauthentic, but it can also be very basic. In the American workplace, peace is often the lowest common denominator of agreement among individuals and their employers, and individuals with each other. The lowest common denominator means workers get paid for the work they do. Anything beyond that is optional and aspirational, including racial justice and gender equity. Peace just means a veneer of professionalism, the absence of a lawsuit, or a public scandal. This is a false peace.
In the era of false news, it shouldn’t surprise us to find false peace. False peace is the impostor we have settled for in place of Shalom. It’s the devil we know.
For those coming from East Asian/Asian-American cultures, keeping the peace is ingrained deeply in the culture. There’s nothing inherently wrong in seeking harmony and peace in our relationships. However, this cultural value also brings with it a desire to be complacent even when there’s something wrong and unjust. As the Japanese saying goes, “出る釘は打たれる” or “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Even if people disagree internally, keeping the peace means agreeing externally, for the consequence is grim for those who speak up.
No Shalom Here
Lately, the impact of patriarchy has been put on national display, and yet many have chosen to dismiss it as trivial, or worse, untrue. Personally, patriarchy has hit me hard in the East Asian American Christian church context, as I get constantly reminded through explicit and implicit messages of my status as a second-class citizen.
Traditional East Asian cultures treat girls as being “less than” boys. Boys will carry the family name to the next generation; girls just need to find a suitable husband who will care for her needs. When these East Asians convert to Christianity, patriarchy in the Christian church fits right into the existing cultural value of boys over girls. It must have been a relief to not have to adjust or change. Insert man into leadership in the home and the church: done. Though women make up a significant portion of the church, the leaders remain predominantly male.
But I expect it to be different in the East Asian American context. These are folks born and/or raised in the U.S. They are people my age. Surely, they are less patriarchal and more affirming of women.
Where I thought I’d find people in my corner, I instead find I am alone. When I confront these brothers and sisters in Christ with specific examples of patriarchy, they respond defensively, or they blame me for not trying harder, or proving myself to be trustworthy, etc. Their responses make me I feel like – in the words of Shakespeare – an idiot “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But I am not nothing. I am made in the image of God. And my sound and fury scream out a broken Shalom.
In the tech industry, the false peace has been shattered recently by numerous scandals and lawsuits. In 2017, the “Google manifesto” caused quite a stir, shocking people that such sexist and racist opinions would exist in one of the best places to work. Not about the manifesto, but about racism at large, one of my co-workers said, “If someone is racist outside of work, what makes you think they are not racist when they come to work?”
Racism doesn’t always display itself so boldly in a manifesto. Sometimes, it’s not the things that you say, but what you don’t say, that reveals the ugly truth. It’s a known fact that tech has a problem with its diversity numbers. Nowadays, when recruiting potential candidates for an interview loop, the more racially diverse your pool of candidates, the better it makes you look as a hiring manager. And yet it’s interesting that we still end up with mostly white hires – particularly for the higher-up roles. Recruiters and hiring managers can claim their good intentions, but the impact tells a different story of who’s wanted, who’s not, and the racial biases that have been given permission to stay.
Still Looking for Shalom
Despite this bitter reality, there’s still something in my heart that deeply yearns for Shalom. Without Shalom, we are left with an unjust, evil world. I join the Muslim lady in her desire for Shalom. For we are MADE for Shalom.
As Woodley writes: “Shalom is the very concept needed to understand God and to make sense of the Christ who died for the world. When human beings understand shalom, God’s power will begin working through them. Jesus, the shalom Christ who brings a shalom kingdom, is God’s final answer to a broken and fragmented world.”
Amen. May it be so.
1 Woodley, R. (2012), Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing
2 Perlman, S (2018), “What is Shalom: The True Meaning,” [Issues Publication, Web], Retrieved from https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v01-n10/what-is-shalom-the-true-meaning/