Shalom: The Biblical Hope for Justice & The Postcolonial Dilemma


Let us begin with a classic passage of messianic hope:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion-
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor. (Is 61:1-3)

Of this passage, Jesus said concerning his own ministry: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (cf. Lk 4:14-21). By doing so, Jesus took unto himself the expectations of the Jewish people for the coming Messiah and his reign of peace.  This longing, found in the biblical notion of shalom, means more than simple internal peace; it includes external justice in society. Nicholas Wolterstorff points out that shalom is more than justice, it is also the delight in the just world of relationships: "In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is no shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellow, with nature" (69).  Our hope, then, is in having a equitable and delightful relationship with the Triune God, with other human beings inside and across communities, and within God's prosperous and blessed creation, and this implies an internal peace with one's renewed self as well. A full study of this concept in the Old Testament would include the following: Is 4:2-6, 9: 1-7, 61:1-7, 62, 65:17-25. 66:12-16, Hosea 14, Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, Micah 4:15, 5:15, Zeph 3:9-20, and Zech 3:10, 14. The prophetic tradition looked with pleasure to a future where, "The wolf and the lamb will feed together, /and the lion will eat straw like the ox, / but dust will be the serpent's food;" where "each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree;" and where God promises:

I will rescue the lame
and gather those who have been scattered.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they were put to shame
.

This biblical hope continued into the New Testament. Those surrounding Jesus looked to its fulfillment (Lk 1:46-56, John 7:25-43, Acts 1:1-11, cf. Matt 5:17-20, 7:28-29). After his ascension, Christ's disciples learned a fuller picture of this hope as one both present, yet still far off and not complete. Believers learned to look forward to the completion of this promise in the second coming of Christ at the end of the world (Romans 8:18-25, I Cor 15:20-28, Rev 21-22).  In the meantime, the Church as the people of God are to live as a community modeling (however imperfectly) this good reign of shalom, working for it in their individual and corporate lives, as well as living in expectation of its fullness (Matt 25, Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:9-14, Heb 12:24-28).  Because God intends for the world to be healed of its ancient hatreds and divisions, we are to be a firstfruits, a sign of what God in Christ has promised us.  This is not to say that any political or cultural work can bring in God's kingdom, for no human system can replicate what God alone by his Spirit can work, yet nonetheless we are to work in lieu of that prophesied time.  We are to continually hope, and hope requires action.

This missio dei should ground a Christian response to the postcolonial world in a number of differing ways. Consider some of the following:

  1. How should the dictates of justice and peace be carried out in the world economy? The current situation in the world economy has a partial basis in the history of colonialism.  I am not trying to suggest that the present disparity in wealth between the richer nations of the globe and the poorer ones can be laid solely at the feet of colonial practices, but there is a history.  For example, India before British involvement was a fairly stable economy that provided for its people. The British Empire pursued a policy that suppressed and outlawed diverse native trade systems in favor of single money-making crops or industries for British benefit.  India as a nation is still trying to overcome large-scale systemic problems as a result of this past. Much of the world's wealth is located in certain core countries. What is the responsibility of those nations to poorer ones?
  2. How can equity and delight be found in our political and cultural identities? I do not wish to explore here the merits of one system over another. Any governmental configuration or cultural project that seeks to suppress or rob a people of its full identity is not carrying out shalom. Equally, any system that keeps part or all of its constituency from fully realizing their relationship with God, others, or creation is not a shalom-based system.  Whatever form the polis takes, it should be one that calls forth responsible maturity in its people.
  3. Who should care for the poor? Families, local neighborhoods, religious communities, regional governments, and national governments are all cited as options. The same can be said here as above. Any system that has shalom in mind will have the full needs of people in mind. A shalom-based system should carry with it the dignity of a relationship with God, community, and nature. I would suggest that this implies among other things a component of real, satisfying work, a sense of responsibility and participation by all persons, and protections for both the poor and the environment (cf. Ex 22:25-27, Lev 19:9-10, 23-25, Lev 25, Deut 14:22-29, Deut 15).
  4. What regard should we have for human rights?--The French jurist Karel Vasak has categorized three generations of human rights in Western and United Nations history: First generation rights include civil and political freedoms, such as those associated with the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Second generation rights include socio-economic and cultural rights, such as rights involving work (hours, rest, leisure, and social security), basic health care, education, and copyright law. Third generation rights, sometimes called solidarity rights, are associated with Third World involvement in the U.N.  These include the right to self-determination, economic development, an ecologically clean environment, freedom from war, and disaster relief (Montgomery 28-30). Each of these has an investment in the larger vision of shalom, which is finally a vision of both responsibilities and rights together.
  5. Should violence be used to accomplish these ends? Set against the background of political tyranny, many Christians at different points in history have chosen one of the following positions: pacifism (Mennonite, Amish) , submission to whatever the government commands (Lutheran, High Anglican), participation only in a just war (RCC, Karl Barth), use of armed resistance and/or revolution (American Revolutionary Puritans, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Liberation Theology). The question post-colonial Christians should ask of each of these is what telos do they have in mind? Will their claims accomplish shalom?
  6. How can we shape our ecological and urban environments with a sense of shalom? Despite many of the good things that come with modernization, the impact on community life and nature is often a negative one. I'm not offering any easy solutions here, yet I think it important to stress again that long-term economic justice can not be gained by a damaged creation or an ugly, alienating way of life. This is not to say that city-life is endemically worse than country-life. Both contain possibilities of great good and great evil. Rather, we should be asking what steps can be taken to encourage harmonious relations not for ourselves but also for the larger whole.
  7. Freedom for what? Literature is often produced around the themes of protest, reform, and justice.  Some texts awaken us to the costs and losses that systems of oppression produce.  Others recall the power and joys of the local community, reminding us of those aspects of our lives we should seek to maintain in the face of contemporary social displacement.  Still others project a future utopian world, perhaps giving us a portrait of what a more perfect society might be like.  A vision of shalom will cooperate with these, yet also look at their large-scale vision. Freedom for the modernist dream of personal autonomy and moral license is no freedom at all. We need to examine critically the literature of protest, discerning what is helpful and deceptive. Likewise, such literature shows us the personal scope and impact of such issues.  Shalom reminds us that external change in the world's conditions is not enough--we are called to personal renewal via the Holy Spirit. Humanity's fallen condition prevents any changes from being perfect, for change must come to the heart as well as the locale.

Finally, how should Western Christians respond the the post-colonial dilemma? The history of colonialism is tied to secular or quasi-religious metanarratives of Progress, Manifest Destiny, Social Utopianism, and Marxism. These were all plans for world construction that had at their heart distortions of shalom. We should only be too aware that a vision of equality and delight can be distorted (indeed, if Reinhold Neibuhr is correct, will be distorted) by human sinfulness. We should admit that Christian missions played a large role in the colonial process of cultural and political hegemony in Africa, India, and the Caribbean.   Very often Christian missionaries cooperated with European political rule, depending on the governmental power to maintain their own status.   Likewise, quite often Christian missionary schools assumed the superiority of European education, language, and ideas; and as a result, they downgraded local indigenous culture. And they did this fully convinced that they were advancing the kingdom of Christ. This should teach us that true shalom must be inclusive and multi-cultural and must work to the full empowerment of human beings in their local settings. Too often Christian mission work produced dependent "rice" Christians who were not brought up to lead themselves or participate in their nations. However, Christian missionary education, in retrospect, also provided a solid Biblical education, one that exposed local leaders to Biblical ideas of justice, mercy, and peace.  In particular, many native activists adopted the language of the Exodus, Jesus, and the Apocalypse in order to convey the need for socio-political change. Eventually, third world theology grew out of local Christian churches, some of which stressed liberation and justice (cultural, political, and economic) for all the oppressed. Continued Western involvement in these nations should seek to build on that foundation. True justice does not come automatically by importing Western ideals and institutions, though these are not automatically suspect either. The full Church in all its multi-cultural glory is called to witness of God's good purpose for creation at every level, including the economic, political, and literary.

Montgomery, John Warwick. Human Rights and Human Dignity. 2nd ed. Dallas: Probe, 1986.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Until Justice and Peace Embrace. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding