By Brian Lowther
Ask 100 people, “What is the meaning of Shalom?” I bet 100 out of 100 would say, “Peace.” The connotation is “world peace” or “a state of affairs where there are no wars or disputes between countries.” While this peace is one aspect of Shalom, it doesn’t begin to describe the full meaning of the term. In the biblical sense, Shalom is this magical, all-encompassing term that essentially means perfect-ness. It can mean everything from “bring to completion,” to wholeness, safety, quietness, rest or harmony. When Shalom is used in reference to the body, it means health. When it is used materially, it means prosperity, good harvest and fertility. When Shalom is used in the context of warfare, it means victory. King David once inquired, "How is the Shalom of the war?" (2 Sam 11:7 see here and here), which is an odd contradiction if we take Shalom to mean "peace." This webpage has a thorough summary of all of the nuances of the term.
I’ve been really interested in the concept of Shalom for the last few years. My interest sprouted initially from this blog entry by a fellow named Tim Timmons, who once lectured at the U.S. Center for World Mission. My colleague Beth Snodderly further sparked my curiosity with her essay, Shalom: The Goal of the Kingdom and of International Development. In this essay Snodderly describes Shalom as, “wholeness and wellness in the context of right relationships with God, people, and nature.” I like that definition. That says it all.
This fuller sense of Shalom brings new meaning to Christ’s title, “Prince of Peace/Sar Shalom” (Is 9:6). When John the Baptist asked if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus pointed to the Shalom he was manifesting, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Lk 7:22)
When Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us and to live by the golden rule (Lk 6:27-31), he was teaching us how to bring Shalom to the full spectrum of our social relationships.
Christ’s life, death and resurrection allow us to have Shalom with God (2 Cor 5:18-21). This is the Shalom that Jesus brings, the peace that surpasses all understanding. (Phil 4:7)
I’ve heard Beth say many times, “As his followers, we are to continue the work Christ began.” When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9), he was describing the role believers were to have as sons of God, taking over the family business of bringing Shalom to this broken, diseased, war-torn world.
I thought it might be interesting to examine Ralph Winter’s career—and the projects he initiated—through the lens of Shalom.
Shalom between People and God
In many people’s minds, Winter is synonymous with the U.S. Center for World Mission (USCWM). Through ten years on the mission field, and then another ten years as a professor at Fuller Seminary, his chief concern became the enormous number of people groups that had no access to the gospel message in their own language and culture. Thus he founded the USCWM to propel the unreached peoples movement in the late 1970s and 80s. Looking at this movement through the lens of Shalom, we could say Winter realized that thousands of people groups around the world had almost no chance of experiencing the fullness of Shalom in their relationship with God. The USCWM was his way of rectifying this reality.
Shalom between People and People
Winter was convinced that planting the gospel in all of the unreached people groups on earth was only the first step in addressing the roots of the most pervasive human problems, such as political corruption, human trafficking or poverty. He knew that the roots of these problems lie deep within cultural, economic and political systems. In other words, even if the gospel could be planted within a people group, there would still be significant barriers preventing people from experiencing Shalom with one another. We need to look no further than our own local church to see examples of how interpersonal strife can erupt in even the most Christ-focused communities. In many cases these conflicts arise out of cultural blind-spots such as racial or gender inequality. Thus he founded William Carey International University (WCIU). He wanted to help students understand these cultural, economic and political systems so they could identify and address the roots of the biggest problems of human need.
Shalom between People and Creation
The last of Winter’s projects I’d like to explore in regards to Shalom is the Roberta Winter Institute. Late in his life he began to realize that even if the gospel was readily available to every people group on earth, even if mankind could make major inroads into the worst cultural, economic and political problems, people would still get sick. People would still get heart disease or malaria or cancer.
Additionally, he came to believe that one of the largest impediments to overcoming the roots of human problems was the factor of rampant sickness and disease. As an example, he would often point to disease as a major obstacle in overcoming poverty. “If four out of five members of the family are sick,” he’d say, “then the family is in poverty.”
On top of that, he knew that when believers tackle major world problems it gives credibility to the message we preach. This is exemplified best by the marvelous efforts of Christians down through the centuries in establishing hospitals, health clinics and medical missions. Winter’s question came down to this: our many successes notwithstanding, why is it so difficult to find an example of a coordinated, theologically driven effort to eradicate diseases, to go to the very root of the problem?
Thus, he established the Roberta Winter Institute (RWI), in honor of Roberta, his late wife who died of cancer, and for the express reason of exploring God's will for humanity in relation to the troubling realities of disease and evil. Through the RWI he hoped to ignite a theological shift in the church about disease and the role of believers in eradicating it.
In regards to establishing Shalom between people and creation, most would think of our stewardship of the environment, our protection of plant and animal life, or our work to reduce mankind’s exploitation of the earth’s natural resources. But we could say Winter realized that there was a whole category of our existence that wasn’t even being thought of in these terms. I’m speaking of microbiological life like harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites, which may represent the best example of lack of shalom between people and creation. If we could find a way to establish perfect Shalom between people and microbiological life, how many diseases would simply vanish? All?