Eastern Africa


By January 11, 2011 May 29th, 2024 No Comments

 By Dr. Michael McCabe, SMA

The Hebrew word “shalom”, like its Arabic cognate “salaam,” traces its roots to several Semitic languages. The Akkadian “salamu,” meaning “to be healthy, whole, complete” comes closest to the core meaning of the root. The notions of health, wholeness and completion are, therefore, included in all the variants of the word.  “Shalom” is translated by the English word “peace,” which designates primarily the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word, however, denotes the presence of the desirable qualities of well-being, a sense of wholeness, harmony. The common Hebrew salutation “Shalom ‘alekem,” (“Peace upon you”), like its Arabic equivalent, is far more significant than the English salutation “Good morning” or “Good Evening.”    

The prophet Isaiah uses the word “shalom” to convey the blessings for God’s people associated with the coming of the Messiah, namely justice, peace, fruitfulness and harmony in creation – all gifts of God. For Isaiah there is no peace worthy of the name without justice (cf. Is 5:9). Peace is the fruit of justice (cf. Is 48:18) but justice can also be the fruit of peace (cf. Is 32:16-19). In any case, peace and justice are inseparable. The peace which the Messiah will bring to God’s people will be accompanied by the flourishing of the desert. “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song” (Is 35:1-2).

The Greek translation of the Bible (known as the “Septuagint”) translates “shalom” by the word “irene.” Irene is both a gift from God and a moral disposition which can be commanded. Christ wanted his disciples to be “peacemakers” (cf. Mt 5:9). Of all the beatitudes of Jesus, the one about peacemakers is the most assertive. All the others designate an attitude to be cultivated, while this one describes a concrete action. Luke uses the term “irene” more frequently than the other evangelists. For him it acts as a kind of capsule for all the blessings contained in the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is also true for St. Paul who calls the Gospel of Christ Jesus “the Gospel of peace” (Eph 6: 15). In the Talmud, Peace is one of God’s names.

The Latin Bible (known as the “Vulgate”), usually translates “irene” by “pax,” while retaining the rich associations of its Hebrew roots. For the Romans the word “pax” commonly referred to an enforced programme of pacification.  St Paul would have been very much aware of the inherent ambiguities and limitations of this pax romana. For him peace cannot be imposed; it must be received first as a gift. It comes from God and it comes in and through Jesus Christ.  “Christ is our peace” (Eph 2.14). Moreover, the peace Christ brings us is a peace made possible “by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).

For Paul, then, peace is not something sinful human creatures can accomplish by themselves. From first to last it is God’s work. At the same time, we can and do have a significant role to play in effecting peace. As Paul puts it “[God] has enlisted us in the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19).  Among the first Christian communities, the pursuit of peace was one of the highest priorities for Christian conduct. This  is clearly affirmed by St Peter (cf. 1 Peter 3:11) and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (cf. Heb 12:14) as well as by St Paul (cf. Rom 12:18).

Unfortunately, as the Christian tradition developed over the centuries, peace became overly spiritualized and identified predominantly as an inner feeling (serenity) with little relevance to the social and political realms of human life. But interior serenity is just one dimension of the peace God wants us to receive and transmit to others. The “shalom” of God is meant to embrace all the dimensions of human life, spiritual and material, personal, inter-personal and social. Having received the peace of Christ in our hearts, that gift which surpasses human understanding, we are then called and challenged to become “peace-makers” in our world of tragic conflicts, fragile hopes and broken promises.

(Written and submitted by Rev. Dr. Michael McCabe, SMA, a theological advisor to Shalom-SCCRR, upon request by Fr. Patrick Devine, Shalom-SCCRR Chairman, in OCTOBER, 2010 -….’and much appreciated‘)

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