“At Gordon College, we are committed to shalom—a right ordering of relationships and actions resulting in the affirmation of human dignity and the flourishing of community” (Gordon College). These are the famous opening words to Gordon College’s “Shalom Statement”. This Biblical notion of Shalom contains, but also expands beyond, our modern conception of peace. In this article, I will lay out a basic framework for understanding how Shalom relates to peace, the ways in which justice is a component of peace, and why violence might be necessary to some forms of peace, despite the fact that the two are ostensibly direct opposites. The purpose of this article is not to make a prescriptive statement as to how we as Christians ought to interact with these concepts, but to paint a descriptive picture of the tension between peace and violence.
Peace is often defined by the absence of disruption, violence, or war (Cambridge English Dictionary), but some definitions describe peace as lawfulness or security (Merriam-Webster English Dictionary). Peace is difficult to wholly nail down because it encompasses multiple concepts that sometimes conflict with one another. However, religious, and particularly Christian worldviews tend to define peace in teleological terms – that is, they conceptualise peace as a positive state of affairs that serve some end. As the famous theologian Plantinga describes the Old Testament vision of Shalom in Calvin University’s Educating for Shalom statement, “…all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God…”. In this view, peace serves the highest end because peace serves God. Thus, peace is not an end in itself.
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung approximates this wholesome variety of peace as Shalom by distinguishing between negative peace and positive peace (170). Firstly, he recognises the conceptual difficulty of creating a comprehensive definition of peace and thus accepts the broad definition of peace as “absence of violence” (167). This forces him to define violence, which he again does in very broad terms by describing violence as “…when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic (bodily) and mental realisations are below their potential realisations” (168). In other words, violence is not just harm to the physical body, but damage to the mind also, which can take the form of psychological harm, emotional pain, and even brainwashing. Moreover, violence can be the deprivation of well-being rather than just an act committed against someone.
The passive voice of Galtung’s statement also indicates that violence need not have a definitive subject, nor an intended object. Violence inflicted by identifiable perpetrators upon identifiable victims is personal violence; violence without such distinct parties is structural violence. Therefore, negative peace is the absence of personal violence, whereas positive peace is the absence of structural violence (183). Biblical Shalom quite clearly encompasses both negative and positive peace. Negative peace without positive peace is an uneasy tension; positive peace without negative peace is chaos.
Galtung synonymises positive peace with social justice, which is concerned with “the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society” (Oxford English Dictionary). The achievement of positive peace, then, requires the end of social structures that cause differentials between actual and potential physical and mental well-being. Most people would agree that justice, however vague the concept, is required to create a both negatively and positively peaceful society. The points of contention are what constitutes true differentials of potential versus actual well-being, and what acts, or forms, of justice to correct such differentials are right.
To answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of justice. Thankfully, Aristotle laid out a basic framework for defining justice in The Nicomachean Ethics, in which he describes three types of justice: retributive justice, compensatory justice, and distributive justice. Retributive justice, that which manifests itself in harming those who harm others, can be summed up in the old phrase ‘an eye for an eye’. Compensatory justice is the mirror image of retributive justice because it deals with repaying those who have been harmed until they reach their previous level of well-being. Distributive justice, finally, is the fairness of access to goods and resources, both material and abstract. This type of justice asks the question ‘who deserves what, and why?’ With this basic framework of the different types of justices, we observe that Galtung’s definition of violence infringes upon distributive justice on both a personal and societal level. Physical assault robs the victim of their bodily health (or “potential somatic realisation” as Galtung would put it), while segregation, to be somewhat reductive, robs victims of economic opportunities and mental well-being. In modern justice systems, victims of such violence sometimes have a path for recourse i.e., compensation, by claiming damages or protesting for the abolition of unjust laws. The perpetrators of such violence can be punished by the law in acts of state-sanctioned retributive justice.
Most modern states tend not to take a direct approach to retributive justice; instead of sentencing murderers to death, murderers are sentenced to prison. The two most common ‘units’ of retribution handed out to criminals today are time in prison and fines. Here, we stumble upon a dilemma. It appears that, in our modern systems of state-sanctioned retributive justice, the absence of personal violence requires the use of structural violence. After all, thieves must pay fines and murderers must go to prison. These are instances of structural violence because the laws by which societies operate are not created and executed by single individuals, but by entire systems of individuals in cooperation. Moreover, though most would agree that thieves and murderers ought to face punishment for their actions, it is undeniable that such punishments do limit their actual well-being. Retributive justice, punishment, is violence. In practical terms, this dilemma ties in very neatly with the statement from Max Weber that the modern state is defined by its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (33). Peace understood as ‘law and order’ necessitates structural violence against someone because dissidents to the order must be punished.
The reverse seems true also. The 20th century has shown the wonderful capacity for human beings to rise against oppressive systems. However, the dark side of this resistance against injustice is the disturbing propensity to utilise violent means to achieve the revolutionary ideal of justice. On countless occasions, revolutions have been bloody affairs (take but one look at Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, or Castro’s Cuba). But historical trends are not empirical projections of the future; is it possible to end structural violence without utilising personal violence? Reinhold Neibuhr, in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, notes that the public’s faith in peaceful change through the established legal channels is proportional to the material and social conditions of the public. Specifically, the more disenfranchised the public, the less patience the public has with the system (14). If the disenfranchised have no social or economic capital as leverage with which to petition for the end to their suffering, then they must resort to one of two options: appeals to morality or appeals to violence. Highly rigid orders at the peak of their power rarely outwardly recognise the humanity of those whom they oppress, so appealing to morality is successful inconsistently.
Personal physical violence, on the other hand, is almost universally feared. Physical violence may be an effective tool to dismantle systems that perpetuate structural violence. However, as Galtung rightly observes, empirically, violent revolutions usually replace the power vacuums they’ve created with systems that perpetuate more structural violence, albeit violence motivated by different causes (184). This stems, at least in part, from the fact that revolutionaries, as a group, tend to adopt the most extreme goals and aspirations that are not productive to creating a more peaceful society. The well-documented mob mentality effect describes the tendency of individuals to conform to groups due to deindividuation, anonymity, heightened emotion, and diffusion of responsibility[i] (Wong). Because revolutions are such emotionally heightened events, once violence breaks out, it accelerates. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution is a harrowing example just how effective physical violence is at dismantling existing structural violence while simultaneously establishing more of it, to disastrous consequences. As French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon described the brutality of the Reign of Terror, “The formation of such a mental unity results chiefly from the fact that in a crowd, gestures and actions are extremely contagious. Acclamations of hatred, fury, or love are immediately approved and repeated” (104). Even if the individual revolutionary is not particularly violent, any vengeance-fuelled sentiment against the oppressors spills over quickly until the entire group abandons personal responsibility. Righteous indignation devolves, at least temporarily, into violent rage. Although the ends sought are distributive and compensatory justice, the means effectivelyoperate as revenge. And as the adage goes, ‘violence begets violence’.
This is not to place a value judgement on revolution or even violence, both personal and structural. Under certain circumstances, violence as defined by Galtung can and ought to be justified. Just War Theory posits that if certain conditions are met, war is not only justified, but morally correct; few, after all, argue that the Allies should not have gone to war against the Axis powers.
There is no algebraic representation of this relationship between the three concepts because it is a paradox. This strange dilemma cannot be solved definitively in our fallen world.
Where does this leave the Christian in pursuit of Shalom? Let us return to the Christian teleological notion of peace. If peace is not an end, but a means to serve God, then it follows that Christians ought to seek peace only in ways that please God. A non-Christian approach to establishing peace could take multiple forms. One school of ethical thought called utilitarianism posits that the correctness of actions are measured by how well they maximise human utility. Some, though not all utilitarian thinkers run close to an ‘ends-justify-the-means’-type of ethics, which can lead to dangerous outcomes. An extreme example is that utilitarianism implies that 10% of the population should be enslaved to improve the lives of the 90%. Such a calculation seems preposterous to our sensibilities (and rightfully so). However, to the Christian pursuing Shalom, the ends cannot justify the means because God cannot permit sin, even if the sin is supposedly in service of God.
How precisely Christians are meant to pursue Shalom will always be ambiguous, and it is a question that has troubled the church since its inception. Multiple Christian thinkers have tackled the problem of the relationship between the church and greater society, and most answers can be broadly divided into two categories: the two kingdoms approach and the one kingdom approach. The two kingdoms approach generally conceives of the temporal, physical world where sin abounds as inferior to the spiritual world to which Christians must strive, though it has not yet arrived fully (Gill, 58). By contrast, the one kingdom approach is more holistic, viewing the Christian and non-Christian realms more contiguously (Gill, 64). These opposing views carry different implications for Christian ethics. For example, two kingdom believers may tend to subscribe to Just War Theory because although war displeases God, they believe such means are necessary in a world distorted by sin. This is an example of how some Christians may employ violence to achieve imperfect, worldly justice [ii]. Some one kingdom thinkers take the extreme opposite and become dedicated pacifists or non-interventionists. While this approach supposedly avoids committing violence, it also permits the perpetuation of violence, which is still violence according to Galtung. Again, violence, peace, and justice are in an uneasy relationship, and there are no simple solutions. Regardless of which approach is taken, what is uncontroversial is that the pursuit of Shalom should be fuelled by love first, above all else. Amidst the sea of moral ambiguity, there is comfort in the totally unambiguous words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 22.
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. ’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (The Bible, Mat. 22.37-40)
In summary, peace as the “absence” of violence is a simple concept that splinters into a number of complicated questions about the correct ways to achieve peace, and how violence, paradoxically, might be necessary to achieve it. We, as Christians, ought to be extremely careful as to how we employ justice to serve God and serve one another. Human societies are much greater than the sum of their parts, and confronting these systems wisely is of utmost importance as the world becomes more interconnected and events of global scale occur more frequently. Christian involvement in wider society is inevitable, so such efforts must be conducted with the love for God and neighbour in mind.
Michel Bayarjargal is the archetypal Third Culture Kid, having been raised in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. As a solid singer and sub-par saxophonist, he is a performer and entertainer at heart, seeking the stage lighten the mood at any gathering. Michel’s curiosity for the world drives him to dabble in any and all topics pertaining to society and history, and he loves to meet and share experiences with other people. Above all, he is an ardent conversationalist as a student of (and for) life. In addition, Michel is a keen tabletop gamer, movie critic, and basketball player. Anything involving BTS will also grab his attention.