Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 2, February 1993Noel Moules is Programme Director of Workshop, a Christian Discipleship and Leadership Training programme in which more than sixteen hundred people from many denominations have participated He is a member of the Editorial Board for Anabaptism Today and in this interview he reflects on his commitments to shalom (A Hebrew word often translated “peace”).
You always answer the telephone by saying “Shalom, this is Noel ” What response do you get to that greeting?
Quite often there’s a kind of pause, but most people are too polite to say anything. I suppose some think, “Oh no, it’s Noel’s gone native! Now he’s got some sort of Hebrew greeting!” I use shalom as a greeting because it is a declaration of the Kingdom of God. In Luke 10:5-6 Jesus tells his disciples to proclaim the greeting of peace in their travel and witness; where the greeting of peace is received by people of peace, there peace remains.
What does shalom mean to you?
There’s a wonderful rabbinic story that says when God had created all the blessings for humankind he looked around for a pot or vessel in which to put them. When he couldn’t find a vessel, he created shalom. We often use “peace” to translate “shalom”, but the word “wholeness” is much better. The trouble with “peace” is that it sounds passive. That’s why I won’t call myself a pacifist. What I do call myself is a shalom activist. Shalom is packed with dynamism; it’s not simply everything in quiet harmony. Shalom is the overarching biblical vision. It isn’t on God’s agenda, it is God’s agenda, and the New Testament emphasizes this by saying we shall “proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). I’m amazed that a peace message is completely absent among many Christians.
Did particular life experiences make you reflect on peace and violence?
My father was a missionary, but also a major in the British army. Before joining up in the second World War he prayed and fasted for three days and nights. France fell, dad knew he would be called up, and felt an obligation to defend his country. Dad gave his life to God, fought in the North African desert, and God saved him. He was not militaristic, but had a “good Christian” attitude about the military and doing your duty. Yet I had growing questions about whether this is how Christians should act. In college my friends said “yes, we’d all like to be peaceful, but of course it doesn’t really work.”
After years of struggle, the event that really sealed my peace conviction was the Malvinas/Falklands war. I knew there were thousands of my Christian brothers and sisters in Argentina, yet we were at war with them. As a believer I am one body even with people that are in the Argentinian army. Two scriptures were key for me: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20) and “my kingdom is not of this world, if it were, my servants would fight” (John 18:36).
When I was in college in the mid-1960s I did a research project on the biblical idea of the kingdom of God. I remember pondering the warning of Jesus that we should beware of people who say “Look! Here is the Messiah!” (Matt. 24:23). Jesus was saying “be careful, you can be deluded.” I believe shalom is the essential quality by which we can recognize the Messiah and the Kingdom. Shalom is the overarching value of the kingdom, out of which spring justice, peace, righteousness, joy, love, grace, forgiveness.
Does your peace conviction require you to make selective use of scripture? What about all the passages that seem to endorse violence?
Of course you can make the Bible say anything you want. But the Bible is a written record of God’s revelation, God’s word. The most clear manifestation of his word is the person of Jesus, and I believe the Bible only makes full sense when you read it in the light of the person and words of Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers, they are called children of God.” In the Hebrew scriptures we see that God gave his people the land of Israel. Yet Israel was still simply one nation among others, and in that role she fought. Israel was trying to establish a political kingdom. The church, although it makes an impact on politics, is universal. You cannot make a parallel between Israel and the church. God has a special role for us, and we act in a totally different way.
How does a commitment to peace affect evangelism?
Many people seem to have a negative motivation for evangelism, and primarily talk about sin, rebellion and judgement. Of course these are all valid dimensions of the truth. But to me the primary motivation for evangelism is that it is good news. In the gospels we see Jesus clustered about on all sides by prostitutes, tax collectors, people who’d given up on religion, and the ne’er-do-wells of society. There was something about Jesus’ presence that attracted people. I’m
sure that a prostitute in the presence of Jesus was in no doubt about her sin. Yet there was something about the wholeness of Jesus which attracted her. The same was true for tax collectors, who led duplicitous lives. But the first response of Zacchaeus, when he had a meal with Jesus, was to start giving his money away. Jesus didn’t take him on a guilt trip. Zacchaeus knew his need, and Jesus brought a joyful message of truth and hope. When repentance happened, it was evident in the fruit of a changed life. The message of shalom, the gospel of peace, comes in this very positive way. We shine a light in the darkness to reveal it for what it is, rather than shouting into the darkness about darkness.
Why do you identify yourself as an Anabaptist?
Anabaptists had a central focus on Jesus. Being a Christian was seen in terms of being a disciple of Jesus; Jesus was the model of how God wants us to be. The important thing for most Christians is that Jesus died and rose from the dead so that when I die I also will rise from the dead if I believe in him. But what about the incarnation? In Jesus God has become a human being, showing us what being human actually is. God is saying that through Jesus’ death and resur- rection, and through the events of Pentecost, you can live like this too.
How has the modern church come to separate peace from the gospel?
Since the Reformation there has been too much focus on conversion meaning simply that you believe the right things. Leaders of the mainstream Reformation put emphasis primarily on doctrine, propositional truth and spiritual transaction. They talked about people having their ultimate destiny in heaven, and peace became personalized or spiritualized. The Anabaptists, in contrast, had a central focus on the life and teaching of Jesus.
Even as we speak, Allied bombs are dropping on Iraq again. In practical terms, what does a peacemaking Christian do?
There are no simple answers, and a conflict like Iraq makes us realize there is much work to be done. For all that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless and cruel man, and his people would be better off with a more righteous leader, the West has acted in arrogance. We sold him the armaments and technology, with no thought of the consequences. Then when he stepped out of line we used our weapons of mass destruction to destroy his. We’ve sown seeds for all sorts of bitterness.
In terms of practical strategy, let me go back to the Malvinas/Falklands conflict. If the British government and the Argentinian government both knew that they could not count on a single person who named themselves Christian to give any support to a foreign policy that employed militarism, surely they would think twice about how they handled international conflict. If it was known that Christians don’t fight, that Christians are people opposed to violence, we could have a very big impact on a grass roots level. The present conflict in the Balkans is another case where there are Christians on both sides. Couldn’t their churches – who obviously have some impact on government – become a major vehicle for dialogue and reconciliation? Couldn’t Christians in this country be supporting them to do so?
Some Christians argue that we should avoid politics and concentrate on the essential spiritual message of the gospel.
If you do that you are trying to fragment life, and you have the classic dualism between the spiritual and the political. The whole thing about shalom is that it’s all-embracing. Politics is to do with people, and people are those whom God is concerned about. There can be no shalom where there is no justice and righteousness. I identify in common cause with many people in the “secular” peace movement, and abolition of nuclear weapons I believe is something close to the heart of God. But I know that ultimately their dream can only be fulfilled in Jesus.
What kind of response to your peace testimony do you get from other Christians?
A lot of Christians – evangelical, charismatic, mainline – think I’m an oddball, or just quaint. I get the warmest response from younger Christians, people who have lots of fragments of teaching from church, who are trying to get a handle on it all and bring it together. Suddenly they see shalom, and it integrates everything. Older Christians are more likely to say peace might be a part of the gospel, but it’s not the whole.
What does shalom mean for the structure of the church and the use of power within the faith community?
There are a number of possible church structures within the New Testament, not just one model. To me the absolutes are a vision of the kingdom of God and values that reflect that vision. Local church should be a spontaneous expression of the people and gifts that are there at that time. Obviously there’s a need for leadership, but it should be plural and winsome. It should reflect the qualities of evangelism, teaching, caring, mission, church planting, and prophecy. All these should flow both through recognized leaders and through the body as a whole.
What is the relationship between salvation and peace?
I believe God’s ultimate destiny for all things is to embrace and saturate with shalom, to unite all things. What is happening in Jesus is that God is breaking into this age ahead of time, bringing the shalom of the age to come into the present and the now. Jesus calls us to become messianic people through the power of the Holy Spirit. We live out in practical terms the reality of the age to come. To me, Christian ethics doesn’t make sense without eschatology, without a clear focus on where God is taking the world and humanity. You can only live out the Sermon on the Mount, for example, if you have the power of God and you know where you’re going.
Conversion means coming under God’s rule. We realize that our rebellion and its consequences have been dealt with through Jesus’ death, and that our destiny is to be part of a cosmic wholeness. It’s a tragedy that we’ve spiritualized our destiny, when it should be an integration of the spiritual and physical. Jesus himself was the shalom person, the physical and the divine integrated into one. He models what the new heaven and new earth are going to be. All creation is groaning, it will be set free, and Jesus calls us to be heralds of that truth.