In the middle of July, I received an email, that I would be teaching an “Introduction to Peace and Justice Studies” to freshman at Regis College. Even with all the unknowns of COVID-19, I was ecstatic for this opportunity and threw myself into preparing the course.
My goals for the class are to help students understand the concepts of justice, peace, and nonviolence from multiple perspectives as well as to attempt to explain the root causes of on-going injustice and violence through a number of local, national, and global problems.
As I thought about my academic training in philosophy and theology, I remembered the Scottish Philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work After Virtue argues that modern life is characterized by personal and social fragmentation. Without a greater story to ground our identities we cannot make sense of the world and act responsibly within it. The uptake for me is that I hoped my students would understand that each of us exists as citizens of a global world. Our actions, for good, bad or indifferent, are not without consequences.
The World Is Not As It Should Be
As I told them on the first day of class, the world is not as it should be and the weight of making the world a better place falls upon our shoulders. It’s been two weeks of socially distanced, face masks required, in-class teaching, and last night as we discussed the Biblical idea of Shalom, my phone pinged. My “NBA app” alerted me that the Milwaukee Bucks decided to protest the tragic shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year old Black father of six, who was shot seven times by the Kenosha Wisconsin police, by not playing their first-round game against the Orlando Magic.
The Bucks intended to sacrifice the game but then other players, teams, the league, and other sports teams across the nation joined them. The WMBA was right on board following quickly by the MLB. In the history of the NBA, a movement for justice, on this scale has never happened.
All of this is unfolding, as my class was discussing the concept of Shalom.
Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. Shalom is a word that imagines a world where joy, well-being, harmony, and prosperity are for everyone. God’s dream for neighborhoods across the world is Shalom. Block parties, if you will, where there is caring, sharing, and rejoicing. Shalom is not simply inner tranquility or passing feelings but communal healing and wholeness. Shalom recognizes the inner connectedness of all life. When anyone suffers, everyone suffers.
We read several passages from the Bible and I was surprised by how excited my students were when they began to understand that the Bible uses poetry to help us grasp Shalom. Several passages imagine the abundance gifts of a flourishing land: fresh fruit and bread for everyone (Leviticus 24:4-6). Other passages imagine rain falling on the parched earth, wild animals no longer threatening human life, and people resting at night without fear (Ezekiel 34:25-29). The prophet Isaiah describes Shalom as a “A wolf will live with a lamb” and a “A leopard will lie down with a goat” (11:6) and Micah writes “swords will be made into plowshares (4:3).”
I suggested to the students this great tradition of Shalom comes with the belief that the world is the sphere of God’s activity. Excitement was building with my students as someone suggested this is why Martin Luther King Jr. could preach in the Civil Right Era that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I was smiling underneath my facemask. I reminded students that as a Jewish man Jesus was familiar with this tradition and his life can be understand as a struggle for Shalom. He gave his life so that each of us can not only experience Shalom but participate in movements of Shalom.
As class ended and students headed to their dorms, I quickly checked my phone. I couldn’t stop thinking about the connections between Shalom and what is happening in the NBA in real time. Shalom is not a romantic or utopian idea but comes through the blood, sweat, and tears of difficult conversations and courageous action.
Next month, we will talk about racial injustice in America and read Ibram Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist. We will learn that for 400 years our Black brothers and sisters have suffered greatly as prejudice and inequality have been written into laws and institutionalized. The cries of suffering have fallen on deaf ears and we’ve settled for less than Shalom while Black bodies have been the targets of ignorance and hate. Yet, something is in the air, as professional athletes are leading us where our politicians, religious leaders, and many of us have failed. This is why four years ago, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee. This is why, I teach.
My hope is that my students will learn that “Peace and Justice” is all of our work. As Chris Weber, a basketball legend when I was a kid, who is now an ESPN sports analyst said in addressing the players: “You’re starting something for the next generation and the next generation.”
Making The World A Better Place Falls Upon Our Shoulders
The world is not as it should be and the weight of making the world a better place falls upon our shoulders. This is an important moment for each of us. As we think deeply about the history of racism and how we’ve settled for smaller stories about ourselves, others, and the world we must investigate, confront, and confess our deeply held prejudices so that a bigger story, a Shalom story, can be written.
–Dale Carl Fredrickson