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Educating for Shalom

By June 1, 2004 No Comments

Ten years ago, Richard Hughes of Pepperdine University and Theron Schlabach of Goshen College organized a small working conference with an awkward title: “Peace Thinking Among Churches other than the Historic Peace Churches.”  Despite the awkwardness one can see the good point that Hughes and Schlabach were making: you don’t necessarily have to be a Mennonite or a Quaker to take part in peace discourse. The conference issued in a good book in which I was glad to be a part: Proclaim Peace (University of Illinois Press, 1997) contains essays by various authors who were able to identify important–though minority–peace viewpoints in the several denominations studied. We peace-seekers were outsiders in our own churches, and we were glad to be welcomed home by the Mennonites– permanent outsiders in North American culture–in order to proclaim our own witness for peace. While one need not be an Anabaptist to play in the peace league, it surely helps.

In this essay, I would first like to draw from my own Reformed communion some resources we have to engage the peace discussion. Even if they are minority voices, they are prominent ones. The work of Nick Wolterstorff and Neil Plantinga amounts to a kind of manifesto of where Christian higher education might go if “peace and reconciliation studies” informed our entire project, and were not merely an academic specialty one or two of us does. Then I will illustrate what I mean from some of my own work on Northern Ireland, emphasizing the power of narratives of grace–from those working in peace and reconciliation and for us who tell and hear their stories.

First, some resources from my own Calvin College intellectual culture. Most indices of study about Calvin College and its supporters suggest that it is an overwhelmingly “conservative” culture. It is a Republican stronghold in which people readily and eagerly find their places in the larger culture without giving much by way of substantial critique of that culture. While those giving an adverse critique are minority voices, it is important to note that they are vastly over represented in the leadership of the Christian Reformed Church and its educational agencies.

Nick Wolterstorff was for many years the prominent philosopher at Calvin College. He later went on to teach at the Free University of Amsterdam, and still later at Yale University. His book, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Eerdmans, 1983) is, in my view, the best single book written by a Calvin faculty person during my 34 years there. The author, reflecting on his own upbringing in southwestern Minnesota, records his astonishment in his discovery of the radical social roots of Calvinism, especially in the seventeenth century. He quotes a speech by Thomas Case in the British House of Commons in 1641–as articulate and forceful a rendering of the Cromwellian program that one is likely to find.

Reformation must be universal . . . [with] reforms in all places, all persons, all callings. Reform the benches of judgment, reform the universities, reform the cities, reform the countries, reform inferior schools of learning, reform the Sabbath, reform the ordinances of the worship of God. . . . You have more work to do than I can speak. . . . Every plant which my heavenly father hath not planted shall be rooted up (pp 8-9).

When one looks at a later Calvinist saint, Abraham Kuyper, whose memorable and oft quoted statement was “there is not one square inch of creation that does not belong to Christ,” we find we have a soul mate for Thomas Case, even though they are separated by language, culture and 250 years. This brand of Calvinism represented what Wolterstorff called “world formative” religion in that the social world is to undergo an entire scrutiny because of God’s grace. For Wolterstorff the first impetus of Calvinism is not directed inward but outward, not to the individual’s soul but to the social world. Such piety is characterized by obedience motivated by gratitude and expressed in vocation. Those vocations are meant to be an aspect of God’s overall redemptive activity.

It is very important to recognize that in this view, sin does not exist merely, even mainly, in the human heart. Rather the truly oppressive qualities of sin are located in the social structures of a fallen world. For those following the compass of a “world-formative” faith, such fallen structures alienate us all from God’s intentions: “Instead of providing authentic fulfillment to us . . . [they] spread misery and injustice, squelching  the realization of what human life was meant to be. . . . In response to this we are not to avert our eyes from our social condition, seeking closer union with God, for God himself is disturbed by our human condition; rather, we are to struggle to alter those structures and the dynamics behind them, so that the alienation is diminished and the realization advanced”(23).

What, then, is the “advance” to which this project points? It is to shalom, a word more complete than “peace,” which we typically use. Shalom is an ideal in which peace combines with justice; but more than that, when peace combines with delight in right relationships with God, with self, with fellow humans and with nature. As Wolterstorff concludes, “In shalom there are no blind, all see; in shalom there are no lame, all walk; there are no deaf, all hear; there are no dead, all live. And, there are no poor; all have plenty. To be impoverished is to fall short of shalom. That is what is wrong with poverty. God is committed to shalom. Jesus came to bring shalom. In shalom there is no poverty. . . . As the prince of shalom, Jesus could not avoid taking the side of the poor against the rich”(77).

We could go further with Wolterstorff’s analysis, but it is enough to say that in the Christian college, our theorizing and empirical inquiries need to go on in the spirit of seeking shalom. Turning briefly to Neil Plantinga– formerly Dean of the Chapel at Calvin College and now president of Calvin Theological Seminary–we see that our marching orders are, as he says, to educate for shalom. Neil writes,

The great writing prophets of the Bible knew how many ways human life had gone wrong because they knew how many ways human life can go right. And they dreamed of a time when God would put things right again.


They dreamed of a new age in which crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would stream with red wine, a time when weeping would be heard no more. People could work in peace, their work having meaning and point. A lion could lie down with a lamb, the lion cured of all carnivorous appetite. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder; all humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God, their shouts of joy and recognition welling up from valleys and crags, from women in streets and from men on ships.


We are now fallen creatures in a fallen world. The Christian gospel tells us that all hell has broken loose in this sorry world but also that, in Christ, all heaven has come to do battle. Christ the warrior has come to defeat worldly power, to move the world over onto a new foundation, and to equip a people–informed, devout, educated, pious, determined people–to follow him in righting what’s wrong, in transforming what’s corrupted, in doing the things that make for peace. That’s what Christian higher education is for.

In order to make concrete what I’ve been saying, let me now move to a discussion of some writing I’ve recently done on peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. My point in offering this is to suggest that while political leaders can begin a peace process, such a process will more likely succeed if there is broad support. Th
at support can be sustained when conflicting communities can tell each other their stories, especially those who have moved on–beyond enmity. There is power in those narratives–more than just ‘stories’–that deeply move and motivate those who hear them.  From my Catholic friends I have learned a way to describe those narratives of grace: they, and the people whose stories we celebrate, will become for us “icons of grace.”  The thesis argued here is this: when people hear compelling stories of grace they too will find ways to attest that “deep in our hearts we do believe that we shall overcome someday.”


My story begins, but does not end, on University Street in south Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. In the late 1960s, when “The Troubles” began again, it would have been a fairly typical example of a congregation in the evangelical wing of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Thirty years later its transformation was such that it was awarded the prestigious peace prize from Pax Christi [the international peace movement in the Catholic Church] for its grass roots work for peace and reconciliation, in collaboration with Clonard Monastery, a Roman Catholic community in west Belfast. This was the first time the award was given at all in Ireland, and the first time to a Catholic-Protestant group, the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship.

The sustaining question in my work was this: how did a congregation oriented toward the socially conservative and often exclusivist tenets of evangelical Protestantism move to being a heralded example of peaceful, ecumenical intentions toward the Roman Catholic community in Ireland? This question is as important for political as for religious concerns. The churches have long been societally dominant in Ireland, and they were tragically influential in sowing the seeds of enmity and exclusion that grew into The Troubles. Precisely because the churches were a large part of the cause for conflict they can also be a major part of the cure, but only if they reconfigure the meaning of the gospel. Exclusion must give way to inclusion, and the zeal to confront and convert with a vision of tolerance in which each tradition’s virtues are celebrated as a contribution to all. Vital in the process will be the ability to tell each other the stories of each community, the pain and suffering as well as those who have overcome and moved on; such will be “icons of grace.”

Under the leadership of Fitzroy’s pastor, Rev. Ken Newell, the congregation reached out to the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, attached to Clonard Monastery. Through the close friendship between Newell and Fr. Gerry Reynolds of Clonard, the twinned churches and their communities were able to speak with a prophetic voice to The Troubles, first mainly in religious terms but then also having an important impact on political reconciliation. From the early 1980s onwards the friendship of the two men would deepen and its impact would broaden. They brought along with them most of the people in the worshipping congregations of their churches. Twenty years ago no one could have imagined, for example, a group of Presbyterian evangelicals sharing a retreat with Catholic laity and clergy. Nor could one have imagined an impromptu meeting at a Presbyterian elder’s home to discuss the pain caused to Catholics by the annual marches of the Orange Order. The Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship began with Bible studies, and this made everyone feel comfortable with each other. Then, as time went along, normal life occurrences gathered people together: an illness brought visitors from members of ‘the other’ community to the hospital; a death broke the sectarian divide as a family attended the funeral. Then, the Fellowship responded to the larger political scene together, and, following the lead of Gerry Reynolds and Ken Newell, they were unafraid to discuss and pursue any political concerns. Their leaders, Newell and Reynolds, encouraged the people of the two churches to think outside conventional categories in order to bring the witness of the gospel to a bitterly divided society.

Ken and Gerry went further, and engaged in secret discussions with leaders of organizations some might call “terrorist.” These meetings, organized by Fr. Alec Reid, a colleague of Fr. Gerry’s at Clonard Monastery, had to be secret because the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army was unabated, and the doctrine from the British Government was that there could be no talks with “terrorists” unless there was first a cease- fire. In this context, Ken, Gerry and Alec took great risks, in that they would have lost credibility in their own communities if their discussions had been found out. Yet they persisted in the belief that someone had to do something different to begin to end the violence and begin a process of peace and reconciliation. While we do not claim that the intervention of the religious peacemakers was the only, or even the main, impetus for the Peace Agreement that was signed on Good Friday, 1998, it was an important part of a gathering consensus in Northern Ireland that movement toward peace was possible and desirable. For Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds, the end of violence and the beginning of a peace process was only an aspect of the larger reconciliation of the peoples of Northern Ireland–political, social and religious–that had always been their goal.

In fact, what one person has called “the messy politics of a democracy” has not solved every question, but it is surely preferable to the near-civil war that had preceded it. In a way, religious reconciliation perhaps still has a longer distance to go than political. Some of the churches are open and affirming toward the other community, like Fitzroy and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. But, some of the established leaders and many other congregations are still wary of too much contact, and they still officially impede or bar each other’s members from the Holy Communion.  Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds, friends who have come so far together at such cost, find this separation at the table very difficult to bear. We end with two stories of overcoming and of grace.

Gerry Reynolds had attended worship services at Fitzroy many times, and been present when Holy Communion was served. Bowing to the policies of his church, he always let let the elements pass him, even though he felt the grace of fellowship within them. This deeply affected and troubled Gerry, and he wept unashamedly many times. But, in November 1999, just before going down to Dublin to receive the Pax Christi Award, he could no longer live with this deep contradiction in his life. He reckoned that his place in the fellowship of Fitzroy was so solid and his companionship with the people there so complete, that he must participate in Holy Communion there or leave Fitzroy altogether. On that day, he did partake, and he later said that he has experienced a grace hitherto unknown to him.

Ken Newell has also spoken of a similar story of breakthrough. Ken had been a featured speaker at a Catholic charismatic service in Dublin. Aware of the provisions of canon law and not wanting to embarrass anyone, when the Eucharist came Ken removed himself to the far side of the platform, he said, “so no one would see how lonely and isolated I felt.” He said he felt like “it was a Christmas party and I had been put outside in the snow.” Well, it seems there was “a wee lady” there who went forward and received her wafer but did not consume it. Instead, she walked around to where Ken was sitting [as Ken recalled: “I’m 6-3 and sitting down; she’s 4-10 standing up, so we’re eye to eye.”] She broke the wafer in two, gave half to him, saying, “Ken, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for you.” Ken was very touched by the gesture, and later said that he had experienced a grace hitherto unknown to him.

It is this sort of kingdom vision and articulation of eucharistic grace that keep Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds going. And, in the telling of such stories of grace it can keep all of us going, looking for, and working for, the kingdom of shalom that is to come.

Ron Wells presented this paper at Baylor University this past March at the conference, “Christianity and the Soul of the University.” He is a contributing editor of Perspectives and professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.