Is the state of world getting better or getting worse? How would you answer that question? What indicators would you look to?
In his book Making the Best of It: Following Jesus in the Real World, John Stackhouse makes the case that our mission is to seek the greatest shalom possible in the world, always cognizant that shalom in its fullness will only be recognized at the consummation of the new creation after Christ’s return. I think he's right on target. But how would we measure shalom?
A few weeks ago I was at a worship service where Isaiah 65:17-25 was the scripture text.
17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD --
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent -- its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, (NRSV)
Several themes jump out from this characterization of a world restored to shalom. There are some very practical and specific features:
- God will delight in his people and be attentive to them. (18-19, 24)
- Safety will prevail. (19)
- Infant mortality will cease. (20)
- Life expectancy will increase beyond 100 years. (20)
- There will be a just and prosperous order in society (absence of war and oppression.) (21-24)
- Nature itself will be altered into a more peaceful order. (25)
The New Testament version of the new creation expands this vision even further. In the New Testament, God makes his dwelling with humankind and there is eternal life. But it seems to me that if we look at the features of shalom like the ones in this Isaiah passage as standards, we can get a good sense of whether or not the world is moving in the right direction.
Especially interesting about this Isaiah passage is the direct reference to infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Demographers and sociologist frequently turn to these measures for an overall sense of societal welfare. Why? These two indicators serve as indirect indicators of other societal realities. Many other social variables (i.e., adequate food, health care, environment, social stability, healthy social institutions, low crime) must be positive in order for these two variables to be positive as well.
What was particularly interesting about the worship service I attended was that the preacher used this passage to point to the declining state of shalom in our world. Rising inequality, AIDS, poverty in Africa, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and polar bears drowning due to melting ice (the last one was in the prayer of confession.) The pastor was not alone. Earlier this year I did an extensive review of Brain McLaren’s Everything Must Change in which he characterizes the present world order as a “suicide machine.” Is this an accurate assessment? I think not.
The most common trait I find in these assessments is that they are usually thoroughly ahistorical. They are without context. What I want to do with this series is offer some thoughts about how we might measure shalom, at least from the perspective of physical and material matters over lengthy periods. (Regular readers of the Kruse Kronicle have seen some of this before.) I'll do several posts that look at some key indicators. As you will see, my conclusion is that are we are living in an era of unprecedented expansion of global shalom.
That is in not say we are at some Francis Fukuyama-like “End of History” moment, but the idea that the global village is in decline is indefensible. Unprecedented positive change is underway and has been for some time. Yet there are still a billion or more people who are untouched by these world events. After I present my indicators I will then do a few posts on Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
I hope you’ll join me for some conversation.