Is the state of world getting better or getting worse? 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 at Christ’s return. But how would we measure shalom?
Isaiah 65:17-25 gives an Old Testament perspective on what the redeemed Israel will look like.Listen to the themes of what constitutes a redeemed world:
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. God makes his dwelling with humankind and there is eternal life. But it seems to me that we can look at the features of shalom in this Isaiah passage as standards.
This passage makes direct reference to life expectancy and infant mortality. Demographers and sociologist frequently turn to these measures for a sense of overall 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.
The life expectancy rate is the number of years someone is expected to live at birth. Long life is a universal indicator of prosperity across cultures and time. So what can we say about this measure of prosperity throughout human history? Here are estimates of two scholars:
For most of its existence, Homo sapiens lived in far-flung hunter-and-gathering communities, each of which was quite small and barely able to reproduce itself. Life expectancy at birth was hardly twenty-five years on average, and those persons who survived childhood often died violently, in combat with other hunters, at relatively young ages. (Robert William Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, 48)
For much of human history, average life expectancy used to be 20-30 years. By 1900, it had climbed to about 31 years … By 2003 it was 66.8 years. (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 31)
To put the last statement by Goklany in perspective, let's graph the estimated life expectancy on a chart:
If we show only the last two centuries we get a clearer picture:
Using life expectancy as a measure of prosperity, the world is far more prosperous than it has ever been. The gap is narrowing between the top and bottom rungs of the global community. More amazing, most of this change occurred over a time when the total world population grew nearly sevenfold, from less than 1 billion to almost 7 billion today!
This is not to say that every nation, or every region within a nation, or every subgroup within in a nation, has prospered equally well. Note the tragic impact of the AIDS epidemic and of social chaos on sub-Saharan Africa by looking at this map of life expectancy from wikipedia:
The trajectory of change is an unprecedented rise in prosperity. It is uneven growth but every corner of the planet has improved and the gap between top and bottom nations is closing.
A second measure of prosperity demographers frequently use is the infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rate is the number of children that die between birth and their first birthday, per 1,000 live births. Because the first year of life is when human beings are most vulnerable, their ability to survive the first year of life says a lot about the state of their society; thus the significance of the infant mortality rate.
So what can we say about this measure of prosperity throughout human history? Here are two scholarly estimates:
In the year 1000, the average infant could expect to live about 24 years. A third died in the first year of life. Hunger and epidemic disease ravaged the survivors. By 1820, life expectation had risen to 36 years in the west, with only marginal improvement elsewhere. (Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, 69)
Before industrialization, at least one out of every five children died before reaching his or her first birth day; that is infant mortality measured as the number of children dying before the age of one, typically exceeded 200 per 1,000 live births. … In the United States, as late as 1900, infant mortality was 160; …” (Indur Goklany, The Improving State of the World, 27)
Let's look at the change in the infant morality rate for the last fifty years:
Note that the average infant mortality rate for developing nations in 2003 is at the same level the rate was for the developed world fifty years ago. The trend continues downward. This is not to say that every nation, or every region within a nation, or every subgroup within in a nation, has prospered equally well. As with life expectancy, note the tragic impact of the AIDS epidemic and social has had on sub-Saharan Africa by looking at this of infant mortality from wikipedia:
During the 1990s there was a small increase in the rate for the former Soviet nations but that trend has turned positive again. There are disparities between Anglos and non-Anglos in the United States. Disparities exist, but only about a dozen (mostly small) African nations have infant mortality rates above 100. The great majority of the total world population lives in nations with far lower rates including India (34.6) and China (22.1).
Using infant mortality as measures of prosperity, the world is far more prosperous than it has ever been and the gap is narrowing between the top and bottom rungs of the global social ladder. There is uneven growth but every corner of the planet has improved and the gap between top and bottom nations is closing.