17So (Jesus) came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
I mentioned in a recent post that I gave up all news for Lent three years ago. It was not easy. News permeates our world to an extent that’s hard to appreciate, until you attempt to isolate yourself from it. In the days before social distancing, I quickly found that people read papers in public places, which can be seen by others. If I visited a service station to buy fuel, I had to walk past a rack of newspapers, their headlines blaring in my direction; even shopping in the village shop presented me with the same challenge. My eyes had to be fixed firmly on my shoelaces. The truth is that it’s almost impossible to isolate yourself totally from news and that’s even more the case now. How would we know that the social distancing restrictions had been lifted!
What’s it like being without news? Plenty’s been written about the effect that research shows that bad news has on us all, but it wasn’t, I started to feel, the world events themselves that had had an effect on me, but, I came to see, it was the way they’d been presented to me. I fear that is still the same with the COVID19 virus. If you are susceptible to believing that you and all your loved ones are all going to die, you won’t find it difficult to hear or read news that confirms you in that opinion.
There’s been a big change in news presentation in recent years. Since news became a 24/7 service, we have endless analysis and opinion about the meaning of what’s happened, or speculation about what will happen next. Am I the only one who sometimes finds this exceedingly contrived? The reason that I gave up a daily newspaper many years ago, was that I started to feel that what I read was being given a particular ‘slant’. We’ve become so used to news being biased, that what we tend to do is to choose the media that mostly reflect our own opinions. Is this a healthy way of consuming news?
Our news delivery’s become increasingly adversarial. The reason given is that the news media is ‘holding those in power to account’. Clearly this is one feature, perhaps an important one, of news delivery. But the media seems to have taken on the mantle of challenging absolutely everything, aggressively and negatively. It’s not uncommon now to hear those interviewed being interrupted in virtually every sentence, and there seems to be a conscious, deliberate attempt to portray anyone in the news in a bad light.
What subliminal effect does this have on our relationships? One possible result is that we’re fed with an impression about public figures that could, if we’re honest, be miles from a fair one: Mr A has lied to us; Mrs B is arrogant; Mr Z is a buffoon. And perhaps this colours how we deal with people we meet?
Not only our news, but other programmes too, seem to be designed to belittle, ridicule and subject to public abuse those who are featured. Much of the media, I find, is actually violent in the sense in which that word is defined by the justice campaigner Ken Butigan. He defines violence as:
‘emotional, verbal or physical behaviour that dominates, diminishes, dehumanises or destroys ourselves or others’.
These were some of the reasons I had for trying to give up news for Lent in 2017. But what of the lessons I learned by doing so?
After a few days of my so-called ‘newsfast’, I became aware that I had much more silence in my life. I’ve often wondered whether the great discoveries of the Enlightenment could have happened during our era – how do you work through the Theory of Evolution or the Laws of Physics without the space, time and silence to think? We’re a people assailed by noise and information on all sides, in a way that our great grandparents would have found unthinkable. Maybe this is something really valuable that we can relearn in our enforced isolation due to the COVID19 virus? When I first started leading Taizé services in church, I was astonished when one member of the congregation thanked me for what she described as ‘the first five minutes of total silence that I can remember in my life for many years.’ We’re used to being beset with a constant stream of adverts, conversations, bulletins, opinion and so on. If we were on a train or out jogging, we had our headphones on (well, many of us) and if we sat in a dentist’s reception waiting for an appointment, we would pick up a newspaper or a magazine to fill the time.
As the days and weeks of my own ‘newsfast’ ticked past, I felt that I was becoming calmer and perhaps more serene and I was finding more time for prayer. I can’t honestly say that this was entirely expected. It most definitely left me with a lasting legacy.
The world is full of those who, whilst in the grip of the mania of the news world, long for some degree of inner tranquillity, or for want of a better expression, an inner ‘peace’. Folks are finding that even more of a challenge now, with ‘social distancing’.
Which brings me to the quotation above from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Christ is our peace. St Paul’s letters are quite often difficult to penetrate and one of the reasons is that when he uses a word like ‘peace’, he knows exactly what he means and what his readers in Ephesus will pick up. Sadly, we’re left floundering because our English word ‘peace’ doesn’t get anywhere close to the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ which was and still is such an important concept in Judaism.
When we use the word ‘peace’ in English, we think of the absence of war; we might also think about our own inner tranquillity.
Shalom, however, has a much broader range of meanings, for which there’s no one word English equivalent. The word itself comes from the verb Shalem – to make something complete. So shalom has the sense of being undivided, complete, intact, integrated, harmonious, fulfilled. To experience shalom, you have to have physical, material and economic well-being; you have to have harmony in all your relationships; you have to be holistically healthy and spiritually at ease with yourself and with the world around you.
Shalom is at the heart of Christ’s teaching. It’s what’s summed up in the gospels by the expression ‘Kingdom of God’. There’s a rabbinic legend that God created every blessing that could ever be imagined, and when he’d finished, they lay like a huge pile of treasure. When God couldn’t find a container big enough to hold all this treasure, he created shalom.
For Jesus, shalom is the one-word summary of what Christianity and Christian values mean.
And so, in these exceptionally challenging times, I wish Christ’s Shalom, to each and every one of you.
Loving Father, we are weak and feeble and we badly need your shalom at this time of disquiet. Grant us that inner peace that will enable us all to reach out to others and wish them shalom in their troubled lives. Amen