Should we stop saying “”Shalom””?

Salaam, Shalom, and Khotso – Peace

During the early stage of Intifada – Palestinian Uprising during 1980”s, I ran into a situation in Gaza Strip that changed my perception of the word "Shalom".  I still have a problem accepting the word as it is supposed to mean, whenever it is said by a good Church person.  Obviously I have not reached a resolution and am still troubled by use of a word which gives different messages.  

People should remember those days when Safari suits and Army fatigue types of casual clothes were popular.  Well, I was in one of those outfits, touring Gaza Strip with a friend from the Middle East Council of Churches, looking at Mothers” Clinics which were supported by Canadian Churches.  Young children began to greet me by saying "Shalom".  I responded innocently "Shalom".  My friend suddenly told me that we should go immediately and pulled me into the car.  There, he told me to go back to the Hotel and change clothes, and never say "Shalom" to anyone.

Of course, I should have known that Army fatigues were worn only by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories.  Safari suits looked suspiciously like Army outfits.  And the word "Shalom" is a most common greeting in Israel.  It is almost like the way we say "Hi".  Most of the Israeli do not think of the meaning of the word, as we United Church people attach some profound significance to the word.  Of course, this is nothing unusual.  Most of us do not think of the meaning of the words we use for greeting.  Have you thought about the theological meaning of the word "Hi" recently?

Those two innocent actions on my part on that day in Gaza Strip, clothes and the Hebrew greeting, simply meant to young Palestinian minds symbols of oppression.  Israeli occupation of their home land and the occupiers.  A possible target of a sling-shot.  A Canadian friend thought that this was ridiculous.  She said, "Have you seen an Israeli who looks like a Japanese?"
My friend obviously did not know about a group of Japanese who migrated to Israel.  They believed that they were descendants of the remnants of the "Lost tribe of Israel" who supposedly ended up in Japan centuries ago.  They believe that they are Jews and live in Israel.

In some ways, I was pleased to find that the word "Shalom" became common usage, during my twelve years of absence from Canada.  People know that there is no peace without justice.  Friends conclude their letters wishing me Shalom.  When I left Canada to go to Africa in 1968, the word was understood only by small number of so-called progressive Christians in the same way as the Hebrew Bible writers meant.  They were the types of people who read Harvey Cox.  I learned also from him the meaning of the word which was far more profound and wider than what English word "Peace" would convey.  It definitely meant Peace with Justice.  

Even as late as 1982, however, people were still engaging in some fierce debates about whether peace is more important than justice, or vice versa.  At the World Council of Churches Assembly in Vancouver, I saw some pointed graffiti to indicate that many people still did not understand the meaning of the word "Shalom".  One of them on a bulletin board said, "Injustice kills thousands, but wars kill us all."  Those were the dark days of the threat of nuclear holocaust.

In 1968 I went to Southern Africa, and learned Southern African languages.  African theologians like Desmond Tutu taught me also how some of the African traditional spirituality  had commonalty with other nomadic traditions like that of Hebrew people.  Desmond often compared the Hebrew Bible with Bantu oral traditions.  He was an Old Testament professor.  I taught other things I was not trained for, but that”s another story.  The word for peace in Sesotho (one of the dominant Southern African languages) is "Khotso".  This is why the office of the South African Council of Churches is called Khotso House.  I learned that the meaning of Khotso is almost identical to Shalom, as it is to the Arabic word "Salaam".

They greet by wishing each other "Khotso", which also means, "I wish you, your family and neighbours full stomach".  They say the word with hands raised with palms open showing that they hold no weapon.  A very simple way of wishing peace with justice.  An agent of the South African government bombed the Khotso House during the late eighties”.  It is clear that an idea of Peace with Justice was subversive for the Apartheid regime.  

Problem is:  when some words are used daily as part of common expressions, their original meaning wear out.  People use those words not knowing what they originally meant.  They become mere labels of their culture – like famous "Gooday, mate" for Australians.  You can not ask people to think of the meaning of the word they use daily.   It may be asking too much to expect people to behave according to the ideal of Shalom, Salaam, or Khotso.  It is too bad, however, that a meaningful and perfectly wonderful language is spoiled by some social and political situation.  But it is a fact that languages change, and we have to be sensitive to people”s perception of certain words.  I was once asked to use an old Methodist Prayer Book for a funeral by the family of the deceased.  I followed the book faithfully except one word.  I found the word "intercourse" a few times in prayers, which I replaced with the words like "social discourse" and "relationship".

Another example:  When I was working with a Japanese Congregation, I took a group of teenagers to a United Church youth event.  One of my young people could not eat an orange which was offered to him by an innocent friend. "Hey, want a ”Jap orange?"  Obviously he did not know that the word "Jap" evoked a hurtful memory among Japanese Canadians.  Because of that kind of experiences, I decided that if any word offends other persons, it will not come out of my mouth.  Often I could not understand why they offend some people, but I don”t use those words.  It was easier to understand why people insisting on inclusive language.

As I have not found an alternative, whenever I want to wish my friend something meaningful at closing a letter, I write "Khotso, Salaam, Shalom!!" indicating my appreciation of those people who crossed my paths and  enriched my life while overseas.  Other times, I say Shalom to Jewish people, Salaam to my Palestinian friends, and Khotso to my Southern African former colleagues.  For Canadians, how about "Peace"?  

Tad Mitsui
May, 1993

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