Beachheads of Shalom

December 28th, 2009

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by John Seel, Ph.D.
I grew up in South Korea, the son of medical missionaries who served there for 35 years. I arrived as an infant on January 1, 1954. The Korean War had ended; nonetheless we traveled to Jeonju, the home of Jesus Hospital, by U.S. military escort across a war-ravaged countryside. Today, South Korea stands as a symbol of democracy, an economic superpower, and a bastion of faith. If China is to be the strategic center of the next century, Korea will be its catalyst.

But there was a time when Korea’s future hung in the balance – about 30 days to be precise. Retreating to the 145-mile-long Pusan Perimeter by an advancing North Korean People’s Army, the UN Forces held on by their fingernails. The Korean peninsula was outside the U.S.’s agreed to line of defense, which ran through a chain of islands fringing the Asian coast. It was an afterthought. It is only hindsight that warranted its significance. American historian William Manchester writes,

Not only is it easy to be wise after the event; it is, for military historians, almost irresistible. The strategic value of Gibraltar, Gettysburg, and the Dardanelles was obvious once they had been won or lost, and the eyes of any veteran of the Korean War, if confronted with a map of the Pacific, will instantly dart to the peninsula where he fought. It is incredible to him that the nation’s leaders did not see it there before the first shots were fired.

Where some predicted defeat, General Douglas Macarthur saw opportunity. With limited resources and wavering support, he mounted a decisive and daring invasion of the port city of Incheon and there established a beachhead. It was the turning point in the conflict. Today the modern city of Incheon is home to Korea’s International Airport and is the main hub of Korean Airline and Asiana Airlines, and Polar Air Cargo. It’s a gateway to East Asia.

The term “beachhead” was first used in World War II. It’s a foothold or an area on a hostile shore occupied to secure further landing of troops and supplies. It’s strategically located because of its tactical significance, often surrounded by a hostile army or alien culture, where there is a high concentration of effort and visible presence.

Cultural renew demands tactical beachheads. In contrast to frontal assaults that rarely rise above bellicose rhetoric, far more effective are concentrated efforts where human flourishing is illustrated and institutionalized… whether in business, media, art, entertainment, or philanthropy. The goal is realized shalom: the renewal, restoration, and reordering of all aspects culture-making that reaches to every nook and cranny of creation. Its goal is human life as it was meant to be. It is for this end that we are made in God’s image and in this task that we most exhibit God’s glory.

We’d be wise to abandon the language of cultural warrior with its victimizing rhetoric of resentment. We must no longer frame the cultural task in we/they polarities. We are responsible for the flourishing of our neighbor (Jeremiah 29). If the culture lacks genuine human flourishing, who is to blame? Who holds the sources of renewal… Peter’s “To whom else shall we go?” Who is given the explicit mission to be sources of vitality (salt) and beacons of goodness (light)? If there are fingers to point, they point back to the church, to you and me. Cultural decline is the consequence of our failure, and confession and humility are the only meaningful response.

We must also think more clearly about the need to develop overlapping networks that connect thought to action, academics to practitioners, ideas to institutions. We must stop playing it alone. We need each other, but particularly those who are able to take ideas and embody them in books, films, music, art, and experiences that speak to our imagination. We need to taste and see that the Lord is good, for there are many other offerings of tasting and seeing.

We must not rest until an accurate assessment of human nature and reality are taken seriously by cultural gatekeepers and the institutions they lead. If we limit our message so that it is only comprehensible to our own tribe or club, if our goal is not genuinely the common good, then we will not be taken seriously by those most in need of shalom… and rightfully so.

No one is removed from the task. Everyone has his or her own sphere of influence… even if it is limited to what one wears or eats. Clothes and food speak powerfully about the renewed life that is available in Christ. But in the scope of your influence, whether at home or work or school, you should prayerfully consider the strategic beachheads that you and your network of friends can tackle in the New Year. Some may be called to start a band, run for mayor, or move cities. Our callings will be varied. But we must use our limited time and resources wisely for the sake of God and our neighbors.

In a few days, we enter into a new decade. The interpretive lens one adopts will influence how you feel about the future. There are more important things to consider than the state of Wall Street, the wrangling of Washington, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or the latest celebrity sex scandal.

There is a sense among many that the old clichés are worn out, that grand declarations and pronouncements have little impact, that there are ways of embodying historic orthodoxy in a manner that remains relevant because rooted in permanent things, that there is a new generation posed to take the helm of churches, businesses, and homes who are open to a fresh blowing of the Holy Spirit. 2009 has been a dark year for many. Yet it’s always darkest before the dawn.

When Rear Admiral James Doyle was given the responsibility to execute the Incheon invasion, he was dumbfounded. His communication officer said, “Make up a list of amphibious ‘don’ts,’ and you have an exact description of the Incheon operation.” 2010 is the year for executing ambitious beachheads of shalom. We have more on our side than the 1st Marine Division. Ours is the task. His is the power. Today’s Pusan can become tomorrow’s Incheon.

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8 Responses to “Beachheads of Shalom”

  1. Wendel Thompson says:

    We decry the loss of jobs to China, but I savor the knowledge that we have helped raise the standard of living of the Chinese.

  2. Glenn McMahan says:

    At the close of his book “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success,” author Rodney Stark quotes one of China’s leading scholars, who, along with many other Chinese intellectuals, sought for the reasons behind the West’s economic, political and social strength. They concluded: “The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.” Among many in the West today, capitalism is a bad word. But I suspect that these people hold disdain for a capitalism that is devoid of shalom, the very element that the Chinese intellectuals quoted above seek to inject into China’s economy and culture.

  3. Barbara Lachance says:

    Well said John,and Happy Birthday

  4. John Seel says:

    At issue is the spread of the gospel, not the preservation of the American way of life. Korea is the second largest missionary sending country in the world. Korean Christians can go where American Christians cannot. For this we must be grateful and supportive. Followers of Christ must have a global perspective — particularly now when most Christians live outside the West.

  5. Joey Tomassoni says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful article propelling us into this new decade. One thought to consider. It seems difficult in a brief blog post to have the concept of war appeal to our collective imagination.

    Though the example of shalom coming from a moment of war is strong it seems to me as soon as one uses an example of war it may not translate to many of our neighbors who we desire to flourish. Of course I am thinking about my most open leaning friends who loathe the idea of violence at any turn, especially the complexities surrounding war.

    If written again I wonder if there are alternative narratives, more universal that might help others to understand the timely things you are reflecting upon?

    An overall wonderful article, thank you!

  6. Hank says:

    This is a poignant essay that I am better off having read and will strive to live out its meaning in my own life and work.

    On a minor note, I would not trivialize the threat of militant Islam by associating it wth Tiger Woods’, or short term Wall Street concerns. If the 2nd fastest growing religion in the world propagates into the reality they envision, none of us will be living this out.

  7. Brody Bond says:

    Mr. Seel-

    Thank you for noting that “human flourishing” is not tied to the preservation or promulgation of the American way of life.

    That said, I still struggle to understand what human flourishing means, especially since it seems so relative. What I would consider to be flourishing, someone else would find damnable, if only because of its unintended consequences, or what it took to get to the state of flourishing in the first place.

    As a small example, we could look at the interstate highway system as something that cultural gatekeepers latched on to and institutionalized. Most folks would see this ease as transportation as a means of flourishing. Yet, others see this as a main cause of the desecration and evacuation of America’s cities.

    All that to ask: how do we define human flourishing?

    Or, is it the *pursuit* of human flourishing that is the goal. Simply by changing our objective, we change the rhetoric. Then, that new conversation becomes the open door for the gospel, not social institutions?

    Thanks,
    brody

  8. Mike Metzger says:

    Brody: Merely wanting or planning or praying to help someone is not shalom. Shalom is willing their well being, making it happen. So the pursuit is insufficient – we aim for the fulfillment of shalom.

    As for the meaning of flourishing, I’m glad that you note that it “seems” so relative. In reality, it’s less relative than you imagine. Most people opt for good health and laughter and joy, for example. That’s part of flourishing. There is a residual image of God in everyone, so some good sense points good people in a good direction toward flourishing. You make a good point that the cultural gatekeepers have often made a fine mess of things, but that’s more due to fallen human nature – we are designed to have dominion but when fallen people don’t hold in tension the fact that we’re “bent,” dominion warps into domination or destruction.

    Of course, good people can disagree about what constitutes human flourishing. But everyone’s opinion is rooted in some framework or definition of reality. People who take these things seriously, like serious journalists, check sources. Since there is only one reality, it’s dishonest to leave it at “whatever” or that it’s relative.

    Joey: While I am grateful for your comments, let me also pose a thought for you to consider. I’m unclear what “open leaning” means, but it does remind me of G. K. Chesterton’s poke at his supposedly “open” friend, H. G. Wells. Chesterton said the purpose of opening one’s mind, just like opening one’s mouth, is to shut it on something solid. People who “loathe the idea of violence at any turn” and “especially the complexities surrounding war” may not be as open as you describe them. If that’s the case, accommodating their assumptions is unwise. I’d ask them to listen to President Obama’s Oslo speech. My hunch is that your friends need a reality check more than accommodation.

    The fact is, you’re working with what researchers call “the entitlement generation.” They feel entitled to inflated grades and peace at no cost. I would urge you to read “Fame Junkies,” one of the most thoroughly researched books on the 35 and under generation. The authors cite numerous studies of a generation with a Pollyannaish take on reality.

    Our responsibility is to speak truth in love and acquaint friends with reality. Sad to say, there is no “alternative narrative more universal” over the last 100 years than war (unless you’ve grown up in middle to upper class America). But this doesn’t call for timidity when it comes to talking about terrorism, war, genocide, and democide or using it as a metaphor for reality. It is reality. Of course, there is no need to be unduly harsh and militaristic. Chesterton said we need Christians with proper sentiments; not sentimentality. I’d urge you to consider whether your comments come uncomfortably close to the latter.

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