The Cosmic Kill Bill

2 Thessalonians 1 is an Advent reading. It also contains no one’s favorite verses:

It’s right for God to pay back the ones making trouble for you with trouble and to pay back you who are having trouble with relief along with us. This payback will come when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels. He will give justice with blazing fire to those who don’t recognize God and don’t obey the good news of our Lord Jesus. (1:6-8)

I don’t like these verses. Maybe you don’t either. So much here sounds – well – sub-Christian.

First, there’s the matter of payback. How can it be right for God to pay back anybody, when Jesus commands his disciples to return enmity with love and persecution with prayer? Doesn’t the whole notion of payback look ugly, when held alongside, say, Jesus’ plea from the cross for forgiveness on his tormentors?

There’s also the letter’s slick rhetoric. At every turn, 2 Thess reinforces the readers’ adherence to the apostle’s teaching. It flatters the recipients for believing; it tells them they have a reputation for believing to keep up; it reinterprets their suffering as a sign of specialness and success; it makes believing the criterion for avoiding eternal destruction.

The chapter smells of resentment. Here I think of Nietzsche. He wrote that the Jews were powerless: when their enemies the Babylonians conquered them, they lacked the political strength to take actual revenge. So instead they took spiritual revenge: by imagining damnation on their enemies, and blessedness for themselves. 2 Thess 1 takes up and extends this virtual reprisal. It promises that God will visit affliction on those who presently afflict the community – and how! Cosmic Kill Bill in retaliation for harassing the Thessalonian church.

But then again, maybe I don’t like this chapter…because I am on the wrong side.

Maybe my objection to its violence is disingenuous. Because I am the one doing the afflicting. Because I am enmeshed in a system that degrades and destroys its black victims. Because, far from being crushed for resisting the idols of empire – like the recipients of 2 Thess – I am a beneficiary of empire. Because the truth I believe in does not yet result in punishment from the powers.

Maybe my objection to payback falsely imagines a scenario where one party aggresses against an equal, and then that equal reciprocates (a la Kill Bill). In such a case, if the reciprocation exceeds the initial aggression, it seems unfair, gross, low. Reading 2 Thess 1 within this framework makes the divine vengeance on the persecutors look grossly out of proportion. But in fact, there is no equality between parties. There is on the one hand, a despicable apocalyptic sect of slaves and women and imperial flotsam – and on the other hand, the local branch of imperial law and order.

Maybe 2 Thess 1 comes more into focus when read together with the Magnificat – that other, more famous Advent text:

[God] has shown strength with his arm. [God] has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.[God] has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:51, 52; CEB)

I don’t think of the Magnificat as an egregious payback text. As if, in return for their oppressions, being pulled down from their thrones was too excessive a penalty for the powerful! It is not really a penalty at all: it is a corollary of the good news that God will set things right, and lift up the lowly. Something’s gotta go! So also, perhaps, with 2 Thess 1. Its promise that Jesus “will give justice with blazing fire to those who don’t obey the good news” isn’t just a rhetorical ploy to ensure the Thessalonians keep believing. Nor is it just a resentful cosmic Kill Bill fantasy. It is a corollary of the good news, which “those who are heading toward destruction… refused to love” (2 Thess 2:10): that by raising him from the dead, God vindicated a homeless, uneducated, minoritized, sexually questionable (!) man executed by state and religion. God chose what is foolish, weak, low and despised (1 Cor 1:27, 28). If the revelation of Jesus from heaven amplifies this choice of God, then the blazing fire of justice will indeed devour that which is considered wise and strong and high. Something’s gotta go.

In the script of 2 Thess 1, I want to cast myself in the role of the beleaguered believer(s). I, too, confess the resurrection of Jesus. But at the same time, if I cannot rejoice wholeheartedly in the reversal these verses promise, maybe I am on the wrong side. Maybe so are you.

God, Gentiles, and soap opera

I used to make a joke about Paul’s logic in Romans 11. I’m no Paul scholar, nor do I know much about Christian theologies of Judaism. But Paul’s argument sounds like a scenario from a daytime soap opera: the lover pursues the beloved, but the beloved is resistant. So the lover turns to someone else, a third party, in order to make the beloved jealous. Thus also with God and Israel: all day long God stretched out divine hands to “a disobedient and contrary people” (Rom 10:21, quoting Isaiah). Israel remained largely “resistant” (Rom 11:25, CEB). So God opened the covenant to outsider Gentiles, “in order to make Israel jealous” (Rom 11:11).

This seems kind of messed up. In a soap, this third party character is sympathetic, but also to be pitied, since they are not loved as an end in themselves. They’re nice and all, but at the end of the story arc, they will have faded out to make room for the true drama between the lover and beloved (once the beloved does get jealous and see the merits of the lover). If you are a Gentile like me, you are this third party character in God’s drama with Israel.

I don’t want to press the analogy too hard. I’ll be the first to register cautions about the overuse of marital/romantic metaphors in Christian theologizing. But in this case, I don’t think it’s too far afield. And the analogy can help to disrupt the sort of easy-breezy universalism that characterizes so much of our thinking about God. (“Of course God loves everybody, and desires the salvation of all!”) In fact, biblically, God is not first and foremost the lover and savior of all. God is a God in an ancient, passionate, turbulent relationship with Israel. God has turned to us outsiders only as a last-ditch means of recovering God’s beloved.

As I said, I have joked about how twisted that is. Of course, the analogy has its limits: Gentiles do not fade out like the third character in a soap opera, but somehow remain as an enduring object of God’s loyalty even after God ultimately wins back God’s first love, Israel. But today I had another thought. I was reading Jeremiah – which is a patchwork of agony, the prophet’s and God’s, now one, now the other, bleeding into each other. And I saw that Paul’s agony in Romans is an extension of that same spirit of aggrieved, unrequited love – “I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart” (9:2). Indeed: “I wish I could be cursed!” (9:3a). There is a desperation here: a no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty relentlessness. And I appreciated the ethical grayness of Paul’s argument in a new light.

Yes, maybe it is twisted that God uses us Gentiles to incite Israel’s jealousy. But it is nothing if not a testimony to the intensity – the unscrupulous intensity – of God’s initiative. Yes, we Gentiles have become participants in this same story, adopted into God’s family, and made recipients of God’s kindness. But at the same time, perhaps the gratitude to which Paul calls us on account of our new position also has a kind of voyeuristic quality. Besides being ourselves God’s beloved, we also now have an insider’s view of God’s love for Israel. We can see as we trawl through Israel’s literature the vast and painful and beautiful dimensions of this drama that has preceded us – that will outlast us. We can thank God to be loved and ingrafted – but we can also thank God for the privilege of looking in on God’s unremitting first love. Like the strange sidelined wonder of that third party character: sad to be used, yet moved by the lover’s older, truer pursuit.

God’s tenacity

“God’s love” – as a catchword, it brings together two of the most sentimental, overworked words in the English language. On the lips of people I know who are excited about it, “God’s love” sounds vast, oceanic, warm: a sort of cosmic placenta. An aureole of undiscriminating embrace around the world. It evokes the blurry ecstasy of a contemporary musical worship – voices, hands, hearts surging in unison, a moment of synchronicity lifted above the usual mundane texture of life. Things slide back into their usual proportion as the regular lights come back on. God’s love, in a word, stands perpendicular to the irksome detail of normal existence.

I’ve always found it difficult to map this concept – sensation? – onto the Bible. The Bible just doesn’t talk all that often, directly, about God’s love. Of course there are the few go-to passages (John 3:16, Rom 5:8, 1 John 4:9f, even Hosea [ch 11] and Isaiah [ch 43] and Deuteronomy [ch 7], for those brave souls that venture into the older testament). But it takes a certain abstraction to make out of these particular texts the kind of all-pervading, gaseous acceptance with which I associate the catchphrase, “God’s love.”

I would find “God’s tenacity” or even “God’s longsuffering” a far more believable theme for gathering up the Bible’s theological testimonies. Something a little more commensurable with the fact that if you were God’s friend and God related to you the history of God’s relationship with Israel and the church, you might equally well say, “that’s beautiful” OR “sounds like you need to get out, God; you just keep getting hurt here” (I kid; sort of).

In fact, God has gotten hurt, serially – and more than once, wanted out. In Noah’s flood, God regretted making humans so much that God destroyed them: “it grieved him to his heart, so Yhwh said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” (Gen 6:6, 7). In the golden calf episode and later during the wilderness wanderings, God could not put up with this errant partner Israel any longer, and wanted to start over with someone else, namely, Moses (Exod 32:9, Num 14:12). Again in Hosea, God tells Israel “you are not my people and I am not your God” (1:8).

Each of these moments passed, oftentimes at great cost; and God renewed commitment to forestalling rage and to sticking it out with this recalcitrant people. Nowhere does this drama of risk-taking divine loyalty and human rejection reach greater clarity than in the suffering of Jesus. Today especially I was mulling over one Pauline picture of the bitterly painful, deeply vulnerable divine initiative towards us: God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Rom 8:32). The key verb here in Greek is the same as the Greek Old Testament uses of Abraham in the story of binding Isaac: the messenger of Yhwh promises Abraham blessing “because [he did] not withhold [his] son” (Gen 22:16). In this story, Abraham commits to a terrible act, and one without certainty: he was ready to lose his beloved son and to become a murderer – but also to enter into total uncertainty vis-à-vis God. No reward was promised for his risk, and he faced no surety of divine approval. Paul reverses all this. In Jesus’s death, somehow God committed to a terrible act, and one without certainty. However it works metaphysically, God lost his Son. Maybe God was no putative murderer like Abraham, but God did enter into all the ethical ambiguities of self-suspending love. And, on this picture at least, God faced no surety of human approval.

Without God’s pain and God’s risk, without this specificity – of a community named Israel, of a man named Jesus, of our own particular places and occasions – “God’s love” remains empty and fatuous.

Buried with him

A while back, some friends I were talking about the meaning of Paul’s language in Romans about burial and resurrection with Christ. “We were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4; CEB).

I’ve always stumbled over the idea of having died with Jesus. It sounds sci-fi, or psychotic; and what few treatments of it I have encountered gave me the willies. In youth group, I remember it was connected to the usual enterprise of lust suppression. “Consider yourselves dead to sin” was kind of a mental strategy: by thoroughly imagining their deadness, one sought to reduce the vitality of various troublesome passions. Or (I think) I remember reading a popular spiritual author who made it into an arduous interior exercise; once achieved through calisthenic meditation, it rendered the Christian miraculously free from sin. Either way, the whole idea reminds me of “the power of positive thinking” – only in reverse. Instead of fantasizing one’s desires into existence, one reckons one’s unwelcome desires out of it.

Where the text began to make sense – where I stopped reacting to it, anyway – was in its consideration of Jesus’ resurrection. This Paul describes in beautiful, enigmatic prose. Christ will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him. The life he lives, he lives to God. Especially that spare, climactic phrase – “he lives to God” – seems more like negative space than a fully realized picture of the risen Christ. It’s just a dative – an indirect object – orienting the new life of Jesus towards God. But its radicalism lies in its comprehensiveness. I take it that the phrase expresses something of John’s idea, that Jesus “works the works of him who sent [him] (John 9:4). Whatever God is about in the world, Jesus now pursues with a totality that was previously unavailable to him. Death – and resurrection – somehow liberated Jesus for an existence of truly boundless compassion.

This is more than a spatial transition, as from a local to a universal presence – Christ who walked by the Sea of Galilee to Christ who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). That death that no longer has dominion over Jesus does not mean only that he now exceeds the constraints of place; or that he need no longer fear ceasing to breathe. Death is an active power at work in the world, holding the poor in abjection, rearing up in inexplicable sicknesses and catastrophes, stifling initiatives for justice, warping and retarding all our attempts to love. In some way, the nature of Jesus’s subjection to this asphyxiating force was changed through his resurrection.

And in some tortuous way, Paul holds that we, too, who follow in Christ’s wake, feel the effects of Christ’s liberation for unreserved availability to God. Paul knows that our bodies are still beginning their decomposition (Rom 8:10). And that creation groans under the crushing weight of sin and suffering (8:18-23). But he also preaches that there is “a newness of life” at work, too: that death has reached its terminus already for us, in the body of Jesus, so that its power is, as it were, spent; and its occupation is then spottier and more porous to God’s life-giving work.

Loyalty to a thousand generations

Today I was rifling through Exodus to make a quiz for the intro Old Testament class. I skimmed through the golden calf chapters (32-34), which are, as far as I am concerned, one of the Bible’s great theological rainforests: lush, loud, teeming. There I read again about God’s self-revelation to Moses, when God recites God’s own name:

“The Lord! The Lord!

a God who is compassionate and merciful,

very patient,

full of great loyalty and faithfulness,

showing great loyalty to a thousand generations

yet by no means clearing the guilty,

punishing for their parents’ sins

their children and their grandchildren,

as well as the third and the fourth generation” (Exod 34:6, 7; CEB).

One of the quiz questions I posed the Old Testament students was this: “How does Moses persuade God not to obliterate the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf?”

I misremembered the answer; I had thought that Moses peer-pressured God, pointing out that the nations would consider God a failure if God were not to bring his people to the land of promise (as he does in Numbers 14). Instead, in this section of Exodus, Moses convinces God to spare the people by appealing repeatedly to his own status as God’s favored one. Exodus 34:9 (CEB) is a good example: “If you approve of me, my Lord, please go along with us.” Moses moves from God’s love for him out to the whole people.

Maybe it’s a misinterpretation, but today I heard this same reasoning in the declaration of God’s name. In God’s self-recital, God pledges loyalty and favor to a thousand generations – in consequence of one generation that fears him (just like one generation that commits iniquity reaps punishment to the third or fourth). God’s love is that abounding – God loves one generation, or one individual, so intensively that it radiates out undiscriminatingly to embrace countless others with whom they are associated – family, children, even guests.

It occurred to me later in my own meditation that this is the same sort of logic that drives the inclusion of Christians in Jesus Christ. In Exodus, God’s love for Moses is so deep that it extends outward to include wayward Israel. In the New Testament, God’s love is primarily for Jesus. Jesus is God’s beloved (Ephesians 1:6). God loves Jesus so intensely that God could not let him lie unjustly dead; God raised him from death. With regard to God and the man Jesus, love was indeed stronger than death (Song of Songs 8:6). But God’s love did not embrace only Christ – it extended outward to include all those united with Jesus. Because of Christ’s faithfulness to God, a thousand generations receive God’s favor in him. And more! The measure of God’s love for Jesus is the width of humanity to which it reaches for his sake. “One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18; NRSV).