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.