I received this letter from a reader,
"I was first introduced to your writing with the Sojourners article early this year. Your blog has been very helpful and inspiring. Healing the Gospel was one of the healthiest theological books I've ever read. Even though I tend to agree with all of your sentiments in your book, I think it is even helpful for individuals who strongly disagree with you; due to your demeanor and thoughtfulness--your intentions and heart were apparent and that alone is capable of spreading light to others.
I enjoyed your treatment of Romans 1 and 6; and I resonate with the idea that God's wrath is essentially the natural consequences of sin, whether the sin is our own or other's. I was wondering if you have ever written on Hebrews 10:30 or 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7. In those verses, it seems as if the wrath/vengeance/payment is more of an active role, rather than a passive consequence. Those verses have been difficult for me to reconcile with my view of God's forgiveness and non-violence. I understand that justice is pain for the unjust, but the 1st Chapter of 2 Thess doesn't seem to scream out restoration and reconciliation. I want to take all of scripture in context, but now I find myself wanting to throw these verses out because they don't fit into my current theological framework (I don't see much Jesus in these words)."
- Geoffrey H.
It's a great question. For sake of space, I'll focus here on the passage from 2 Thessalonians. The key part Geoffrey is referring in verses 6-7 is this statement:
"For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you."
Here we have a classic statement of payback justice. An eye for an eye. Repaying hurt for those who hurt.
But didn't Jesus repudiate an eye for an eye in the sermon on the mount, replacing it with the way of enemy love?
So is this verse a contradiction to that? Is it promoting the very way Jesus rejected?
Let's take a look at the whole passage for context:
"We ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." (2 Thes 1:4-9, NRSV)
The first thing we notice is the violent language. "flaming fire, inflicting vengeance... suffer the punishment of eternal destruction." However we understand the phrase "eternal destruction,"--whether we understand that to mean eternal torment, annihilation, or something else--it is pretty clear that the audience is supposed to feel comforted knowing that the people who are hurting them are gonna "get what's coming to them." This is about appealing to people's desire for vengeance. So why would they feel that way?
If we look at the beginning of this passage, we read that the church in Thesselonia was undergoing persecution and oppression, "all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring." From this context we can make a few observations:
First, this is not an endorsement of people seeking violent retribution. Unlike the Old Testament which does seem to endorse people committing violence in the name of God, the NT consistently calls on followers of Jesus to not retaliate, to not return harm for harm. This is no exception. This is a letter to a persecuted church that is practicing non-retaliation and suffering as a result, helping them cope with that, encouraging them to stay the course of nonviolence.
That brings us to the second insight: What is said here is intended to be a comfort to them in their suffering. It was supposed to make them feel better to know that their enemies would suffer. It may shock and disturb us now--That's important for us to recognize, and I'll return to that in a moment-- But it was originally intended to encourage them.
For us to wrap our heads around this, it's important to understand the broader cultural context of their time: This was a world where compassion and humility were not considered to be character traits, but immoral weaknesses. The idea of payback justice was self-evident both to Greco-Roman thinking as well as to the Jewish mindset. Today we live 2000 years after Jesus, and a lot of his values have sunk in. Love of enemies is still counter-cultural today, but back then it was literally unheard of. This was an idea that originated with Jesus, and it flew in the face of everything their Greco-Roman and Jewish religious culture told them. It was considered crazy, blasphemous, scandalous, foolish.
Consequently, to their thinking, to go from "I want to kill you" to "I will trust that God will kill you" was a big step foreword. However, for many of us today it seems like a step backwards now. Once we really start trying to love our enemies, praying for them, "blessing and not cursing" as Jesus says, this results in our developing compassion for them. We come to desire their good, not their harm. We come to have the heart of Jesus.
Jesus tells us in fact that this love is a reflection of God's heart who is our model for enemy love, encouraging us to "be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." God's "perfection" here, Jesus tells us, is seen in God's demonstration of enemy love. Paul says the same thing: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8).
So if we have a problem with this verse, it is not because we are rebelling against God. It is precisely because we have been following in the way of God in Christ, and because our heart has been changed to see things as Jesus does that we now stumble over this passage! What was intended as a way to help suffering people cope with their feelings of revenge, is now seen by us as making God look unlike Jesus. We have learned to embrace the way of Jesus, and believed that this was a reflection of God's true heart and character revealed in Christ. But this passage appears to say that God does not look like that, and does not follow the way of Jesus.
So we stop. We struggle. We question. And I think rightfully so!
After all, wasn't Jesus constantly questioning things like this? That's what got him in such hot water with the religious teachers. He even directly challenged commands like "an eye for an eye" (the very premise that this passage in Thessalonians is based on!) claiming that because God loves his enemies so should we. So, in contrast to what this above passage seems to say, Jesus says that there is not a double standard between how we are to act and how God acts. According to Jesus, God is the model for enemy love.
This passage also flies in the face of what Paul says. But wait a second, didn't Paul write this letter? Many scholars suspect that he did not, and one of the major reasons for this is that this passage just doesn't sound like something he would say. Typical for Paul is to present the "foolishness" of the gospel, to go against the cultural assumptions of payback justice, to promote the radical way of love over law, all in keeping with the message of Jesus. This passage doesn't fit with that. It doesn't sound like Paul, let alone Jesus.
But I don't think our criteria should be who said it. If we want to learn to read the Bible like Jesus did, this will involve questioning and wrestling with Scripture, no matter what the source. What I would propose is simple: We should evaluate all Scripture based on merit. As an example, let's look at something Jesus said and apply that principle:
Many people read the Sermon on the mount and understand it to be demanding us to do things that seem really hurtful: telling women to stay in relationships where they are being abused, telling people not to defend themselves, to not resist oppression, to not defend those who are being hurt or wronged.
As much as I believe in nonviolence and following that way of enemy love, I would say that if you are understanding the words of Jesus as wrong and hurtful and against your conscience, then you should not follow them. You should never do something that feels wrong or hurtful. Don't ever violate your conscience. That can cause irreparable harm.
Now I believe that I could intelligently articulate the application of enemy love in a way that would not mean submitting to oppression, but rather actively resisting it. Properly understood, enemy love is not about ignoring suffering, but actively working to alleviate it. But until you can understand this, understand how it is good and right, you should never simply blindly follow that way, even if it comes from Jesus himself. Because that can, and often has, lead to misapplying these principles, and thus promoting deeply hurtful things that are the opposite of what Jesus intended. That's what happens when we do things blindly. That's how the Pharisees read their Bibles, and why Jesus was so opposed to that way of reading.
Our priority needs to be on doing what is loving over blind obedience to commands. That is precisely the focus Jesus (and Paul) had. So we need to do things because they are good, and not simply because "those are the rules" or "the Bible says so" or even "Jesus says so."
Now let me stress here that I am not saying that we should simply do whatever we feel like doing. This is not a license for selfishness. My assumption is that we are trying to live our the way of Jesus the best we know how, not find an excuse to live out the values of Snooki from Jersey Shore. Paul councils us, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom 12:2). As we live in the Spirit, as we develop in our relationship with God, we come to have the mind of Christ, we come to think and see like Jesus.
The key here is that we engage our brains and hearts, rather than shutting them down. We don't do things blindly (as if we don't know Jesus, and are just following a book). Rather, we seek to develop the mind of Christ so that we "will be able to test and approve what God’s will is." Note those words: test and approve. In other words, we can evaluate Scripture on its own merit.
That means that while we should not follow something that seems hurtful to us, we should however stay open to understanding it in a healthy way. So if Jesus' way of love of enemies can be demonstrated to make sense and work (and I am convinced it absolutely can), then we should follow it. If it can be demonstrated that Jesus' way of restorative justice does a better job at addressing the deep problems we have than the way of an eye for an eye, (and again we are seeing tons of evidence that this is true too), then we should apply it.
It's a very simple exegetical principle: Evaluate on merit. Test and approve. Follow what you understand. Remain open to learn and grow. Honestly, that's how most of us already read the Bible. We highlight and underline the parts that speak to us, and skip over the parts that don't. The major difference is that rather than doing this unthinkingly (and perhaps pretending we aren't!) I am proposing we do it purposely and intelligently, and with the intention of developing the mind of Christ and following in his way.
Consequently, when we run into a verse that strikes us as wrong (especially ones that seem to fly in the face of what we have learned from Jesus and his way!) such as this one in Thessalonians or the one that says that women should never teach men (which lots of scholars also doubt Paul wrote by the way), then we should apply that same test that we did to the Sermon on the Mount: We should evaluate it on its own merit.
We ask: Is it compelling? Does it help us love better? To act more like Jesus? To open our hearts to God in trust?
As I see it, this passage in Thessalonians fails those tests. Perhaps it did all of these things in its original context, as a way to help people steeped in a culture of retribution to cope with their need for violence. But it seems to do the opposite now. It pulls me away from Jesus, and tethers me to the very broken way of seeing the world that Jesus was trying so hard to help us all move away from. It's a good step forward for those who are still stuck in the thinking of payback justice, but it pales in comparison of the God revealed in Christ.
If we can allow that the people who wrote the Bible were human like us, that they (like us) were not immune to their own cultural blinders, that they (like us) had different levels of insight into the depths of Christ's love and way... then we can look for the good in what they wrote, and pass over the not so good.
As Paul says in his (undisputed) 1st letter to the Thessalonians,
"Test everything. Hold on to what is good. Reject what seems bad"
(1 Thesselonians 5:21-22).
Labels: Bible, exegesis, nonviolence, restorative justice