55% Right or 100% Rascal?
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Czeslaw Milosz wrote these words in his book The Captive Mind, and quoted them from the mouth of “an Old Jew of Galacia.”
I read them and I get goosebumps, every damn time.
Now, it’s important to note that Milosz wrote those words in the context of fending off fascism.
(We might pass his book off as historical fiction, but these days, it is simultaneously both and neither one.)
Milosz began his book with these words because he was surrounded by people in power who claimed to know the indisputable truth. They purveyed it with uniform, loud, and even menacing voice, even if their take was achingly dissonant to the reality at hand.
If a citizen had the audacity to dispute Said Truth, their chutzpah would be rewarded either in painful secret, or by way of public display, a warning to any one else tempted to stir up counterviews and thereby stir up trouble.
For a mess of reasons, Milosz’ Old Jew has been messing with me as of late, as no small number of righteous Jews have done, young and old, many times before. He’s speaking to me across cultures and contexts and time to make me pause less about my fears about fascism and more about my faith and how it is proclaimed.
So I’m a Christian.
Moreover, I’m called to be a Christian pastor and theologian.
Moreover, I’m specifically called to serve out that vocation as a Lutheran in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Every noun in that sentence is a declaration of conviction.
With every one of those words, I am naming that I believe something is true—so true, that I stand behind it vocationally even.
Implicitly, I am therefore naming that something else is not….what…
True at all?
And I am left wondering, where am I on the Old Jew’s scale?
Closer to 55% right or 100% rascal?
Milosz has gotten under my skin all the more because of the confluence of all sorts of events: we Christians have just celebrated Easter, and in this very same month, Jews are being killed because they are Jews, Muslims are being killed because they are Muslims, and Christians are being killed because they are Christians.
And these people are being killed by fanatics, thugs, and the worst kind of rascals who believe that they are 100% right and these others are not even close.
It’s really troubling.
It’s troubling because, speaking for my tradition, I know for a fact that we do not presently have a habit of preaching that we should kill people of other faiths.
But….we do have a long history of preaching that very thing, and a long history of killing people of other faiths.
I can’t help but think that an honest look at ourselves means that Christians can’t help but own that it’s a bit in our DNA, a bit in our vibe, a bit of an undercurrent in who we are and what we do.
And we do not, of course, have a habit of preaching that people of other sacred texts deserve to be slandered in the name of God.
But…our sacred text slanders people of different traditions, and none so egregiously as the Jews, old and from Galicia or not.
In fact, laced through our texts and our traditions and our proclamation and child-catechesis is the notion that we are right and all the others are wrong.
In fact, a huge swath of Christians have picked up distinct sense that if someone doesn’t believe in Jesus as the Christ, then they are so wrong that they will get and they will deserve to get eternal damnation.
It is not a far stretch to say that if they deserve divine damnation after they croak, they deserve the best we can serve up of damnation in the name of God this side of the grave—and, hell: they probably just plain old deserve the grave.
Like, if it’s good enough for God…
The Old Jew Of Galicia, see, he’s poking me with this weathered stick of a cane I envision him holding, and he’s asking me whether (telling me that?) any claim of faith runs the risk of thuggery.
Maybe not explicitly, he might say, though often enough in just this way.
Instead, even by way of insinuation, and therefore insidiously, does any form of full-throated “I believe in the…” imply disdain and condemnation of people who have not happened to stumble on this same set of, sort of, beliefs.
He’s got a point, he does, and the point is sharp to my chest on which I imagine he’s tapping and in my heart right below.
Jews like questions better than Christians, as it turns out, and knowing this, I have been having an imaginary conversation with this Old Jew.
And I want to ask him so many things.
I want to ask him if a person can ever not believe something.
Like, even believing I am 55% right is a belief.
I want to ask him how one guards against haughty belief—like, being proud that I believe that I am only 55% right, in contrast to those 100% rascals out there.
I want to ask him how one can honor other people’s beliefs while still not believing them.
I want to ask him how, even if a person acknowledges that one doesn’t know what is actually the Full Scoop, the Real Deal, the Truth of It All, at the end of the day she/he/they/we must still believe in something, for to believe in nothing is nihilism, and not only is that also a belief, it is a treacherous one.
And then I want to confess some things to him.
I want to confess that, for reasons born of reason and born of faith and born simply out of the very happenstance of the family into which I was born, I do believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.
I want to confess that, even so, on any given day I am a Jew (this has been asserted to me not least of all by a dear friend of mine who is a Jew, though not old and rather from New York; on these given days am nearing 60%-or-over certitude that he is right).
I want to confess to him that I believe that God is bigger than either my Easter or his vigilant waiting for a Messiah—though God is both of those too.
And I want to confess that I preach Easter so adamantly, not to disdain those who are not Christians, and not to convert people to Christianity, but to convert Christians to the implications (perhaps even alert them to the notion that there are implications) of their purported beliefs, of their Christianity, of the gospel, of believing that Jesus is risen from the dead, implications like:
Turn over Tables.
Stand in Solidarity.
Call a Thing What It Is.
Look at Death in All Its Forms and Say That It Will Not Win Because It Has Already Lost.
Paradoxically, our Easter faith might even give rise to the notion that we are freed to reject the claim that our faith has it right and no one else does.
Truth is, nobody really knows, at the end of the day.
There is mystery.
One has to believe in something (who’s gonna tell the nihilists? Somebody’s got to tell them).
And because of reason and because of faith and because of quirks of birth, there is some grounding to believe that Jesus didn’t stay dead—though I can acknowledge that there are reasons and faith and quirks of birth to believe that the guy did stay dead, and that a person should still be tapping our feet and looking at our watches to wait for the Messiah.
And those Easter reasons fundamentally cause us to reject the very hate and bigotry and prejudice that that Old Jew is fighting: it just does so from a different angle.
So I want to ask this Old Jew from Galicia, especially in these days when the fascism of his day is rearing its head in our day, is it possible that 55% could tread too close to apathy?
Couldn’t 55% be dancing near complicity?
Isn’t 55% actually the friend of the very fascists he was condemning in his very own words, because 55% lends itself to timidity, to ambivalence, to tepidity, all of which are passive tools of the powers of malevolent authoritarianism and systemic, oppressive, status quo?
Can 100%, or even just 75%, well-stewarded for the sake of concern for the Least of These, for the sake of defiance against hate and cruelty be…righteous thuggery?
Is that a thing?
Could it be a thing?
And I imagine he will look at me, maybe give me a bit of a smile, sigh, and say, You might be right.
And I will look at him, and sigh, and say, You might be more right.
And I’d like to think that we will then raise some imaginary glasses, and toast to something I’ve come to call ‘tenacious humility.’
This is what I believe, and I will live out that belief fiercely.
But I might be 45% wrong.
If you want to sit at the feet of a not-so-old Jew from New York, sign up for the blogs of my righteous friend Murray Haar here.
You can now pre-order Anna’s upcoming book published by Fortress Press! I Can Do No Other: The Church’s New Here We Stand Moment is available here, and is slated to come out on October 1, 2019.
”This book is born out of the conviction that at least two gods are currently competing for our collective trust: nationalism (and its many sub-manifestations) and quietism. Both make a case for and a claim on our allegiance, each by way of different motivations of self and institutional protection. Madsen looks at today’s modern context and asks: Where will the church stand in a day that is marked by globalization, polarization, racism, bigotry, and debates about justice for humanity and for the earth itself? While the Reformation church was built on the foundation of justification by grace, Madsen calls people of faith to a new reformation that will focus on standing for justice in the world. Madsen delves into who Jesus was, and how our claim that he died and was raised establishes our faith and impacts the way we live it out. She pays attention to Luther’s theology and juxtaposes it with our present context. She explores recent examples of Nazi resistance, liberation theology, black and womanist theology, and feminist theology, each of which come at social justice in their unique ways, with a common conviction that justice work is central to the Christian life. She speaks of how our faith grounding and our faith history weave together and entwine themselves into our present moment, offering both warnings and encouragement. And last, a case is made that justice, anchored in justification, is our new Reformation moment, one not inconsistent with Luther’s theology, but weighted differently to address the different weighty concerns of our day. A study guide is included to encourage group conversation and action.”
Three things come to mind when I read this:
1. Murray Haar was at study I attended many years ago at Hollis Renewal Center, before I was the director. He said he had a sign in his office positioned over where the students sat so that he could see it. It said, “think that you might be wrong”. I have placed that sign metaphorically in my writing and speaking ever since.
2. There is that interaction between Jesus and Thomas when Jesus says, “stop your unbelieving and believe.”
3. Bob Dylan says it best: “You Gotta Serve Somebody”
Any time a person references Murray Haar and Bob Dylan, you got something.
Thank you, Dave! Grateful for your reading, and your comment.
“Can 100%, or even just 75%, well-stewarded for the sake of concern for the Least of These, for the sake of defiance against hate and cruelty be…righteous thuggery?
Is that a thing?
Could it be a thing?”
I pray it IS a thing. I pray to help make it a thing.
Thank you, Chris! I am so glad it is to you a Thing. Peace!
I found you by way of the ELCA Northern Illinois Synod Convention… and I bugged you as you were checking out of the hotel. It soon occurred to me I may have been a bit rude for taking your time. I apologize!
Two things came immediately to mind. The first is the words of Jesus (I think!), “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” The second, I think is the difference: always be willing to admit to the possibility you may be wrong, or at least that you might not not (surely don’t!) have it all right!
Thanks for your words this weekend!
No, no, you weren’t rude in the least!
Yes, I agree: and the truth that sets us free is, in part, that we are not dependent on whether we are right or not!
And to that, I say, “Whew.”
The problem isn’t believing you are right, why believe something if you don’t believe it’s right?; but the thuggery comes when you try to force your belief on another.
Yes. That is a fine distinction. Thank you.