Magazine article The Christian Century

'Do Not Presume': The Fate of the Other Thief

Magazine article The Christian Century

'Do Not Presume': The Fate of the Other Thief

Article excerpt


I CUT MY theological teeth at a resolutely secular institution: Northwestern University, on Chicago's suburban north shore. The university's magnificent Alice Millar Chapel might well give the impression that it is some kind of campus centerpiece; in truth, it holds a relatively marginal place in the life of that post-Christian university. When I attended services, the chapel was usually only half full. But for those who were there, the place offered some assurance that intelligent, curious, questioning, caring Christians could actually attend the university or live nearby. That was hardly a minor matter.

The side aisles of the chapel were decorated with a series of beautifully embroidered banners, very simple in style, displaying texts that often prompted serious reflection. Some texts were from the Bible; others from classical authors; still others from modern-day saints. Most of these texts appeared without punctuation, though sometimes a geometric shape set the words into phrases.

One banner in particular always made a deep impression on me. It consisted of two sentences, set off from each other:

   Do not DESPAIR one of the thieves was SAVED
   Do not PRESUME one of the thieves was DAMNED

The couplet refers to the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus, as recorded in Luke's Gospel: "Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left" (Luke 23:32-33). The banner attributed the saying to St. Augustine.

The first half of this couplet requires us to insert a semicolon after the word despair. We are being told not to wallow in our own sin, because one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus was saved, as Luke's Gospel attests through Jesus' reply to him: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

The second half of the couplet, however, is more ambiguous. We could treat it the same way--as a command that we should not be presumptuous, because one of the thieves was damned. But I always preferred an alternative reading, taking the word presume as a synonym of assume: we should not necessarily assume that the other thief wasn't saved as well. After all, Luke's Gospel says nothing about the fate of the other thief. Inspired by this thought, as I remember, this notion had a certain impact on my life back then; I tried (though not always very successfully) to reserve judgment about the ultimate fate of my various enemies--even though, on my less charitable days, I felt relatively confident about their fiery destinies.

After I left Northwestern, I didn't think about that banner or that saying for a very long time. But it suddenly reappeared to me as I was attending a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Early in the play, there is a darkly comic exchange between the two principal characters concerning the fate of the thieves crucified with Christ. It begins when Vladimir remarks, apropos of nothing in particular, "One of the thieves was saved." He then goes on to comment on the probability of salvation: not actually 50-50 (one thief or the other), but one in four (or perhaps one in eight), because, as Vladimir points out, only one of the four evangelists even mentions a saved thief. (He observes: "It's a reasonable percentage.")

In an interview, Beckett remarked on the inspiration for this passage: "I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. I wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. 'Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.' That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters."

So for Beckett the import of the phrase is that although we can all be thankful that we might well be saved (like the first thief), we shouldn't let down our guard, because we might well end up damned, like the second thief. …

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