In the midst of seminary, I was discerning a call to confirmation at a Jesuit congregation in Durham, NC. For me, one of the most profound moments of the mass came at the final utterance of the congregation before the priest consumed the eucharist. We would quote the centurion of great faith, declaring as one “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
The wider narrative of Biblical soldiers, however, is all too often flattened in modern Churches that adhere too closely to an ideological party line which fails to reflect the complex reality of martial virtues and vices. That story, of which I am an heir, must be interpreted with greater care not simply for the benefit of those who have descended to the hell of war, but for the Church universal. The body of Christ is incomplete without the witness of her veterans, from the admirable faith of the Centurion to the penitent profession of St. Longinus after he pierced Jesus’ side upon the cross. Our faith is stunted if we fail to wrestle with the challenging testimony of Christian soldiers yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The reflection that follows was inspired by Mark Twain’s posthumous short story The War Prayer. Whereas Twain drew beautifully stark, black and white contrasts as a biting critique of wars in his day, I’ve tried to employ a wider palette to illuminate the nuance otherwise lost in polemics. A War Cry can and should imply several things, and I leave it to you to draw considerate conclusions. Ambiguity can be either helpful or harmful, and I hope I’ve accomplished the former.
You will find the following story pivots on the crucial confession of Matthew 8 and Luke 7 that I’ve already mentioned. The first half draws from my theological and historical training while the second relies more on experience, offering a composite character based on my own as well as those shared with me through Centurions Guild.
A central but underlying claim of the following reflection is that the ancient centurion and contemporary soldier share more than mere membership in the martial fraternity, that they seem, under inspection, to bleed together into one. I invite you to listen as their essence pools at your own feet, to wonder with me if the thin red line between sinner and saint is so easy to discern as we might think… whether the violence in the world is actually directly correlative to the violence in each of us, soldier and civilian alike.
I invite you to close your eyes and hear The War Cry…
The centurion had heard about a local healer who could work miracles. He had been told that a few of his men had stolen away one day to witness an odd ceremony at a river the Judeans called “Jordan.” The legionaries even claimed to have heard a voice from the clouds call the man “son,” a sacrilegious claim, since Caesar was the only son of Zeus.
The young troopers told the men that later apprehended them that the camelskin-clad Jew leading the ritual had instructed them to not lie or steal, to not grasp at prestige or cut people down in pursuit of rank. Though the charge of absenteeism and blasphemy was harsh, the centurion gave them a slap on the wrist, since it seemed the lunatic had spoken a word of sense to them. He could have been much harsher, but the centurion cared for his men more than other commanders; he called his subordinates “brother” and his servants “son”. When they were resupplied from Rome, he made sure that his soldiers ate their fill before he would serve himself. His servants spoke highly of him to others, as he never beat them or split up their families.
He was a good man, better than most in his position. His unit’s assignment to the occupied eastern territories had been rough; insurrectionists had tested their patience and resolve every day. Stealthy sicarii left bodies for them to police up all over Jerusalem, the provincial capitol of his area of operations. In bouts of street fighting, civilians would be caught up in the melee, so his men began concealing daggers within their armor to drop next to the innocent dead. The only way he knew of to protect his soldiers from the wrath of the mob that would quickly form was to make civilians look like they were combatants.
Tensions only grew every day. Running out of ways to glean information from locals, he and his men would be forced to use disputed interrogation measures, bringing prisoners to the brink of death just for a name, a location, anything. Their hands weren’t always so steady, and more than once the swords that they pressed upon the Jews’ necks slipped, their blood spilling upon the ground. The daggers would drop from their hidden places, and the soldiers would move on. Another day, other destructive mistake.
This healer he had heard of was an oddity. He didn’t preach retaliation to the crowds, but redemption. On more than one occasion, the officer was sure he heard a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own countrymen, but he couldn’t be certain. All he knew was that the man touched the sick and did not succumb to the lesions marking their faces. Legions of Jews and others would call him Lord, a title the centurion knew well, reserved as it was for Caesar.
Try as he might, he could not escape the stories circulating about this man, Jesus, that they called Lord. Especially lately, since one of his servants had taken ill, and death seemed immanent. He was good at ordering men left and right; he told some “come” and they came, and others “go” and they went. But he could not order away the demon that possessed his favored servant, the spirit that was causing the sickness. Maybe this Jesus was a good man like he was, maybe he could bring healing to the centurion.
Toward the end of his deployment, the officer learned that Jesus would be passing through the area where his unit was stationed. He would try to procure healing for his servant, but he felt awkward. The locals held the healer in such high esteem that crowds would surround him wherever he went, and not even the respect the centurion had from the local religious leaders would guarantee him a chance to have a word with Jesus. Instead, he would go disguised to Jesus, without the protection and esteem his military uniform provided, as just another man in the crowd.
As the healer approached, the crowd proved even worse than the commander expected. Jesus was in the middle of a large throng coming from Capernaum. The centurion hustled to keep up with the crowd, poking his head above the mass, waiting for the best time to try to get closer. How would he address him? Other centurions might hear him if he called out “Lord, Lord” and report him to others, perhaps gaining favor from their superiors for pointing out his treasonous titling – after all, only Caesar could be Lord. But the crowd was growing; he might not get any other chance. He didn’t have time to go back and forth – he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted as loud as he could;
“LORD! I am not worthy to receive you, but….
… only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
The Catholic priest then put the elements to his lips, and paused for one last, silent prayer before he consumed the Host.
A war-weary captain sat in the back of the church, his chest quaking with a mixture of guilt and PTSD. He hadn’t been to church in a number of years, not since his first deployment to the Middle East. He had been a devout Christian, but the Church had been ill-equipped to exorcise the demons of war he carried back. Years ago, in the confessional, he had spoken of what he had seen and done. The awkward pause was heart breaking, and the stammered response did nothing to put the pieces back together. That was the last time the long shadow of his past had fallen upon the altar.
He wasn’t really sure why he came back after all these years. Entering the church, he instinctively went to cross himself at the font, but staring back at him from the holy water was the image of the publican, another public servant that found little respite from the harrowing of a conscience too late crystallized. Like Pilate, the officer couldn’t wash the blood from his hands, no matter how hard he tried. His soul was tormented, ripped between faith and service. He fell so short of one and had so excelled at the other.
He had numerous combat decorations. Citations sang his praises for deeds he’d done overseas. Every one of his men came home, not one had been killed in the many deployments he oversaw. His men were like family, and he defended them vigorously. He had even gone the extra mile of learning Arabic and Pashto, so the locals knew they could trust him. But he had to make sacrifices he would later regret; his guys had to send one man accused of insurgency to a “black site.” The man’s family never stopped asking where the young man went and when he would come home. He never would, but they continued to ask. They never stopped asking, actually, even in the nightmares that often kept him from resting in peace.
The time away from his own family had taken its toll. He was divorced and had lost custody of his children. Others in his unit fared even worse. One sergeant was committed to a mental hospital, another attempted suicide three times before he finally got it right. A lot of his men got into car wrecks or started on drugs. Maybe there were spiritual stowaways they wrestled with too, he couldn’t be sure. Trying to reconnect with them was too hard. It had been years between conversations with some of them. Broken and beaten, they all reflected the mark of Cain more than they did the likeness of God.
Watching from the back of the church, he wrestled with whether or not to go forward for communion. Something beckoned him forward, but something else held him back. The voice of the publican echoed in his ears; “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” It was all he could hear some days. The healing he sought seemed for far from his reach. Though he longed to hear the soft, still whisper of God, more often than not, the pastor demanded an ovation so his audience could deliver their cacophonous applause. Or, worse, he received no Word at all, only the deafening thunderclap of silence.