The Uniform of the Enemy, the Heart of a Friend
One of my favorite films is Dances with Wolves, a 1990 epic western featuring Kevin Costner as star, producer, and director. The film chronicles the meeting of two different worlds. As a reward for valor shown in a Civil War battle back east, First Lieutenant John Dunbar, an American soldier, has come to the frontier hoping to see it before it is swallowed up by the westward expansion of the United States. His request for the most remote posting possible is granted as he journeys first to Fort Hays, and then on to Fort Sedgwick, an abandoned outpost. Due to a series of events, Dunbar is left to man the “fort” alone, in close proximity to potentially hostile Native Americans.
After having preached his Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus enters the town of Capernaum. There we find a centurion, worried about his servant who has fallen gravely ill.
After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him. (Luke 7:1-2 ESV)
I think if the Roman centurion from Luke 7 ever met John Dunbar, they would have a lot in common. We know of no military garrisons in Capernaum or the surrounding area, so what is the commander of a hundred men doing there? It seems about as odd as coming across a First Lieutenant stationed in a one-man outpost on the western frontier. Various suggestions have been made that the centurion was there making sure the roads stayed open and passable, or that he had a role in regulating the trade that went through the region. Maybe he was an emissary to the local people, helped collect taxes, or served as a type of magistrate. Some have even suggested that he wasn’t Roman, but rather a centurion in the service of Herod Antipas. Whatever the case may be, this soldier was a Gentile living in the midst of the Jewish people in the small town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. Whatever brought him there, I have my suspicions that it was not an idyllic quest of the same nature of John Dunbar’s.
Isn’t it fascinating that after Jesus speaks to the people about loving their enemies, doing good to those who hate them, blessing those who curse them, and praying for those who abuse them, the first person we encounter is a centurion? How many in Roman-occupied territories had been cursed and abused by men wearing that uniform? What is even more fascinating is that not only do we encounter someone who would have been seen as an enemy, but it is that person who exemplifies what loving one’s enemy looks like.
When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” (Luke 7:3-5)
When John Dunbar realizes that he is going to be all alone out there on the frontier, he decides that making friends with the Native Americans is the wiser course of action than antagonizing or threatening them. Through a series of good will gestures, the Lakota begin to trust Dunbar, even giving him the name Dances with Wolves. To the extent that a white, American military officer could, Dunbar becomes one of them. Our centurion from Luke 7 appears to be no different. He has shown love for the Jewish people to the extent that he built them their synagogue, possibly the very synagogue where Jesus has healed a man of an unclean demon in Luke 4. This solider, who to many would represent the power of the state’s oppression, instead has served as a benefactor, winning the respect of those he was there to “keep in line.”
Generosity and compassion can come from the most unlikely of places. Therefore, before we judge someone based on the “uniform” they wear, perhaps we should get to know them. Not every American soldier on the frontier is there to kill Native Americans, and not every centurion is looking to oppress and exploit the native population. Outward appearance might suggest that someone is against us, but underneath the uniform of the enemy may beat the heart of a friend.
If the centurion serves as a model of love for neighbor, even enemy, we must ask ourselves, in what ways are we called to be like him? The Lord has placed each of us in our own version of Capernaum or Fort Sedgwick. As aliens in this world, will we view the natives as enemies, or love them as friends? I would argue that, when it comes to its relations with the world, the church has relied too long on the power of empire rather than the love of neighbor. How ironic that the example of a centurion calls us back to a nobler, more Christ-like approach to loving those around us.