Read: Mark 15:33-39
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39, NRSV).
He had probably seen hundreds of crucifixions. It is hard to imagine such creative cruelty becoming routine, but for the centurion, this was just another day on crucifixion detail. Until it wasn’t.
What was it about the manner of this man’s dying that drew these words from the centurion’s hardened heart?
In Matthew and Luke’s later versions of the same scene, other the details are rearranged a bit—as if to offer more probable explanations for this sudden confession of faith from such an unexpected source. In the gospel of Mark, however, it is simply Jesus’ last moments that moved the centurion to state—with elegant simplicity—what others had been unable or unwilling to see.
Mark’s version of the Roman centurion may be the quintessential example of the “faithful foreigner.” There are many good reasons to remember him—not least because his testimony adds the ring of truth to Mark’s description of the scene. As a foreigner, after all, he is the last person we would expect to say something like this. He has no stake in this game. In fact, the opposite is true. There is very reason to expect him to deny or simply ignore Jesus’ death. But he doesn’t. And because he doesn’t, we have another important reason to believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God.
Because I am writing this reflection from Italy—in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic—it occurs to me that there might be another reason to remember the witness of the Roman centurion. It has to do with fear, faith, and foreigners.
One Italian newspaper began a recent article this way: “Fear of contagion and the contagion of fear. Each epidemic always carries the other one.”* The authors of the article hasten to make it clear that they do not want to diminish the danger or the responsibility we face in the current crisis. But their point is important. Fear spreads as fast as any virus, and it can be just as dangerous.
Too often, we try to focus our fears on what is foreign to us. It’s called xenophobia (from the Greek words xenos [foreigner] and phobos [fear]). A February 3, 2020 article in Time gave some sobering examples. In late January, for instance, bystanders refused to provide CPR for a man who had collapsed outside a Chinese restaurant in Sydney Australia. They were afraid he might have the virus. He died of cardiac arrest. Or this from further back in history but closer to home:
During the nineteenth century, rather than curtail commercial shipping, which ferried cholera around the globe, rattled cholera-stricken societies from New York to London turned their ire onto Irish immigrants instead. In 1832, a group of Irish immigrants, irrationally scorned as carriers, were first quarantined, and then secretly massacred and buried in a mass grave.**
For more examples, simply scroll through your social media feed. Or better yet—don’t.
The dean of a high school in Milan wrote a letter to his students earlier this week. He cautioned them with these words: “The atavistic instinct when you feel threatened by an invisible enemy is to see him everywhere, the danger is to look at each of our fellow [human beings] as a threat, as a potential aggressor.”*
That caution is one we all need to hear. Perhaps we can carry it in our hearts along with the memory of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross.
*Beyond Coronavirus: The Reason Against the Contagion of Fear by Vittorio Lingiardi and Guido Geovanardi (in Il Sole 24 Ore, February 26, 2020).
**The Pandemic of Xenophobia & Scapegoating by Sonia Shay (in Time, February 3, 2020).
Circle us, Lord.
Keep protection near
and danger afar.
Circle us, Lord
Keep hope within.
Keep doubt without.
Circle us, Lord.
Keep light near
and darkness afar.
Circle us, Lord.
Keep peace within.
Keep evil out.
This is an adaptation of a prayer by David Adam, “Circle Me, Lord.” I have changed it to the plural so that it can better encompass our prayers for the whole world.
Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series
Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.
In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.
The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!
As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!