Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Oath

The soldiers appeared in our village in the early morning hours. A long, snaking line of men and beasts. Ugly, snarling men with swords and leather plating and several days worth of stubble on their faces. Every seventh or eight was on horseback, armored in metal, sporting open-faced helmets with great red plumes. Sweating, grunting teams of oxen arrived near the rear, pulling carts of supplies. At the very end came the stinking beasts pulling empty prisoner cages.

My brother, on leave from the militia, said there was a hundred of them. A century. He woke us all up and we watched the procession from our flat roof as they secured the perimeter around the town. “Where are our sentries?” he kept repeating, quietly.

A soldier wearing metal gauntlets on his forearms unhorsed and banged loudly at the forge, directly across from our store. He shouted and cursed in the Vulgar, commanding us to assemble outside in the commons. With sharp gestures he sent off legionnaires to comb the village home by home. Undoubtedly they would round up all stragglers and those in hiding, offering incentive to obey with the prompting of a blade.

Before long my family – my father, mother, brother and sister – were among the other two or three hundred villagers, in one large crowd of countless smaller groups, clustering together for heat in the twilight mountain air.

Our sentries did not come back; at least I did not see my friends in the assembly. My brother must’ve been thinking the same thing, for when I glanced over to him, he pointed to his throat and quickly drew his finger across it. In front of me my father had his arm around my mother, she visibly nervous. We had heard many stories about this before, and she no doubt was thinking of me and my sister.

While this was going on, while murmurs and anxious glances spread unsuppressed, while more than a few fellow villagers were roughly tossed into the group, two men lit extremely large torches at the town square. Each unpacked several items from thick bearskins: a turquoise porcelain bowl, several silver and gold jars, some marble geometric stones which assembled into a small table or altar, a silken purple cloth. Murmurs and glances dwindled as our attention fell fearfully upon the two men finishing their tasks.

“It’s the oath,” one man said, rather loud and rather hysterically. More than half of us immediately shivered, not with chills but with dread.

They herded us into one line by sword and spear. My family was about a third of the way back, but it moved surprisingly, frighteningly quick. We were moving forward with dizzying speed. Perfunctory responses of “Caesar is Lord” grew louder and louder as we approached the front of the line. I tried to hide my fear as I glanced around. My brother, stoic and angry. My father, stoic yet compassionate. My mother was comforting my sister, and both had wet eyes. Soon we were a dozen men away, then half that, then –

I lunged in front of my brother, to the front of the line, ignoring the gasps of my family and evading my brother’s grasp. A group of dangerously bored soldiers faced me, a glint of interest in their eyes observing my abrupt action. Off to the side of the altar sat an older officer with a stylus and scroll. He did not look at me as he asked my name. Before me was the altar, and on it, the turquoise bowl before an engraved plate bearing Caesar’s likeness. The smaller silver and gold cups of incense sat off to the side. I, and all the other villagers, were to proclaim our loyalty and fidelity to the emperor by throwing a pinch of incense into the bowl and affirming, “Caesar is Lord.”

I eyed the soldiers’ swords; I eyed the prison cart. Empty – so far, everyone had swore the loyalty oath. But it was more important than that, we all realized. Rather, a couple dozen of us had realized. We had been taught differently. Not by the Master, but by wondrous men who walked and talked with Him, so many years ago. It was not so much as swearing allegiance as a declaration in the faith and goodness of He Who created all and is Lord of all.

One of the soldiers unsheathed his blade at my hesitancy. I glanced at the sharpened, blackened blade, then back over to the wooden cage. Would I be important enough to be seized and carted back to Smyrna, or Pergamum? Or would I be slain where I stood, as an example for the others?

The commander finally looked up from his scroll with impatience and anger building behind his eyes. I stepped forward, and heard the sobs behind me. I reached out toward the incense bowl, but stopped midway, indecisive. “Caesar is Lord” would be very easy to say, however quietly. I could repent of it later –

But I shut out those thoughts, and brought my hand down to my side. I closed my eyes. Say it! Say it! Say it! Say it! some part of my mind screamed at me. No – it was my heart speaking to me. I heard shouting and commotion as more soldiers came over, pleased that perhaps there was a cause for action. I took a deep breath, and opened my mouth.

“There is only one Lord, and his name is – ”


Now, here is my question to you, Dear Reader:

Should the “h” in the final sentence of this tale, in that word “his”, be capitalized or not?


Nick said...

interesting conundrum. Brings me back to the George Carlin bit where the snot-nosed kid asks the priest. "If God is all-powerful, can He, in fact, create a rock so big that even he can't lift it". Priests response - It's a mystery.

Now back to The Oath. Suicide is a mortal sin. Certain death by failing to utter the oath is suicide. Does suicide in honor of the Lord make it any less suicidal? Would Jesus approve of the forfeiture of one's life for Him? It is more likely, He would approve laying down one's life for one's neighbor.


LE said...

I imagined these people as 1st century Christians - very devoted and very literal. Google Matthew 10:32-33. They would not nuance this statement like we would.

Your questions remind me of the priest's dilemma in "Silence" which I read last summer. Captured by authorities in medieval Japan, put under torture, he renounces Christ, rationalizing that by damning himself he saves himself to remain alive to minister to others.

When I wrote this I was thinking how lucky we are not to be put to such tests.