The military presence at the cross, the details of which differ in the gospels, heightens the Roman empire’s hostile presence. Whether the centurion in the Synoptics, a surprisingly high-ranking officer for execution duty, or the low-ranking soldiers assigned to break legs in John, these details emphasize the Roman occupation and the atrocities done in the empire’s name. Yet their presence is not always negative and might serve to legitimize claims. Reporting back to Pilate, the centurion’s witness, would verify that Jesus was indeed dead and that Jesus had not merely fainted, surviving his execution. In this case, the centurion is of such noble character that he garners trust from both Pilate and Gospel readers. Moreover, the centurion’s exclamation about Jesus’ divinity, if not facetious, is one of the boldest claims in the synoptic gospels.
Yet the Roman military presence is also felt at other points in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke record the command to turn and offer the other cheek when struck (perhaps Chris Rock and Will Smith come to mind), and the extortion to carry a conscripted load the extra mile as examples of the love of enemies and doing good to those who hate you. Roman soldiers would have been the most likely contenders to force one to carry a load or to strike a disobedient individual. Yet only a few verses later in Matthew, the centurion at Capernaum would receive Jesus’ high praise for his faith, while Jesus’ disciples are often admonished for their lack of faith.
In Luke, John the Baptist is asked by soldiers what they should do to show repentance. He doesn’t demand their resignation or desertion but that they should not extort money from others by threat or false accusation and be satisfied with their wages. It seems that being a soldier is a perfectly acceptable career choice, although this would not always be the case throughout Christian history.
If you are like me (granted, you are probably not), a pragmatic pacifist and advocate of non-violence who holds a certain distrust of the uniformed services, then I know that I can sometimes transfer that distrust onto the uniformed individual. Like our book author, the gospel challenges me to see beyond my preconceptions and ask some very hard questions. If a centurion was present and facilitated the execution of Jesus, yet also exclaimed his innocence, can I look beyond the individual who follows orders, commits atrocities, or even commits genocide? Can I recognize the broken system, yet have compassion for the individuals in the system?