LORD, SAVE YOUR GOOD SHEEP
Chapter III, where we observe a theological dispute on whether killing people is good
If you think Italy is warm, think again. Southern Italy, maybe, but Rome? The chill of an early spring night easily gets under a tunica, even if you can afford two or three of them. That night in Rome many people leaving the city and going up Via Salaria – the Salt Way – had only one tunic under their hooded cloaks, but something important made them bear the cold and continue on toward their mysterious goal. Some of them were hiding oil lanterns under the laps of their cloaks, but most relied on the full moon shining from the clear night sky. A couple of miles past the remnants of the city wall, they turned right into an old cemetery located among sandy hills and ravines.
The crowd assembled in an area paved with limestone and surrounded by walls. In the center of it, an old crypt stood lost and forgotten. Several people started a bonfire near it, and the flame threw warm yellow reflections on the stones, which were silvery in the moonlight. When the stream of people let up, the gathering started to sing a hymn.
A lonely traveler might be frightened by such a scene, but his fear would be needless. These were the followers of a strange eastern religion that considered murder to be the mortal sin. That night, in the first century A.D., they had not yet become the world’s dominating religion. The hooves of the crusaders’ horses had not yet been covered in the blood of people and the chips of crosses from Constantinople temples. Incas and Mayas in South America were gathering gold, unaware of whose hands it would end up in. North American tribes were hunting and gathering, unaware of the people with faces colored by death. Neither were the African people, who did not even think of leaving the pastures of their native continent. Rifles had not yet been invented, nor had guns, planes, nuclear bombs, aircraft carriers, or other various smart and precise weapons designed to interrupt somebody else’s unholy or merely inconvenient life. These were early Christians, trusting the Lord, shying at sins, and trying to follow the Commandments to the best of their human ability. They were still united. A Roman Christian would not hesitate to help his Greek brother, if the need arose, and it was the same the other way around. Unfortunately, this was not to last.
After the singing was over, people began to talk to each other, gravitating toward two of their leaders. The first was a tall strong man, about thirty years old, with fair hair and fiery eyes. If not for a wide scar on the right half of his forehead, he might have posed for a sculpture of Apollo. Son of the chief of a small Germanic tribe, he had been captured in a distant Gallia Comata, brought to Rome as a slave, and then forced to fight in the arena. He was a good fighter and soon became the favorite of the crowd, especially the women. Eventually he was set free like the legendary Spartacus. Soon after that, he was injured in a street fight, which explained both his scar and his clumsiness when he moved about. The blow to his head also had an unexpected consequence. The man started to hear voices telling him what to do. Soon, he became a Christian and gained substantial influence over the community with his fierce faith and strange link to the world beyond. People came to him, listened, asked questions, and then left to give the place for others, except for a small group of about a dozen most loyal followers.
The second leader, a lean gray-haired man in his early fifties, was wrapped in a hooded gray cloak. He listened more than he spoke, while intently looking at the people with large, dark, and vivid eyes. When he did speak, everybody around listened to his quiet, confident voice in silence. He had been brought from Greece as a slave and a teacher of Greek, Latin, and rhetoric. When his master set him free, he chose to stay with his former master and continue to do what he did so well – teach rhetoric. He clearly did know it well. People came to him, asked questions, listened to his answers, and followed him.
As the two leaders walked among the people, they drew closer and closer together. Soon they met, and then everyone’s attention focused on them. They did not say anything for a few seconds, then the older man broke the silence.
“So, Seamus, I see we must talk. You chose the time when neither Peter nor Paul were in the city, so talk to me. What do you want?”
Seamus, the tall, younger leader, said, “Only to fulfill our Lord’s will, Alexius!”
“And what would that be?” the old man asked, without moving a muscle in his face.
“You know what it is. Rome is an unclean place. Rome sends legions to our lands and you know what they do there. Rome made us slaves, and even when it sets us free, we are not much better off. The Romans are disgusting and immoral. They see the whole world as their slaves! Rome stands against everything we believe in. Rome must be destroyed, burned to the ground. You were a slave once, Alexius. Did you like it?”
Seamus’ followers started to shout their support, but Alexius did not move. Then, when the noise of the crowd died down, he said, “No, I did not. But I knew that it was not just fate. Our Lord wanted me to learn something important. Maybe by complying with my master, I could learn to comply with our Lord? Could it be that He wants you to learn something? You say you did not like being a slave, but didn’t you have slaves in your Gallia?”
“No, we usually killed captured men, if we could not get ransom money for them,” Seamus answered. “Not just killed; we sacrificed them to our gods,”
“See?” Alexius said, “You sacrificed live people to your pagan gods! Is not that terrible? And if you hadn’t been brought to Rome, you would still do that! Could that be the very lesson you were brought here for?”
“But I learned this lesson!” Seamus proudly raised his head and hit his chest with his fist. “I will never serve other gods and never make sacrifices to them. I learned, and I am still here. Why? There is only one explanation – I must still do something else, now and here. And I know what it is!”
“Did you? Did you really learn?” Alexius fixed his cool eyes on the barbarian. “You say you’ve learned not to kill, but what is it you are trying to do now? Burn Rome? How many people will die in the flames?”
“That’s different,” Seamus said. “I won’t kill them, the flames will. The flames will clean up the place and separate good from evil!”
“Separate, you say?” Alexis asked. “How interesting. It reminds me of your friend Hosta. I heard he was sent to the countryside for his rebellious temper? What is he doing there?”
“He is a shepherd now,” Seamus said. “Why?”
“And what does he do when some of his sheep get sick?”
“I guess he first separates them from the healthy sheep, so that the rest of the herd does not gets sick,” Seamus answered. “Then he tends to them. And if he fails, he kills them. Because one bad sheep can spoil the whole herd; better for one sheep to die than the whole herd to perish. That’s exactly what we should do with Rome, because Romans are bad sheep.”
“Separates, you say? Bad sheep from good ones, you say? Sick from healthy?” Alexius paused and looked around. “You know who else is doing this job?”
Now all eyes were on the old man. Seconds passed in silence. “Who? Who?” the people in the crowd shouted.
“The devil!” Alexius said loudly and looked around at the shocked eyes. “Don’t you remember? He was an angel and God’s servant, but he did not trust Him and he did not like people. He rebelled, just like Seamus’ friend. Did he succeed? Of course not! How could he succeed against our Lord, the God Almighty? He is still God’s servant and does His bidding. Do you know which job he was assigned after the rebellion? He has the same job as Seamus’ friend – separating the bad sheep from the good, so that our Lord can tend to the sick separately.”
“But, Alexius,” a muscular, dark-haired man behind Seamus said, “does not the devil rule hell, where souls are tortured?”
“And, what do you think hell is,” Alexius said, “if not the place where sick souls can be isolated and tended to separately?”
“But they are tortured there, not tended!” the man answered.
“You, Hludwick, you took an arrow in your leg in one of your battles,” Alexius said. “What did you feel when medicus took it out?”
“Pain, what else?” Hludwick answered.
“So, when your leg is treated you expect pain. Would not it be even more painful when something as important as the soul is treated? What is hell if not the place where sick souls are tended and cured from cruelty and godlessness? When the devil tempts people, he is only looking to separate the bad sheep from the good.” Alexius turned from the crowd and stared into his opponent’s eyes. “Why do you want to do the devil’s job, Seamus?”
“Don’t talk to me like that, Alexius! You will not confuse me with your rhetoric. You Greeks are cowards! You are born slaves and you remain slaves all your lives. You allow the cruel scoundrel who rules the empire to do whatever he wants! But I was born free! I was born to fight, and I will fight in the name of our Lord!”
“Why would I fight?” Alexius asked. “God sent me here, and He certainly had a plan for that. He sent us many things – Rome, the empire, and the emperor among others. Good or bad, that’s all part of his plan. If he sent the emperor to rule us, then he had a reason. Why would I fight against His plan?”
“He did this so we can show our faith in Him and fight injustice,” Seamus answered. “You are too afraid to fight, but what will you do? Go to your precious emperor and give us up to him?”
The crowd got silent for a few moments. Then a man behind Alexius cut through the tension and said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Seamus. You know we cannot betray our brothers.”
“But we will beg you to change your mind,” Alexius said. “If you succeed, or even if you are caught trying, think what it will bring to all of us. They will blame all Christians for what you will try to do. They will hunt us down like animals. Aren’t our lives hard enough already?”
“So, you are afraid. As I said, you are cowards!” Seamus grinned with satisfaction and turned away. “We will do this for you, you cowards! We will do our part, and yours as well, timid brothers. We’ll save you from the empire, whether you want it or not, even if we have to die doing it. Just don’t interfere.” Seamus suddenly disappeared into the darkness and a dozen of his loyal supporters followed him.
The silence was broken only by the sounds of receding footsteps. Then someone asked, “What can we do now?”
“The Lord has the sick sheep separated,” Alexius said looking into the dark shadows where Seamus and his men disappeared. Then he looked around at the people who surrounded him, waiting eagerly for his quiet voice to continue. “Now let us pray to our Lord to save his good sheep.”
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