Our current production of A Peculiar People by Rick Najera gives me an opportunity to recount again…
Reflections on A Peculiar People
by Lauren E. Nichols
“For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.” (I Cor 7:22 NIV)
It has been a pleasure to take time during or after each show this season to think about its themes, especially those which resonate with me as a follower of Christ. It is probably obvious that A Peculiar People, which closed on April 30, is in the “overtly spiritual themes” slot in our season. After all, it is set in a Roman prison in the first century, and involves two condemned Christian slaves. Well, one of them is a Christian, though in fact she’s not a slave. And the other is definitely not a Christian, though he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s a runaway slave.
Added to this muddle is Ciprian, a centurion tasked with arresting any believers he finds, but who has a complicated family history involving the rabbi from Nazareth: his own father is the centurion mentioned in the gospels as having a servant healed by Jesus (see Matthew 8, Luke 7). At first, Ciprian’s attitude toward Christians is hostile, based both on his faulty understanding of their beliefs and practices (cannibalism? incest?) and on his sense that contact with this Christ somehow “destroyed” his father. Ciprian’s own “religion” is based on his understanding of Roman honor, society, and its famed peace-producing law and order.
Justinian, the prisoner at the center of the mistaken-identity case around which the play revolves, has also heard wild rumors about what these Christians believe and do (child sacrifice? orgies?), and it’s up to Mariam, his fellow prisoner, to try to enlighten him. Justinian is mildly curious (and maybe a bit disappointed to learn that the rumors are false). He insists that Mariam should stop trying to convert him. “I have too many beliefs of my own.” Unlike Ciprian’s confidence in honor, Justin’s cynical worldview sees evil everywhere, including in himself.
The bulk of the play–barring a couple of intense moments of stage combat–is built around conversations. Mariam and Justinian talk…about their lives, their fears, their beliefs. They surprise one another again and again by dispelling false expectations and assumptions. It strikes me that they model a level of civil discourse rarely achieved today–at least in the public arena. One can hope that such honest, thoughtful talking and listening are still happening privately. Justinian is certainly moved by Mariam’s description of her house church and its simple, reverent worship, though he tries to make light of her words.
We start to wonder about Justinian when, midway through Act 1, he tells the story of being told to engage a barbarian captive in a fight to the death. If he wins, he’ll be set free, his master promises him. But Justinian can’t do it. In what is a crucial, pivotal line of the play, he explains to Mariam: “I knew that if I killed him, I’d never be free. If my freedom was bought with the blood of an innocent man, I would always be that man’s slave.”
This line could easily be a “throw away” in the midst of such a dramatic moment. But Justinian is speaking a spiritual truth without knowing it. He is exactly right: for every human, enslaved to sin, our freedom can only be bought by the blood of an innocent man, one who became sin for us so that we could be free. And yet, paradoxically, we now belong to Him. Purchased, ransomed, redeemed, bought: all are words used of those whom Christ has rescued from sin and death by His sacrifice. Having been set free from the law, we are His servants.
A few minutes later, Justinian has another opportunity to shed blood in order to escape. “Not by killing!” screams Mariam. “You said so yourself, your conscience won’t let you!”
“Damn my conscience!” Justinian bellows. But he drops the sword. As the lights dim, we know that the guard and centurion will take their revenge.
In Act 2, Mariam is nursing a badly-beaten Justinian, who complains, “I turned the other cheek, and look what it got me: I think I swallowed a tooth.” But though he professes not to want to hear any more about Mariam’s beliefs, and he protests that he loves no one but himself, he still goes to great lengths to get her released. He fails. But in the moment when he thinks he’s won, he prays for the first time, saying, “Are You listening, Mariam’s God? If You could use another slave…” He also asks for a sign, or an angel, even though he’s not sure what one is. And right on cue, Mariam is thrown back into the cell.
At this point, in spite of the very slim understanding he has, Justinian sees himself as a believer. The combination of Mariam’s own bravery in the face of torture and death, and his feeling that her return is the answer to his prayer, has won him over. Certainly this is an experiential conversion rather than an intellectual one—but I have to wonder how often this has happened, at least initially. “God uses the foolish things of the world to confuse the wise…,” Mariam quotes, referring to herself as foolish. And surely He honors a change of heart made all in a moment. However slender his newfound faith is, Justinian is able to look the centurion in the eye and refuse to recant.
Meanwhile, Ciprian is having his own worldview rocked by witnessing the resolve of these Christian prisoners. He decides to risk his own life by freeing Mariam. He can’t save both of them, of course. But he stays to keep Justinian company.
And Justinian finally hears the full story of Ciprian’s father and “the Nazarene.” Ciprian confesses that he never understood his father’s fascination with the Rabbi from Nazareth. We feel as if, despite having “heard these stories over and over”, that perhaps Ciprian is hearing them for the first time as he recalls them for Justinian.
The centurion believes in Rome, in honor, in a man’s word being his bond, in the Pax Romana–the peaceful, law-driven civilization created by the Roman empire. These things are not bad in and of themselves, but they are all manmade and prone to corruption…as Ciprian is forced to admit. He is shocked by the perfidy of the Roman prefect, Philius. “Once, you could trust a man by his word,” he reflects. He questions everything he has believed about what Rome stands for, acknowledging that he was not trained to fight belief systems. He acknowledges that to torture and kill Christians in the arena is barbarous. “There is no more Roman peace…Maybe honor never existed.”
Honest conversation. Active listening. Willingness to confront one’s own prejudices, assumptions and blind loyalties. Small acts of courage, resolve, kindness. For the Christian, through the power of the Holy Spirit, these simple things can have profound consequences. Though things look bleak–for Mariam, for Justinian, for the centurion’s son, and indeed for the Christian population in such a hostile civilization–there is hope for change through the bravery of individual souls. So has it ever been.
Ultimately this play is a call to each believer today, to live in quiet obedience. We may not be called to a world stage, some ultimate test…but we face temptation every day to downplay faith, to compromise, to remain silent when we should speak. Take courage, friend. The tide is turned moment by moment, by individual choices whose results we may never see ourselves.