The story of St. Lawrence, one of the long-standing most popular saints in Christian imagination and devotion, reveals a back-story that is, I believe, important for our times. On this day when we celebrate his feast, I’d like to probe this story a bit. Would you like to come along?
Lawrence was a deacon in the Church of Rome in the mid-250s, assigned by the bishop of Rome, Sixtus, to care for the poor of the city. Even though the first three centuries after Christ are known as the “Age of Persecution,” the Church enjoyed periods of relative peace, security, and even prosperity during much of that time, interrupted by periods of intense and violent expressions of hatred and fear toward Christians. Usually these were local, limited to a few cities or provinces; occasionally the persecutions were widespread, with the full force of the Empire behind them.
At that moment in Roman history there was a lot of civil dissatisfaction, social and economic turmoil, as well as a serious threat from barbarians to the north and the Persian Empire to the east. Valerian, a Roman nobleman, became emperor in 253 almost by accident as he tried to quell an uprising south of Rome. Early in his reign, Roman rule in Europe (the West) fell into disorder, and the East was being threatened by aggressive Persian conquests under Shapur I. Valerian delegated his son, Gallienus, to rule in the West, while he led a large segment of the Roman army to do battle with the Persians in the East.
I can’t resist an aside: Leaders of nations don’t lead armies any more like they used to. They don’t fight at the head of their soldiers in battle, they send them into battle remotely and in well-guarded safety. Hmmm . . .
To make matters worse, the Goths, Germanic tribes from northern Europe, were also having a lot of fun pillaging Asia Minor (present-day Anatolia or Turkey), where the Persians were advancing. If that weren’t enough, the Roman army was also ravaged by an outbreak of plague.
Ok, so how do Christians fit into this? The Romans, believe or not, were very tolerant when it came to the religious beliefs and practices of various peoples. Any gods that anybody wanted to worship were OK with the Romans, as long they also worshiped the Roman gods too. A polytheist would see this as a good deal. “The more the merrier,” or at least, even if I don’t like the Roman gods I’ll give them lip service so I don’t suffer some awful fate. (Like imperialists and insecure autocrats throughout the ages, the Romans were pretty good at inflicting awful fates on folks who opposed them.)
In fact, the Romans even imported some foreign gods into Rome, who then also became popular objects of worship, especially when people thought they could give them some material benefit or advantage over their opponents. The whole pantheon of Roman gods consisted of Greek imports anyway, with names appropriately changed. Jupiter, for example, was Zeus: his name was a conflation of “Zeus” plus “Pater” (father).
The first true emperor, Augustus, never claimed to be a god, but was popularly deified after his death in 14 AD. Many, not all, later emperors couldn’t wait – especially the crazy and/or insecure ones – and declared themselves gods while still living. As such, they were “Lord” of the empire and “Savior” of the people, titles that were directly challenged by the Christian conviction that Jesus Christ alone was Lord and Savior.
The only thing the Romans could not tolerate was what they perceived as intolerance. Both Jews and Christians were exclusive in their conviction that there is only one God, not many gods, and were equally intolerant of any other worship. Until the Jews revolted in 70 and 132 AD, the Romans granted them protected status – they tolerated Jewish exclusivism. Why? Because the Jews could trace the origin of their monotheistic religion back before the founding of Rome in 753 BC, and so the superstitious Romans did not want to get the God of the Jews mad at them, so they put up with them – to a point.
Christians, once they had been repudiated by mainstream Jewish leadership – BTW, polemical literature, including some of the New Testament, indicates that the repudiation was mutual – were therefore seen as impertinent upstarts, and enjoyed no historical protection for their exclusivist rejection of the Roman system of gods and emperor worship.
Nonetheless, throughout much of the first three centuries, Christians were more or less tolerated. The periods of intense persecution, which gave rise to many of the stories of heroic martyrs, were for the most part local, and occasioned by local events that could be blamed on the Christians who were an unpopular minority. Why were they unpopular? Well, they were regarded as “atheists” because they refused to worship the local gods or the gods of the empire. Since the sacraments (Baptism and Eucharist) were celebrated in private, impossible-to-refute rumors about human sacrifice and sexual immorality abounded. Finally, if some misfortune struck the region – an earthquake, famine, or foreign invasion – it was clear that the local gods were angry at not being worshipped properly by these “infidels” and therefore were punishing the people for tolerating them.
“Our gods are mad at us because we are letting those Christians get away with insulting them. What should we do about it?”
Well, as a member of a frightened, offended mob, what would you do?
While that’s the driving force behind much of the early persecution of Christians, there was another force also at work.
Valerian, losing ground on the Asia Minor front against the Persians, needed all the support he could get, both financially and morally. Wars are expensive and unpopular.
He sent a decree back home ordering everyone to offer sacrifices for the success of the war, and then ordering punishment for those who refused. There were many Christians even in the imperial household and among the wealthy citizens. They had to be brought on board, so Valerian ordered Christian leaders – bishops, priests and deacons – to be executed, and the property held in common by the Church to be confiscated to pay for the war effort. Any of the wealthy citizens who refused to sacrifice to the gods would be either killed or exiled, and their estates also confiscated.
That’s the background to the well-known story of St. Lawrence. Is there a lesson for us today? How do we as a society respond when we are threatened by fear and internal or external danger? Is the deadly “blame game” still our standard mode of operating?
What happened to Valerian? Shortly after the bloodbath (and/or barbecue) in Rome, he was defeated by the Persians, imprisoned and humiliated by the victorious Shapur, who went so far as to make his back his human footstool when mounting his horse. Nice, but there’s more. Legend has it that he was flayed alive and his skin stuffed with straw to be displayed as a trophy in the Persian court.
What goes around, comes around.
Gallienus, Valerian’s son and successor, who was also a weak emperor and not a particularly nice guy himself, got a Syrian ruler (Odaenathus) to defeat the Persians, and unsuccessfully tried to hold the empire together in the West. Within a year he rescinded his dad’s decree against the Christians and ended the persecution. Almost miraculously, though, he managed to survive an additional eight years before being assassinated. Not many emperors lasted that long in those days.
So, what are the lessons for us today? I’ll propose two fairly obvious ones.
First, the more things change the more they remain the same.
Second, the main lesson of history is that we do not learn from history.