Have you heard the story of St. Lawrence? He was archdeacon of the Roman Church in the third century, at a time when Emperor Valerian issued an edict condemning all Christian bishops, priests, and deacons to death. During these episodic persecutions it was customary for Roman authorities to confiscate the property of condemned Christians. Eventually Lawrence was summoned by the Prefect of Rome and ordered to hand over all church property under his charge. As archdeacon, this would not have been insubstantial. The prefect said he was aware the church owned large sums of gold and silver, and the Roman army needed money to fund its troops. He gave Lawrence three days to make inventory and turn it in.
Lawrence set about gathering together all the poor in the city who were under the church’s charge. On the third day Lawrence presented to the prefect a large crowd of beggars, cripples, lepers, orphans, widows, and other social outcasts. Outraged and confused, the prefect demanded to know where the promised treasure was. Lawrence replied:
“What are you displeased at? The gold that you so eagerly desire is a vile metal, and serves to incite men to all manner of crimes. The light of heaven is the true gold, which these poor objects enjoy. Their bodily weakness and sufferings are the source of their patience and virtue; vices and passions are the real diseases by which the great ones of the world are often most truly miserable and despicable. Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the church’s crown, by which it is pleasing to Christ; it has no other riches; make use then of them for the advantage of Rome, of the emperor, and yourself.” (1)
Lawrence’s creative subversiveness was built upon sound theology, but as we can imagine the prefect wasn’t amused. The prefect, in turn, had Lawrence tortured to death on a gridiron. The story goes that after a long brutal torture session, before dying Lawrence quipped, “It is well done. Turn me over!” (2)
The most important part of this story is not St. Lawrence’s heroic death, but that his response to the authorities embodied the teaching of Christ in Luke 14:13-14: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then indeed will you be blessed because they have no way to repay you. But you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (NCV)
Threatened with all the stern pageantry and military might of Rome, this courageously light-hearted saint responded by throwing a Bible party! He was obviously a man after Jesus’s heart because he recognized who was most valued in God’s kingdom (Matt. 20:16). He understood that loving Jesus means recognizing him in the marginalized, and being in solidarity with them (1 Cor. 1:28-31).
When St. Lawrence gathered all these various outcasts to stand with him before the prefect, he was asking them to risk their lives with him. He must have had strong rapport with them, that they were willing to undertake this dangerous act of public mockery of the Roman authorities. Such rapport could only be achieved through the deep bonds of solidarity and relationship, not the detached charity we’re so used to these days.
Charitable giving implies maintaining a certain distance between giver and recipient; it enables unjust social boundaries to remain unchallenged even while some good is being performed. Despite the good charitable giving accomplishes, it isn’t the type of action to which Christ summons us. What I glean from St. Lawrence’s hagiography is that he went beyond charity and took upon himself the hard work of becoming one with the people he served. That’s solidarity, the family values of God’s kingdom. Such is what Christ calls us to do as His presence in the world. I think this is what the apostle James had in mind when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and undefiled is this: to come to the aid of orphans and widows in their hardship and to keep oneself untarnished by the world.” (James 1:27, NCV)
What if St. Lawrence were sent on a heavenly mission to come evaluate us today, to audit how American Christians are treating their wealth? No doubt he would interview many individual Christians, clergy, and bishops. Maybe he’d meet with parish councils or board members. I’m sure he’d walk through the poorest neighborhoods of various communities and ask what the churches are doing for them. He might drop in for Mass or other worship services and check out the demographic makeup of the congregations. He’d likely evaluate what Christians and their leaders are saying about political and cultural issues, what political candidates/groups they’re supporting and for what reasons. Because so many people say we are a Christian nation, I’m sure he would be curious to see how our government uses its resources domestically and around the world.
My guess is that after he finished his audit, St. Lawrence would conclude that America has very few Christians and is most definitely not a “Christian nation.” Based on our priorities, it’s difficult not to conclude that the American church (speaking in broad, pan-denominational terms) for the large part serves Mammon and Mars rather than Christ. St. Lawrence would lament that we the people are persecuting Jesus in rather vicious ways, and a great many who call themselves Christians cheer it on. We regularly say things like “God bless America”, but we’ve chosen to reject His blessings, curse them as evil, and do horrible things to them.
What else do we call it when our elected government makes a policy of shutting out immigrants fleeing extreme poverty and violence to seek refuge among us? When we separate families at the Mexican border and cruelly lock children in prisons without adequate supervision or care? When our president declares his open hostility to immigrants from Muslim countries? When he pushes for so-called merit-based immigration, which welcomes the wealthy and privileged from around the world while demonizing the poor?
Why are we building a giant wall across the Mexican border? How can people who follow Jesus be okay that we’re deliberately leaving asylum seekers to suffer in squalid conditions just outside of our border, where they’re subject to rape and extortion in refugee camps? How about inside our borders where we have a thriving abortion industry which preys on the poor? If the policies of our nation could speak, they would say it’s easier and more desirable for the poor to kill their unborn than it is for us to provide them with what they need to live well.
The poor have been coming to us from around the world for quite a while, yet we’re increasingly hostile to them and let our president denigrate them by calling them “criminals”, “dangerous”, “infestations”, and so on. The poor within our nation, we denigrate as being lazy and stupid. We patronize them with crumbs and ask why they can’t get their act together to join the rest of us at the table (Luke 16:19-31). The poor and sick are God’s blessings to America, but our economy and military power are sources of temptation. Yet our priorities are backwards. We treat the poor as less than worthless, but we serve Mammon and Mars to the detriment of ourselves and the rest of the world.
That a great many so-called Christians find this status quo agreeable, and cheer it on and defend it as if they were defending the faith, is evidence that Christianity seems to hardly exist within our lands anymore. Those who disagree with what’s going on aren’t necessarily exonerated. I increasingly ask whether I could consider myself a Christian, by New Testament standards, seeing as how I too am firmly implanted within “the system.” These days I increasingly pray for ways to find liberation from the soul-slavery that is the American dream.
I watch the president declare in his State of the Union address that we worship Mammon and reject Christ’s vision of the world in exchange for a decidedly nationalistic vision, and I see prominent “Christian leaders” enthusiastically endorse his message. So many within American Christendom have empowered a great evil all in the name of being “pro-life”, though seemingly oblivious to the fact that respecting human life entails respecting it in all of its dimensions. A truly “pro-life” Christian stance embraces the dignity and humanity of everybody regardless of anything, including our nation’s policies or interests.
No, I’m afraid that Christianity hardly exists in our country. There are of course prophetic voices in the darkness of American culture, and there always will be prophetic voices in times of apostasy. We’re all implicated in this apostasy; I cannot self-righteously stand above it. To the extent I condemn all that I’ve condemned, I have to include myself because I share the guilt of being an American. More broadly than that, we share the guilt of being human. The good news is that we share in the redemption in Jesus, God who became man.
I don’t think God will bless America because we’ve been rejecting those blessings in favor of idols. Thankfully America is not our hope, nor is the American church. Rather, “Therefore, just as one man’s transgression brought condemnation for all, so one man’s righteous act resulted in justification and life for all. For just as through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19, NCV)