My inner response to this scripture is best described by the word “disruptive.” It’s troublesome, unruly, unsettling, disturbing. We move from fortune telling slave girls, to demons being caste out, dark prisons of Philippi, Paul and Silas incongruently singing in chains, earthquakes, it all makes me feel like I’m watching an episode of Xena Warrior Princess or some other ancient fantasy. I think Acts of the Apostles may be patterned on Homer’s Odyssey, the epic journey tale of a soldier coming home from battle. This is the early Christian version of the epic spread of the word about Jesus.
The passage starts with disrupting injustice. What happens to this woman, who only gets mentioned as a “slave girl?” I hate it when a character enters the story for a few sentences, her already difficult life is turned upside down, and the scene moves on without knowing what happened to her, let alone her name. She is literary collateral damage.
Just when scriptures are giving women a fair shake in the story, by extolling a woman named Lydia, who is the first documented Christian convert on the European continent. Lydia was a merchant dealing in purple cloth, a wealthy women who hospitality, influence and generous spirit created a home base for Paul and Silas in Greece. She stands on her own in the story, without drawing her status from a husband. Then we have this contrasting story of the fortune telling slave girl, who seems to be an annoyance to Paul. Paul castes a demon out of her, which may have given her some temporary relief, but her value is diminished to her masters. We are left to imagine what becomes of her.
Our imaginations can be quite fertile this week, as we have been bombarded by the story of a Cleveland man holding women in captivity for years, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. NPR interviewed neighbors and they were all astonished that such a thing could happen right there, by a man they all knew. This wasn’t a far off land, but right by their home and their world view was shaken.
The slave’s disappearance from the story disturbs me because of watching so many people briefly emerge from homeless or addiction at Hillcrest House in Poughkeepsie and then disappear from the scene, so many that I cannot remember their names. They came from jail, rehabs, psychiatric hospitalization, fleeing domestic violence, their stories a cascade of overlapping oppressions. Just as we would caste out one demon, another would possess them and carry them back into the hopeless chaos.
I don’t like stories where people disappear from the plot without resolution. This sentiment was captured by a photographer in Bangledesh, whose photo was in Time Magazine this week. The photo is of a couple found in their final embrace in the rubble of a garment factory collapse. A thousand people are dead, not from an earthquake of natural disaster, but of greed and oppression. He said,
Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.
I can’t really judge Paul for his actions, I’m sure he was trying to help, but he too is quickly swept up in the tide, imprisoned for disturbing the peace and tranquility of the community, beaten and put in stocks. Be careful out there do-gooders. Changing the world and making a difference is not always a feel good experience, it often breaks your heart and sometimes gets you in trouble.
Paul and Silas were arrested and beaten with rods, perhaps another typical case of Philippian police brutality? Since Paul and Silas were foreigners, is this also a case of racial profiling? Greeks called everyone other than themselves “barbarians.” They are held without trial, perhaps to be deported, or just to sit in the darkness without official charges, access to legal counsel, never read their Miranda rights. What kind of barbaric legal system tolerates this kind of injustice?
But the story does not end here. There is yet another disruptive force in the story. Somewhere deep under the prison walls, the tectonic plates under the Macedonian prison shift. Somewhere deep in the heart of God there is a shift to another plan. God is never mentioned as the source, but in most times before our own, earthquakes, lightening, any great natural phenomenon was considered to be a tool of God. Acts tells us that the foundations of the prison were shaken, the door immediately burst open and everyone’s chains fell off.
Freeing the captive is a great motif throughout scripture, from Moses parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, to Jesus announcing the Jubilee in Luke with a promise of freedom for the captive, all the way to our times and The Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. ~Nelson Mandela
This was a “faith-quake”, and it calls us to a great truth, that in the midst of trial and trembling, God has not forgotten us and is not removed from our suffering. It calls us to remember the words of Psalm 46, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;” “Faith-quakes” call us to anticipate and hope for the power of God’s love to shake the foundations of our human created prisons and oppressions, and break the chains that bind us. God’s quake bends the iron bars we have so cruelly installed to lock out possibilities and potentials. Where fear has shut and locked the door to close out our hopes and dreams, God bursts the lock and says “Be not afraid.”
To add to the ironic conclusion here, the captives do not flee into the night. The jailer had slept through all the quaking, comes to see the doors open and is ready to kill himself for his failure, when Paul stops him and says, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer immediately says, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas suddenly have quite a group of converts, a jailer, his family, probably a few other prisoners, who were in for God knows what. I wonder what Lydia the purple cloth merchant thought as Paul brought her new brothers and sisters in Christ to her house church? Paul now has more of what he truly wants, not just freedom for himself from jail, but to free anyone and everyone from their captivity through encountering the life giving power of God, and bringing them together as a new community called church.
Its very humbling to me as a pastor to hear this story. What am I to learn and imitate here? I haven’t caste out any demons lately. Maybe my church growth strategy should be to get arrested for civil disobedience. The one thing we all can do is to never lose heart and keep on singing. I always wonder what hymns Paul and Silas were singing in prison. Was it the Magnificat? Or did they know a tune to Psalm 23? Was there an early version of “We Shall Overcome?” Singing in prison is a grand tradition in the faith. I unearthed this interview of William Sloan Coffin speaking with Bill Moyers in 2004, about being in jail and signing, and I will share it with as our conclusion.
MOYERS: It's been 30-plus years since you were arrested and jailed for trespassing in the US Capitol, when you were protesting the Vietnam War.
Your fellow demonstrators remember that during the night, when they were uneasy, even depressed, they suddenly heard someone singing. And it was you. Do you remember that?
COFFIN: Yeah. It was a group of clergy and laity concerned with Vietnam. And so, they were all pretty religious folk. So, I started to sing "The Messiah," as I remember. And quite a few people joined in. It was a good night.
MOYERS: What is it that enables a man to sing in prison?
COFFIN: Well. In my case music, after God, has been my chief source of solace. Song is an expression of hope. And hope is something that is experienced with a kind of psychological certitude, rather than intellectual certainty.
It's trusting that things all will be well when the day is done. Or, as Havel said wonderfully, "Hope is not waiting for something good to turn up well. But being grateful that something really makes sense." That's enough to make you burst into song.
Is it enough for you to burst into song?