Proclaiming an Anti-Imperial “Way of salvation”

LydiaBy Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on the lectionary for May 8, 2016

We offer this reflection in memory and honor of Daniel Berrigan, SJ, who proclaimed and embodied Jesus’s “way of salvation” over the long haul.

This week’s reading from Acts cries out, “In your face, Roman Empire!” Sometimes, Luke keeps his anti-imperial message shrouded in “hidden transcripts,” as when he tells tax collectors basically to quit (by taking the profit out of their hated work, Luke 3.12-13). But in today’s passage, it is all out in the open, thanks to the ironic witness of a slave girl possessed by a spirit not “holy.”

The scene takes place in Philippi, which was a Roman kolonia. This status meant that Romans could feel at home in this Greek town, something like Americans in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when visiting Hawaii. It was populated by, among others, retired Roman soldiers, who would be given a piece of land as a pension. Being a kolonia meant that the Philippians could count on the empire to “save” them in case of attack or urban unrest. But for strangers in town like Paul, cities in the ancient world were often inhospitable.

Luke sets up the story with a further irony. While in Troas (a Greek city on the Aegean coast of the province of Asia, now western Turkey), Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man crying for help. But when he arrives in Philippi, it is a women’s prayer circle that meets him and his companions. (16.8-14).

The leader is a woman named “Lydia,” which is something like meeting a man in Hawaii named “Tex.” “Lydia” was the name of the district in Asia that included the town of Thyatira where this Lydia is from. Lydia’s ancient king Croesus was famous for consulting the oracle of Delphi in anticipation of war with Persia. As we’ll see, the oracle at Delphi is key to our passage. Her name probably indicates that she was a former slave, now become a “purple dealer” (Gk, porphuropōlis). She and her colleagues are found by the river, outside the city gates, probably gathering local mussels from which cheap purple dye could be made. Luke tells us that “the Lord opened her heart” to listen to Paul’s message, after which she and her entire household are immediately baptized.

For alert readers, Luke provides a clue to the commotion which will soon ensue. She urges Paul and his companions to abide with her, and Luke adds that she “prevailed” (Gk, parebiasanto) upon them. The word parebiasanto links us with the end of Luke’s Gospel, where the Emmaus Road travelers similarly “prevailed” on the Risen Jesus to stay with them. Behind both of Luke’s uses of the word, though, is its portentous use in the Septuagint for Lot’s “prevailing” on the angelic visitors to Sodom (Gen 19.3, 9). In other words, “It’s dangerous out there on the city streets. You’d be safer staying here.” Lydia thus boldly offers the strangers in town hospitality in the face of the potential danger from the townspeople.

Indeed, as Paul and friends venture back to the women’s prayer circle, they are beset by another woman: a slavegirl said to be possessed by a “pythonic spirit,” i.e., a spirit from Delphi associated with Pythian Apollo. Her “gift” is exploited by her owners for profit. Thus, we have two women, each with different spirits, each in business, each in relationship to Paul and his friends.

By whatever spirit, though, the slave girl follows the men around day after day, crying out the truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” (16.17). When Paul, annoyed by the constant harassment, exorcises the pythonic spirit, all hell breaks loose. The owners, now bereft of their source of profit, seek revenge by appealing to the “religion of empire” that binds the Philippians together. They drag Paul and friends before the magistrates, charging: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” “Disturbing the city ” was a serious charge, marking them as threats to the Pax Romana. The slavegirl’s owners appeal to widespread imperial prejudice against Jews by “othering” Paul and friends in this outpost of Roman identity. Finally, they get to the heart of the matter: the strangers in town are challenging the core of imperial propaganda, that “salvation” comes from the gods via the power of the empire to maintain law and order.

Their charges succeed: the crowd attacks Paul and company and the magistrates strip them naked, beat them with rods and bind them in foot stocks in the dark, dank space that served as a Roman jail cell. And how do Paul and Silas (we’re not told about any others) respond to this brutal treatment? By prayer and song! What a wonderful model for those of us who have experienced imprisonment for our anti-imperial witness to the Good News.

In the midst of the dark night, there is a sudden earthquake that is so violent that “the foundations of the prison were shaken,” a thinly veiled metaphor for the undoing of the foundation of the empire itself. The poor jailer, anticipating execution for his failure to secure the prisoners, is about to commit suicide, but love of enemies leads Paul to “save” the jailer by refusing to leave the cell. It is the jailer who brings “lights” to the darkness and asks the key question that puts the lie to the entire Roman façade of peace and justice: “What must I do to be saved?” (16.30) So much for Roman “salvation” for this jailer and his entire household!

Thus, the church (Gk, ekklēsia, literally, “the called out”) in Philippi is formed, on the foundation of a former slave woman’s prayer circle and a now former Roman jailer’s family. How one might like to listen in on the conversation between these newly baptized members of the Way. Luke here uses one of his favorite devices, the pairing of a woman and a man, to highlight the inclusivity and gender equality of this alternative “way of salvation.” Similarly, Luke shows what the “way” of each opposing spirit is: the puthonic spirit produces profit for the few at the cost of domination of others, while the Holy Spirit provides salvation as a free gift that “levels” the playing field (cf. Luke 6.17).

Now, as then, the Good News of Jesus offers a “way of salvation” that is “unlawful” for imperial citizens to practice. For us, it would mean, of course, such actions as refusing to participate in or pay for imperial wars, including “illegal” immigrants in our circles, and countless other actions that are part of the USAmerican “way of salvation.” As we move toward Pentecost and the remembrance of the outpouring of the empowering Holy Spirit, may we support one another with prayer and song in “coming out” of the false salvation of the religion of empire and into the truly Good News of the religion of creation proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, Paul and so many courageous witnesses before us.

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