God's Open House

Sunday, June 2, 2019

“The Economic Demonic”

The quote given for thought and contemplation comes from a law passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1667.[1] The issue was that in spite of enslavers’ best efforts, some of the enslaved had adopted Christianity, and it had brought forth a question. Did being baptized into Christ make you free? White enslavers were afraid that baptizing the enslaved would grant freedom. They refused to allow Christianity to be taught. The law passed in 1667 attempted to make it clear that Christianity would not interfere with their right to make a profit.

Already by 1667, slavery was simply too profitable to risk the chance that Christianity might interfere. As slavery grew more profitable, white Christianity in the U.S. changed to accommodate it. Concepts of racial superiority that had not existed before American cotton plantations were invented to justify it, and new ways of reading and interpreting the Bible served to buttress and support the institution, lifting obscure passages over the main thrust of the Gospel message.

White Christianity spent the next 300 years telling us that religion only affected our spiritual life and not the rest of it. Religion became something practiced in our hearts and nowhere else. Baptism had no outward effect. This doctrine is not God’s spirit, but the spirit of protecting profits. In books like Exodus and Isaiah, the Gospels and Galatians, the Bible is deeply concerned with slaves, slavery, and freedom. And the book of Acts depicts a baptism that has a profound, transformative effect on everyone around.

But the Bible presents a contrast between the gospel and the powers and principalities that are arrayed against it, and those forces are often driven by economic self-interest. As Richard Beck puts it, in the book of Acts, “whenever there is an exorcism, a riot breaks out. And the riots are always about someone losing money”[2] Acts presents a conflict between those filled with God’s Pentecost spirit and those who are governed by their own self-interest. In other words, there is a connection between the demonic and the economic over against the work of God’s spirit. And allegiance to one precludes allegiance to the other.

Our story for today is about four slaves, the economic forces that bind them, and the liberating God who frees them. And how who you serve determines what you can hope for.

This is a story of four slaves.

The first slave is a girl who is possessed by demons. One demon is the one who fills her with a spirit of divination. The other demon is her owners, who make a great deal of money through her torment, by using her to tell fortunes and keeping her earnings. When she encounters Paul and Silas, she is compelled to declare that they too are slaves. Their slavery, however, does not lead to torment but instead to eternal life. “These two men are slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Over and over she calls out this statement, until Paul, in a fit of annoyance, casts out her first demon in the name of Jesus Christ.

Paul and Silas are slaves of the Most High God, but that does not make them perfect. Sometimes Christians (even Paul and Silas) act with rashness and disregard for others. What is amazing is that God can take decisions made out of annoyance or faithlessness and still turn them to good.

At this point the enslaved girl drops from the narrative. After weeks of lifting up the stories of women leaders in the Bible, it’s a little jarring to see the story disregard her so quickly. But her demons remain. Having seen that their hope of making money from the woman they’ve enslaved is gone, they turn on Paul and Silas, slaves of the Most High God. To her owners, the woman is nothing more than a commodity, a source of revenue. They seize Paul and Silas and drag them to the marketplace. The location of the trial reflects a profound truth. Money is at the heart of this story.

They bring charges against Paul and Silas before the magistrates of the marketplace. But noticeably, they make no mention of the loss of their business. No, now they have completely different complaints. Paul and Silas’s accusers wrap themselves in the flag, using arguments of God, country, and tradition. “These men aren’t from around here,” they say, “they advocate for customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” After being with Paul in the marketplace day after day, suddenly their love of Roman law and customs has caused them to arrest Paul and Silas. Not the loss of a rich man’s revenue stream. So it is that money coopts the arguments of God and country for its own purposes. They seek to sway the people with these arguments. And the people are willing to be swayed.

Judged guilty by the crowds and the Roman magistrates, Paul and Silas are beaten with rods, stripped, and thrown into jail with their feet bound in the stocks. But God’s verdict comes around midnight. An earthquake rattles the jail, which opens the gates and the chains of all the prisoners, but seems to leave them miraculously unharmed.

When the jailer finally comes to, he has a sight to see. He is a slave to the same economic forces that Paul and Silas’s accusers are, only he is not so high up in the chain of command. He cannot blame Paul and Silas for God’s intervention to grant freedom. His job is to keep the prisoners securely. When he is unable to do so, through no fault of his own (unless he can stop an earthquake), he knows he is in trouble. He lives under constant stress, his job is always under threat, and he has no hope for what happens if he fails. How many people know what he’s going through right now? How many people are working in Amazon warehouses, running ranches, picking blueberries, or cleaning hotel rooms, hoping their body stops needing to eat before it stops being able to work. How many sweatshops in Bangladesh have the fire exits locked to keep the workers from leaving, and will we know or care before another one goes up in flames?

The jailer knows his prison too well. And he knows that if he does not serve his jailers effectively, he will share the fate of his prisoners. Assuming that Paul and Silas have gone, he gets out his sword to kill himself. And he hears, from within the jail, Paul’s voice. “Don’t hurt yourself. We’re still here.” And he falls on his knees. “What must I do to be saved?”

What provokes this cry to the men he had shackled? A few minutes ago, he held the keys to their salvation. Or so he thought. Now they seem to hold the keys to his. They have been beaten with rods, stripped, chained, and thrown in jail. And yet he wants what they have. “What must I do to become unafraid like you?” What must I do to be thrown in jail but continue singing, praising, proclaiming the victory of good over bad? What must I do to become saved?

And Paul tells him the truth. You have to serve a different master. You cannot serve God and Mammon. You cannot serve God and economic self-interest. You cannot serve God and Rome.

The antidote to the economic demonic millstone hanging around his neck, hanging around all of our necks, is Christ. It is the choice to live and die in solidarity with your neighbor, rather than throwing them under the bus for a paycheck. It is the choice to humble yourself, sacrificing daily your own pride, comfort, and well-being to lift up the poor and lowly, to set the prisoner free.

At the end of the story, he washes their wounds, and they wash his. He heals them of the damage of the beating, the chains, the stocks, the crushing weight of the economic demonic that punished them for saving someone, because keeping that person chained was making someone else rich. They heal him of damage that comes from the same force, that binds him so strongly to the economic demonic that he would kill himself over job issues out of his control.

You cannot baptize someone and expect them to be bound by the same chains.


[1] Fuller text: “An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage. WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.” Source: https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/religion/docs1.html

[2] Beck, Richard. Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016. p. 161.