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When we attempt to wrest human capital from exploitive, for-profit hands, there will be hell to pay. Does the church have the courage to bear it?

One day as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a female slave who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.  17 While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you[d] the way of salvation.” 18 She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men, these Jews, are disturbing our city 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us, being Romans, to adopt or observe.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer[e] called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord[f] to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

Acts 16:16-34 (NRSV)

Acts 16:16-34 is often read as a liberation story. Enshrined in anthems such as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and Fannie Lou Hamer’s rendition of “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” the text certainly presents this way: Paul frees a young girl from a spirit which, in turn, provokes a riot, leading to his and his companion’s arrest that then culminates in their dramatic release from prison.

This reading, legitimate and compelling as it is, can cause us to overlook a troubling detail. The person who provokes the central conflict in the story is a victim of involuntary servitude. She is presented as human capital whose divining skills generate significant income for her enslavers (16:16). Although she is ostensibly released from the spirit that is the basis for her captivity, it is unclear how the apostolic ministry engages the aftermath of her liberation once she is of no use to her captors.

We can get distracted in this story, as with others in Acts, when we focus on the spectacular actions of the apostles in such a way that we lose sight of whether their interventions speak to the structural realities of injustice. This is a question of how we view salvation – of how we understand the gospel’s broader social and political efficacy in the world and our obligations within it.

We have the opportunity, then, to illumine, even if slightly, one of the most vulnerable people in Acts. What would it mean to make this young woman – this relatively minor character – central, to spend time pressing into the grain of her story to ask what she unveils about our world and the activity of God in it? There is very little detail about her. And so, we must reflect as much on what is not said as on what is said to answer these questions.

We can begin by considering how she and her captors are identified. It is no small thing that she is only known by her exploited status: a “certain slave-girl” (παιδίσκην τινὰ) whose singular possession is “a spirit of Python” (πνεῦμα πύθωνα). Today, we call those who make money off human exploitation by various names: pimps, enslavers, flesh-peddlers, traffickers, and other titles, depending on the industry. In Acts 16, they are called by the relatively anonymous titles of “masters” or “lords” (κυρίοις). As “masters” of human capital, they appear as the sinister antithesis of the saving work of God that the apostles represent (16:17). And to the “masters,” the apostles represent competition.

While the narrative arc of Acts 16:16-34 lifts up the itinerant joy and chaotic energy of the apostles as they disrupt the settled order and rhythms of the Gentile polis, the apostles are only the outline of this part of the story. The “slave-girl,” with her “spirit of Python,” and her “masters,” who are operating in concert with the city magistrates and the jailer, are the color and the texture.

Indeed, the mantic girl makes herself known to Paul and Silas in an obtrusive and demanding way. Her persistence unlocks chaos – rioting, violence, nudity, and ad hoc legal proceedings that culminate in jail time for the Jewish disturbers (16:20). If not for this encounter, there would be no incarceration of the apostles, no hymns, no shaking of the prison foundations, and no early morning baptism of the Gentile jailer’s household. Without her presence, one of the most politically significant events in the apostolic ministry would disappear.

Notably, her power and boldness does not derive from an “impure spirit” (πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ) or a “demon” as is often the case among the possessed in the gospels. Rather, it comes from a benign spirit of fortune-telling that provides a basis for income and livelihood for her and her “lords.” Whereas other instances of apostolic encounter with demonic power carry with them a theological lesson about the primacy of Jesus Christ (e.g., Acts 19:13-16), the encounter between Paul and the mantic girl is presented as one of basic confrontation. 

Luke tells us that she followed Paul around for “many days,” chanting the sardonic refrain, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” to the point that Paul became “very much annoyed” (16:18). Unlike the meeting with Lydia narrated a few verses earlier, this is not a kind and gentle interaction with hearts and homes opened (16:14-15). It is a combative affair between two parties opposed to one another on multiple levels: Gentile versus Jew, female versus male, young versus old, slave versus free (though this takes an ironic turn), a servant of the God of Israel revealed in Jesus Christ versus a soothsayer serving the cult of Theos Hypsistos.

After days of being taunted, Paul, exasperated, and speaking directly to the Python spirit, exclaims: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (16:18). Once these words are uttered, the mantic girl fades from view. The fallout from this contest is economic and legal. Her “lords” suddenly lose their labor power and thus the human capital into which they have invested. Then, in a fit of rage, they drag Paul and Silas before the magistrates and charge them with social disturbance borne of their foreign Jewish customs. In this instance, we learn that engaging in liberative action has consequences, because liberating the entrapped from bondage disrupts the settled order of things.

Even so, as a consequence of Paul’s aggravated exorcism, the object of his frustration loses an all-important adjective: she is no longer a mantic girl with divination skills, but just a girl. While we no doubt want to celebrate her freedom from her captors, a darker reality emerges. Should we be concerned that her story may not have ultimately been one of final liberation but of further exploitation at the hands of much more sinister forms of coercion? We are confronted with the fact that the Acts of the Apostles is not a joyride of success and carefree itinerancy. It is, at various points, a deeply human story about the failure of the ekklesia to live into the vision of Isaiah 61 (cf. Luke 4:18-24) that Jesus proclaimed.

If it is true that the apostles inherit the ministry of Jesus to bring good news to the oppressed, freedom to the captives, and release to the prisoner, then the natural question is what good news, what liberty, what release has been given to this enslaved, exploited young woman once she loses the one thing she has that sustains her livelihood? We are not told what happens to her, only that the apostles enjoy the inverse of her situation: they become entrapped then liberated. The apostolic story continues. Hers does not – at least not in the narrative flow of Acts.

Despite the fact that “the slave-girl with the Python spirit” is portrayed as a vehicle for the larger story of the apostles, her absent-presence echoes over the centuries and into our own day. Because of this, those who gather around the story of Acts for inspiration are confronted with important questions about the nature and goals of justice work.

Is the problem structural – that Paul frees the girl before there is a robust community capable of welcoming her post-exorcism? Is the problem that he only sees her spiritual bondage, and not also the economic conditions that make her involuntary servitude possible (and inescapable)? Or is the problem that the text attempts to teach us about Paul’s apostolic authority rather than display something important about the church and its role in dismantling the arrangements that support immoral power?

To bring this into conversation with our own day, according to recent estimates gathered by the International Labor Organization (ILO), nearly 25M people are being actively trafficked and enslaved, worth more than $150 billion for those who stand to benefit. We must consider two things when confronting this data. 

First, the Christian church cannot be a people who would reactively liberate even one of these 25M people, only to forget or ignore the oppressive material conditions within which the newly “liberated” are forced to subsist. Justice work must deal with the political and economic structures that make this kind of exploitation possible, not just the discrete instances of suffering these structures produce. Second, it must do this work understanding the risks that come with attempts to wrest human capital from exploitative, for-profit hands. When we organize for the justice Jesus proclaimed, and that the apostlic ministry attempts to live into, there will be jail time, financial loss, social ostracism, charges of hypocrisy, and so on. But this cannot be a deterrent. To be sure, as the latter half of Acts 16:16-34 lifts up, these are among the marks of Christian discipleship.

Ambiguity is at the heart of any political project. Thus, the mantic girl of Acts 16 speaks a true word that is one of both hope and condemnation to those who walk in the way of Jesus: “You are slaves to the Most High God and you proclaim the way of salvation.” We are again reminded that the work of justice is long, slow, and deliberate. It remains an unsettled question whether the Christian church can live into a calling such as this.

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