The Politics of Agency—Acts 16:16-34 (Amy Allen)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

In the account of the slave with the spirit of divination, Paul, Silas, the Philippian jailer, and his family we encounter dynamics of agency and constraint, of freedom and slavery. There are a number of surprising instances of human action within this narrative which nonetheless speaks powerfully of the power and activity of God.

16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl 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 a 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 are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as 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 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 on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord 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.


This pericope tells the story of Paul and Silas and their miraculous escape from prison. Their escape, however, does not occur immediately following the earthquake that throws open the prison doors and unfastens the prisoners’ chains, as one might expect. Here, Paul and Silas—having been made prisoners—have the opportunity to regain control over their destinies and flee the prison in the night. Certainly, Paul has been a party to escapes in the dead of night before. One might even expect that this is what God had in mind—causing the earthquake so that they could escape. However, Paul and Silas choose to remain in the jail. Indeed, this is the first choice they have made since casting the spirit out of the slave girl at the start of the story. And this exercise of self-determination leads to a chain of events that frees not only Paul and Silas, but also their jailer himself.

Amidst the miraculous earthquake, the escape of our heroes, the baptism and conversion of the jailer, and indeed, even the persistent prophecies of the slave girl, we see politics of freedom and autonomy. It is a story about the ability to exercise control over one’s self, free from external influence … although, perhaps, not in the way that we independence oriented Westerners would expect. Instead, this pericope presents a delicate balance of independence and dependence; of slavery and freedom; autonomy and divine control.

To begin with, the scene opens with a “slave girl” following Paul and Silas. The theme of interdependence (the exercise of limited agency within a dependent relationship) is intermeshed in her very being. This girl is a slave. The Greek word used to describe her, paidiskein, literally means “little girl.” However, it can also be used of grown slave women in a fashion similar to the demeaning practice of calling grown men “boy” during the American slave trade. Consequently, we cannot know for certain whether she is a young girl or a grown woman. But, in either case, we know that the money she earns goes to her owners (v.16).

Yet, at the same time we know that she has the freedom to exercise her trade (prophecy). She has the freedom to choose to follow Paul and Silas: “She kept doing this for many days” (v.18). Note that the text does not indicate that the spirit compelled her, and Paul and Silas certainly were not paying her. Thus, the girl chooses to follow them (a task that would have required the effort of seeking them out day after day) on her own accord. She is bound; yet, she is free. And, although, ultimately, her activities annoy Paul enough to cast the spirit out of her, it is significant that what this girl chooses to do with her limited agency is to cede to the spirit who has identified Paul and Silas as “slaves of the Most High God” (v.17).

Such an identification, of course, not only proclaims the power of God (albeit through a spirit), but also implies an affinity between the slave girl and Paul and Silas—all “slaves” in one sense or another, able to go where they please, yet bound to an external power. This is how Paul describes himself—“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus” at the beginning of his letter to the Romans (Rom 1:1). Paul and Silas (and, I would like to imagine, this girl, after she is freed from her spirit) all choose to be slaves to the Gospel. In their own ways, they each exercise their agency, ceding not to a prophetic spirit, but to the Spirit of the prophecies—Christ Jesus, Son of the Most High God. And so Paul and Silas choose to stay in the jail and risk their own well-being in service to the mission of the Most High God—proclaiming the power of Christ, so that the jailer and everyone else might know by whose power (not their own) they were freed.

Which brings us to the jailer. Clearly, this a man of a certain amount of power. He seems to be in command of the prison staff that evening—ordering that the lights be turned on when he hears Paul’s voice. And yet, he too, is very much a slave. Upon first assuming that the prisoners escaped, he prepares to commit suicide, presumably afraid of the fate that would befall him from those in charge of him when they discover his mistake. Thus, “slave” or not, those in power over this man—himself the head of a household (vv.31, 34) and in command of others (vv.29, 34)—continued to hold considerable control. Richard Pervo suggests that the punishment for presiding over prisoners’ escape would likely have been suicide.[1] And yet, upon hearing Paul’s testimony of the Gospel, this jailer sets aside fear of repercussions and removes the prisoners from their cell anyway. He chooses to disobey his superiors and to set the prisoners free, only to choose to put himself at their service—tending their wounds and offering food—and to submit himself and his family to the power and service of God through baptism (vv. 33-34).

Finally, we end here—with the jailer’s family. While it is common in Acts for entire households to be baptized at the conversion of their head (the Roman pater familias), this household is unique in their exercise of agency. After the jailer “and his entire family were baptized without delay,” the text tells us, “his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God” (vv.33-34). Although the politics of household in that time and place suggest that the family members would have had no choice as to whether or not they were baptized following the jailer’s conversion, they continue to retain control over their feelings. And yet, submitting to the service of their pater familias and ultimately, his new master—God—Acts tells us that the individual members of this family choose to rejoice over this newfound faith.

Thus, Acts 16:16-34 is a story of slavery and freedom. It is a story of human agency, in which people act (even slaves!), but God remains in control (even over those who hold the most power in the human politics: the girl’s owner, the jailer, and his superiors—the court). This raises questions for Christians as we think of our relationship to authority, of our exercise of freedom, and perhaps, most unsettling, of our ultimate servitude … to whom?


[1] Richard Pervo, Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 409.

(Creative Commons image by Penelope Jonze on Flickr)

One thought on “The Politics of Agency—Acts 16:16-34 (Amy Allen)

  1. [This raises questions for Christians as we think of our relationship to authority, of our exercise of freedom, and perhaps, most unsettling, of our ultimate servitude … to whom?]

    Here is an attempt to answer this question,

    Action item number one

    “A preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in everything we do as a Church.
    Here is a good place to start: our Catholic schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the Church should be ready to use its resources for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the middle-class and rich fend for themselves.
    Practically speaking, the Catholic schools must give up general education in those countries where the State is providing it. The resources of the Church could then be focused on Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. These resources could then be used to help society become more human in solidarity with the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic schools for centuries. It can get along without them today. The essential factor from the Christian point of view is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. BUT THE POOR COME FIRST.

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