Robert Williamson, Jr.

The Politics of Exorcism—Acts 16:16-34 (Robert Williamson)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The masters of the demon possessed slave girl in Philippi provide a powerful example of the politics of fear in action. Paul’s reticence to heal the girl and face the likely repercussions in this instance contrasts with the courage of the recently deceased Daniel Berrigan.

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 week’s lectionary from the book of Acts focuses on two interrelated stories, each fraught with economic and political tension. While the story of Paul and Silas in jail is a well-known story, I want to focus on the lesser-known story of the enslaved woman possessed by a spirit. Paul and Silas are in Philippi, where they have just baptized Lydia and her family (16:11-15). There they encounter a woman possessed by a spirit of divination who cries out after them, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (16:17).

Some commentators have recognized in this episode an echo of a similar story told of Jesus in Mark 1:21-27. In that story, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit who cries out after him, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24). When Jesus rebukes the spirit it departs, leaving those in attendance astonished at his authority. Robert W. Wall argues that Paul’s encounter with the enslaved woman serves a similar purpose: “His spiritual authority as a prophet-like-Jesus is thereby confirmed by this exorcism: Paul’s Holy Spirit is greater than the unholy spirit who speaks through the girl.”[1]

Yet such an interpretation ignores the economic dimensions of the text, which suggest that while Paul may have mastered the ability to exorcise demons, he has not yet attained the spiritual authority of Jesus. When Jesus meets the possessed man in Mark, he immediately heals him, casting out the demon to set the man free. But in our text, Paul waits a number of days before he casts the demon out of the woman, and then he does so only because he is “very much annoyed” (16:18). He exorcises the spirit not so much to free the woman as to get her to shut up.

We are not told why Paul did not heal the woman when he first encountered her, though the text’s notice that the woman “brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling” (16:16) suggests that his hesitations are at least partially economic. Since the spirit that possesses the woman is a valuable source of income for her enslavers, Paul knows that to cast out the spirit is to tangle with the economic interests of powerful men. He seems content to go on about his business, allowing the woman to remain possessed by the spirit in order to protect the business of her enslavers.

Yet the remainder of the story reveals that the dynamics may be yet more complex. When Paul finally does cast out the demon, the woman’s enslavers drag Paul and Silas before the city authorities, where they rile the crowds up against them. Notably the men do not seem to have any actual charges to bring against Paul and Silas, who have performed a miraculous act of healing. Rather, they attack them for being foreigners, playing on local prejudices against a cultural minority: “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” (16:21). The content of the supposed crime does not seem to matter to the crowds, but only the fear that outsiders threaten to change the local customs. The magistrates fall in line quickly behind the crowds, beating Paul and Silas and throwing them into prison for a crime they did not commit.

This text reveals something important about the collusion of economics and political tactics in maintaining the enslavement of the poor. Powerful people know how to use a politics of fear to threaten those who would disrupt the status quo, riling up the crowds to resist those who challenge their economic interests. As Christians, it is all too easy to look the other way, as Paul did when he first encountered the enslaved woman and her enslavers. Yet if the encounter with the enslaved woman was really Paul’s chance to demonstrate his spiritual authority, he did not pass the test, withholding for too long his power over the evil spirits for fear of reprisal from the rich and powerful. If we are to demonstrate our own spiritual authority, we must do better, siding with the oppressed even when our reputations or our very lives are at stake.

This past week we mourned the passing of Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest who lived his life in defiance of the powers of death in the world, committing himself to a life of Christian nonviolence, even at great expense to his own personal freedom. Berrigan knew that spiritual authority lay not in the ability to calculate risk, but in the willingness to struggle for the oppressed even if it meant losing one’s own life. “If you are going to follow Jesus,” he famously said, “You better look good on wood.”


[1] Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume 10 (Nashville, Abingdon, 2002), 232.


Robert Williamson Jr. is Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. (USA) and the pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, which provides a place of welcome especially for those living on the streets.

Photo: Thomas Good via Wikimedia Commons

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