The young woman in the story we heard is a slave. Her life is a possession of a wealthy Roman family. Her body is owned by business partners. They have economic rights to her. They exercise dominion over her. They control her. She is nameless because she doesn’t need one. She is an object, a thing, an impersonal and anonymous commodity, bought and sold, traded for currency, for money. And all of this is the operation of the demonic—a spirit had taken possession of her, taken hold of her.
I don’t think we talk about demons enough. My guess is that we’re embarrassed by the subject—we’re modern people embarrassed by these stories, because they seem so out of date, words and concepts left over from a world that we’ve outgrown, as human beings, in our evolution, in our progress. We know better now, so what’s the point of talking about spirits, about demons.
Here’s what I find helpful about the language of the demonic, about a spiritual world of evil that reaches through our world. It’s tempting to think that all of our problems are inter-personal, that all of issues with our society are the result of one person not respecting another person—all of our social ills, our injustices, the way we wrong one another, have to do with someone misunderstanding another person, with personal relationships.
The temptation is to think that everything is pretty good, as it is—that the world is doing ok, the way it is, but there are always a few bad apples, people who ruin it for everyone else. Like the police officer who planted a gun on his victim, to make it look like he was just trying to defend himself. The investment broker who designed mortgage-backed securities, defrauding the public. The Starbucks manager in Philadelphia who called the cops on a guy who asked to use the bathroom. The megachurch pastor in Chicago who used the power of Christian patriarchy to hurt women in his care. Or like the racist and dishonest man in the oval office.
We want to believe that once we get rid of the bad ones, once we get rid of the corruption, then we our well-ordered, well-planned, wonderfully conceived society will return to normal, restored to health, back to normal.
We want to believe that the economy is good. That the structures of public safety are for our own good. That the institutions that organize our lives are good. Life will be good, once we get rid of the people who abuse the power that they’ve been given, the authority that they’ve been entrusted with.
What the language of demonic provides us is a sense for the coordinated efforts, all around us, passing through us, administering a world that dehumanizes people, that enslaves us, that turns us against each other, that convinces people to dominate others, to use systems of commerce to own a little corner of the world, to control others.
The language of the demonic helps us talk about all of this, this conspiracy of oppression, of sin, dehumanizing us and we dehumanize others, like the enslaved young woman in the story from Acts. For her, the spiritual has everything to do with economics—the demonic is bound up with money, with commerce, with business partners who own her and her services—“a slave who had a spirit of divinization,” it says in verse 16, “and brought her owners a great deal of money” (Acts 16:16).[i]
Paul finds the whole set up frustrating, infuriating, so he intervenes. He turns to the enslaved woman, but he focuses on the demon, the spirit who has captured her, who controls her life, who possesses her body. Paul commands it, saying, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (16:18).
And then the trouble begins. By setting her free, Paul picks a fight with the people with money in the city—and, as is usually the case, the people with money control the police, the magistrates, and the prisons. Paul picks a fight with the whole city, the whole structure, the order of things, because society is organized around the people who control the economy.
It’s a powerful scene, here in Acts 16, loaded with details about how the gospel challenges the order of things, how Paul’s word of freedom from slavery reveals the relationship between spiritual salvation and political liberation, how the two can’t be separated, how those categories fold into one another, the spiritual becoming political, the gospel as economic.
Here’s what it says (16:19-21):
“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.” Notice that the authorities are in the marketplace; the justice system is set up for the people with money.
“When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city.’” To set the woman free from her slavery threatens the whole city, the gospel disturbs the people who control the population.
“These men are disturbing our city.” Our city, the business men say—their city, not the city of the enslaved woman. Her life, her wellbeing doesn’t register for the center of power, for the market, for the magistrates.
“These men are disturbing our city,” the men say. “They are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” It’s important to notice that the division between Christians and Jews, in terms of religions, didn’t exist then as it does now—and apparently their Jewish/Christian religious practices are illegal, their gospel is unlawful.
This story isn’t about the need for religious freedom, for people to be able to gather for worship without fear of persecution—as if now, here in the United States, we should be celebrating, that we should claim the freedom of religion as a win, that we should read this story from Acts and be glad that our world now isn’t like that world back then.
Instead, I think the challenge of this passage, this story, is to wonder how our faith should put us in conflict with the injustice of this world, for our faith in God to empower us to confront the underlying oppression that sustains this world, to disrupt the cruelty that undergirds our economy, the unfairness of law enforcement officials.
Paul speaks the gospel, the power of Jesus Christ to set people free, and the business men take them to the city judges who have him punished—beaten and imprisoned. The gospel challenges the demonic control over people lives, as put into action through the economy, through the marketplace. The gospel is the liberation of this enslaved woman—her physical salvation, her spiritual redemption, her freedom in Christ, her rescue from the bondage to a demonic economy, administered by greedy men.
To challenge all of this means that Paul and Silas are thrown in prison—prison as tied to the same demonic forces that enslaved the young woman, one following the other.[ii] And, just as Paul sets the woman free by the power of Jesus, God frees Paul by dismantling the prison—the gospel means the end of all of it, the end of demons that enslave the woman in the story, enslaved to an unjust economy, and the end of the prison.
There’s a scandal here, in verse 26. It’s not as if God only frees Paul and Silas from prison—only the Christians, the good people, the innocent. That would be nice, that would be a pleasant gospel, respectable—something everyone can get behind, politicians and pastors and good Christian people, republicans and democrats, bipartisan support: everyone wants to let innocent people go free, people perhaps unjustly punished, because of a bad judge, or a racist jury.
But that’s not what happens here. God doesn’t set free only the innocent; God sets all the captives free. Listen to what it says in verse 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” (16:26).
The gospel is not for people who are committed to the way things are. The gospel is not for people who like to enslave others, through our economy, through our justice system, through the sexism that controls women’s lives.
Instead, the gospel is for people who are tired of this world, people who are ready for a new one—people like the enslaved woman in the story, people like those prisoners, and people like you and me, ready for a word of truth: truth about our world, truth about our lives, the truth that God is for us, that God loves us and that God won’t stop setting us free until all of us are free.
[i] “The demonic and economic are bound together here, and Paul touches their connection.” Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Westminster John Knox, 2017), 160.
[ii] “The disciples of Jesus cannot escape our necessary confrontation with prisons. Arrest, incarnation, and imprisonment have never been and never are neutral processes, functioning according to basic rules of justice and human utility. Incarnation is a process at the disposal of the rich and powerful, and here we see it unleashed against the servants of Jesus… These owners unleash an imperial power that is always at their disposal, one drenched in the seductions of money and influence.” Jennings, Acts, 161 and 162.