There is a website called slaveryfootprint.org where you can answer a series of questions and find out how many slaves work for you. Turns out, there are 37 slaves working for me. Wait, what? 37 slaves? How is that possible, in the 21st century, in the United States of America? Well, as I learned, reading this website, there are at least 27 million people, many of them children, living in slavery throughout the world, including here in the United States. They are forced into servitude through kidnapping, through poverty, and through lies. They make the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furnishings for our homes.nSo there are, according to this website, 37 people in the world who are forced into labor, unable to walk away, so that I can have more clothes, more gadgets, strawberries in the winter, and my all-around comfortable lifestyle. 37 people whose poverty, age, gender, ethnicity, or some other circumstance, has enslaved them, somewhere in the world. 37 people, 37 children of God, whose names I will never know.
And that’s exactly the point of slavery. People whose names are never known. If we knew their names, it would be harder to exploit them. It would be harder to pretend that they don’t exist, if they had names and faces. When someone is a nameless, faceless slave in a factory on the other side of the world, it is hard to give them much thought, it is hard to maintain the level of outrage that is necessary to make a change.
Of all the characters in chapter 16 of Acts, it is the slave-girl who draws my attention this week. When we last saw Paul, he was being baptized, after a miraculous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Since then, the message of the gospel has spread to the gentiles, starting with the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. For the next several chapters, the church leaders at Jerusalem struggle with this new turn the Holy Spirit has taken. What does it mean for such different people to be a part of the church? Jews have always been set apart from their surrounding cultures – they keep the Sabbath, they eat Kosher foods, they worship only one God, and they are circumcised. But what will they do with these new, non-Jewish Christians? People who are not circumcised, and who do not keep Kosher? Finally, in chapter 15, the Jerusalem church comes to some sort of resolution: they will welcome the Gentiles, and ask them to set themselves apart with a few small rules, but not the whole of Levitical law.
After this decision has been reached, Paul sets out on a journey with Silas, visiting a few of the cities in Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches, as our author tells us. This is where we find Paul at the beginning of chapter 16. But so far, Paul’s journeys have only taken him into Asia Minor. Now it appears that the Holy Spirit is drawing Paul to Europe. He has a vision one night: “a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘come over to Macedonia and help us.’” So the next day, Paul and Silas head across the Aegean Sea, and find themselves in Philippi, the leading Roman city of the region. There, on the sabbath, they encounter Lydia, a rich woman, a seller of purple cloth, who is baptized and becomes the first European Christian. Paul and Silas become her guests while they are at Philippi, and continue to preach around the city. And this is where they meet the slave-girl.
Our author has made the contrast very plain for us, and it is troubling. Lydia is a rich woman, a worshiper of God, and she has standing, citizenship, wealth, and a name. She deals in a commodity, trades purple cloth. She is Lydia. This slave girl has none of that. She has a spirit of divination, people who own her, and no name. She is a commodity, brings her owners a great deal of money with her fortune-telling. Her only name is slave-girl.
For many days, she follows Paul and Silas through the city, and cries out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” When Paul finally heals her, we who read the story would like to read that he did it out of his great compassion for her, out of his desire to see her freed from her servitude, or from an evil spirit. But instead, it is Paul’s irritability that gets the best of him, and he casts out the spirit with an almost petulant attitude. Honestly, for the slave-girl, it probably would have been best to leave her alone. The spirit was not hurting her, and in that culture and time, it would have probably been deemed something of an honor to have an oracle spirit. But taking the spirit away would not set her up for a better life – if anything it would be worse. Without this spirit, her owners have lost a significant source of income. They will be forced to make it up by selling her, or forcing her into hard labor. Or worse. We will never know, because she drops out of the story completely at this point. So insignificant is this nameless slave girl that we don’t even know the rest of her story. We can only speculate, but we can be fairly certain that Paul’s little hissy fit has cost this girl dearly. So what was it that annoyed him so badly?
I think she is a reminder for him. And for us. A reminder of what we don’t want to remember. She is the real face of a society that relies on slaves. And Paul is saint Paul, yes, but he’s also sinner Paul, and is no better, at the end of the day, than the rest of us. He does not want the reminders, not when they follow him around and speak hard truths about him in the public square where everyone can hear. But he’s listening, because even though the slave-girl disappears from this story, we hear echoes of her later, in Paul’s letters, when he calls himself a slave of Jesus Christ, a slave of the gospel, and slave of God. I think the truth that she spoke at Philippi worked its way into Paul’s mind, and informed his ministry and his theology as his travels continued. We will see this in a couple weeks when we read his letter back to the Philippians. The imagery of humility and slavery runs throughout that letter, and recalls for us this incident, when Paul was confronted with the realities of slavery, the nameless faceless stories that are lived by the slaves on the edges of society so that we at the center of society can be comfortable.
This week, the news was everywhere of the nearly 300 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by militants on April 14. As you may know by now, it took weeks for this to hit the western media. And it is still not widely known that these same militants are responsible for many other atrocities that have not been reported. Other kidnappings, massacres, and widespread violence and mayhem. Why does it take so long for us to hear about them? For the same reason that we do not hear about the slaves who make our clothes. Because they are nameless, faceless, others. They live a world away, in poverty that we cannot imagine, amidst violence that we cannot fathom. Their stories are so completely foreign to us that we simply cannot wrap our heads around them, and so it is hard to care. Not because we’re callous, not because we’re bad people, but simply because we are human. And the realities of this situation are just that hard for us to grasp. Until someone released a list of their names. What a brilliant move it was, to give us their names. Because when we began reading the list of names, we began making connections. One was named Rebecca, my middle name. One was Suzanna, the name of a friend’s sister. Which makes us wonder, does she have a sister? Oh, look, the next name on the list, Juliana, shares Suzanna’s last name. They may be sister, or cousins. And now a story begins to emerge, imagined though it may be – they are sisters and they are together and supporting one another through this. And it is hard not to care, it is hard to turn our backs on this horror now. They are no longer nameless faceless others. They are real people. They are God’s children. And if we read the list very closely, we might begin to notice something else – names like Grace and Confort and Mary; Ruth Paul, Esther Joshua, Glory Yaga – these are names that come from the Christian tradition. These are baptismal names. And reading these names, it is hard not to realize the profound truth of the sign that Michelle Obama and Amy Pohler and Ellen Degeneres and many many others have been holding, the sign that says Bring Back Our Girls. Because the truth is, these are Our girls. These girls belong to us as surely as any girl we know. These are children of God, baptized sisters in Christ. They are Our Girls. And the ones who sit with them in the back of the truck, begin hauled across the desert to be sold into the slavery of forced marriage, whether they are baptized or not, they are also Our Girls. They are children of God. They have names and faces and stories and mothers who want them to come home.
Like Paul, we need these reminders. It is easy to get comfortable and complacent. It is easy to forget what is suffered on our behalf.
But there is also another reminder here. The slave-girl names Paul and Silas as slaves of the Most High God, a name that Paul takes for himself later in his ministry. But these slaves are the only people in the entire story who are actually free. The slave-girl is beholden to her masters; the masters are beholden to their money and their jingoistic accusations; the magistrates are beholden to the crowds; and the jailer is beholden to the magistrates, to the point where he will kill himself in fear of punishment. But the slaves of the Most High God are free even when there are chains on their feet. Free to sing hymns and pray; so free that, when the cells are opened and the chains are broken, they do not feel the need to escape. They stay put, for the sake of the jailer. They are free to act on his behalf, not their own, and their freedom is a witness to him, so that he becomes a believer and is baptized without delay.
Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Stories like this out of Nigeria feel hopeless – how can we prevail against such reckless hate? How can we stand with the 27 million slaves in this world, when everything in our society connects us to them in a system of oppression and violence? Maybe hardest of all, how can we pray for the perpetrators of these crimes, love them and pray for them, in the face of their apparent inhumanity? These are difficult questions, made all the more real by a list of names. 276 girls who risked their lives for a basic education that we take for granted. And frankly, I don’t have a pat answer for you. There just isn’t one this week.
But here’s what I can tell you. You have a name. You have been claimed. You are a slave of the Most High God. You are a part of that God’s story. And that story is one that intervenes in slavery, and leads entire nations into freedom. It is a story that disrupts oppression and darkness, and steps into the fiery furnace with us. It is a story that breaks down the barriers of death and leaves the tomb empty. It is a story of love winning over hatred, of life winning over death, and of freedom winning over slavery. And it is your story, a story you are free to proclaim in word and deed, even when there are chains on your feet.