Updated: May 31, 2022
On June 9, 1963, civil rights matriarch Fannie Lou Hamer and others were travelling back home from a voting-rights training. They’d been to South Carolina to learn how to help others confront and get past the voter suppression efforts that had been set up to keep Black Americans from voting. On their return trip, after riding through the night, at about 10:30am on a Sunday morning, their bus stopped in Winona, Mississippi for a rest stop. Fanny Lou Hamer and others were arrested – for no apparent reason, other than being Black – taken to jail – and badly beaten. After the beatings subsided that night, a haunting silence settled on the jail. But the next day, something happened. June Johnson, who was in jail with Hamer, said that Fanny Lou Hamer started to sing – they all started to sing:
Paul and Silas was bound in jail, let my people go.
Had no money for to go to their bail, let my people go.
Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go.
Jail doors opened and they walked out, let my people go.
At some point, the jailer’s wife came by and gave Hamer a drink of water – it was what I might call “the least she could do.” Fanny Lou Hamer said to the jailer’s wife, no doubt with some irony, “You must be a Christian.” And in their conversation, Fanny Lou Hamer gave the jailer’s wife two scriptures and asked her to go home and read them. The first, Proverbs 26:26: “The hate you do in secret will become known in the whole congregation.” And Acts 17:26 – a Scripture Fanny Lou Hamer quoted often: “From one ancestor – from one blood – God made all the peoples that they should inhabit the whole earth... For in God we live and move and have our being. For we are also God’s offspring.” The jailer’s wife wrote the scriptures down, but we don’t know what happened to her after that; she never returned to speak to Hamer. We can be fairly sure that Fanny Lou Hamer went back to singing.
This morning’s Scripture is the story of an enslaved woman, of Paul and Silas bound in jail, and of their jailer. It is a story of enslavement, silencing, violence, incarceration, and complicity. Last week, we left Paul and Silas by the river with Lydia, in the quiet of their prayer. This week, Paul and Silas have ventured back into the city, into the complexity of the world – into what we have come to call the intersectionality of the world.
Intersectionality is a concept named years ago by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectionality conveys the sense that there are always multiple forces of oppression and work in the world. Each one of us lives, with our own particularity, whether harmed or privilege, at the intersections of those powers – where racism, and misogyny, economic injustice, and every other type of violence converge. To understand how power works – and how people and systems might get free – we have to name how the intersecting powers work together to hold people down – and how they must all be dismantled if any of us are to get free. As we move into this story, let’s look particularly for the intersections of how power-over is at work, in multiple, complex, interrelated ways.
This is the story of Paul & Silas bound in jail, but before it is Paul’s story it is the enslaved woman’s. Paul and Silas settle in to Philippi, and as they go about their work – bringing the Good News of Christ – they encounter an enslaved woman, whose enslavers make money off visions that she has. Thinking intersectionally: This woman has the least amount of systemic power in the story – she is a woman in a patriarchal world; she is enslaved; and she may be struggling with mental illness. Every time she sees Paul and Silas, she shouts out: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are telling you how to be saved.” And Paul gets annoyed. Very annoyed. And finally he snaps. He turns to her and says to the spirit giving her visions: “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” And she falls silent.
Scholars ask a question that occurs to me too: Why does Paul get so annoyed at this woman? She is telling the truth. That’s exactly who they are and precisely what they are doing. And yet Paul gets annoyed. There aren’t many clues in the text. It’s interesting to see the variety of answers that scholars have come up with. Before I give you my theory – I should say something about where I’m coming from – about what I bring to this text. I’m a white American man who is gay. Why does Paul get annoyed at the woman yelling out who he is and what he’s about? Well, it seems pretty clear to me --he gets annoyed because she is outing him. You see, Paul is a Jewish man (who follows the way of Jesus), living in the Roman Empire. And, he is a Roman citizen. Because Paul has the privilege of citizenship, he can choose when to speak up (and be vulnerable) and when to draw back, play it safe, claim the benefit of his privilege.
Or at least he thinks he can. When the enslaved woman shouts out who he is and what he is about – she lays him bare – she strips away any privilege Paul might invoke – and there he is, a colonized Jew standing in the midst of Empire proclaiming radical news about an insurrectionist leader named Jesus. She takes from Paul any pretense or delusion that he might be able to choose, in a world of Empire, when he can be oppressed and when he can be free.
And, in the name of Jesus, Paul has called out a spirit so that this enslaved woman is no longer profitable to her enslavers – so, now, the powers come after him. The woman’s enslavers drag Paul and Silas into the marketplace, into the courts – and notice this: What do they accuse them of? They accuse them of being Jews and of advocating customs that threaten the Empire. Paul and Silas are beaten, dragged to jail, and put in stocks. As Jerusha Matsen Neil points out – Paul and Silas are imprisoned not because they broke any law, “but because they are an imprisonable people – the are a vulnerable people who threaten the bottom line of the powerful.” Or as Sarah Jobe writes: Paul is “poor, homeless, and of an ethnicity that marks him as part of an occupied people. Which is to say, Paul looks a lot like those who get overpoliced and thrown in jail today.”
That night, there Paul and Silas are in jail – they begin praying and singing hymns to God, as the other prisoners listen in. There is an earthquake that shakes the foundations of the prison – the doors fly open, and the chains break loose.
And we come to the jailer. The jailer – in this story, the henchman of the authorities – wakes to see the prison doors gaping open. He assumes the prisoners have fled – and he pulls out his sword and prepares to kill himself – why? because he knows that the powers will come for him. The jailer is complicit in this system of oppression and incarceration. He has failed the powers. He knows how the system works. If these prisoners are gone, there is no privilege of his office that will protect him from the powers he otherwise serves.
But the jailer hears a voice. Paul the prisoner’s voice. “Don’t harm yourself! We are still here.” The jailer calls for the lights, runs to them, falls at their feet, and pleads, “What must I do to be saved?”
Before we go any further, we need to say this: In their world of intersecting systems of power-over and oppression, no one in this story is free. The woman is enslaved; Paul and Silas, imprisoned for who they are and for the liberative message they proclaim; the jailor, now fully aware that the powers he serves will now be coming for him. No one in the story is free – not until an earthquake comes and shakes the system of intersectional oppression to its foundation. No one in the system can get free until the system is broken open and torn down, and something new built up in its place. No one can get free until Resurrection shakes the world to its core, and opens up a New Creation. No one is free until everyone is free.
Last week, we grieved together the murder of ordinary folks going about their grocery shopping at Tops Market in Buffalo. The day after Buffalo, a gunman had opened fire in the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. And this week, we reel at the atrocity of the mass shooting in Texas, and the slaughter of innocent children not long after they had celebrated getting on the A-B honor roll, as they looked forward to the last day of school. Three American mass shootings in just 12 days.
The first of those shootings could not more clearly reflect and embody the evils of American racism and its death-dealing violence to Black bodies and Black lives – as the gunman acted from the perverse White Supremacy so-called “replacement theory” – which stirs up racist fear that white folks are being somehow replaced by persons of color. This so-called theory and its violence are yet another instrument of the racism we must confront.
All three of the shootings reflect the continuing harm that flows from the culture of violence we have allowed to pervade our national life, as particularly reflected in America’s unholy idolatry of guns. All of these systems of oppression – whomever they target – are sustained and maintained by this culture of violence – all of them intersectionally woven together, keeping us collectively bound up in this cycle of violence that we have convinced ourselves that we are somehow powerless to break. Last week, we grieved the loss of precious lives, and today we continue in our mourning for those who continue to die – and deep within us a lament also rises up – Why can’t we do something about this?
All of this is violence – every system that holds people down, that harms, that kills – it is all violence – and it all works together – we are bound up in it, all of us together – with the human cost of the harm borne disproportionately by those whom the systems targets. None of us will be free until our systems are shaken to their foundations, dismantled, and together we decide to build a better world.
Last week, a writer named Robert P. Jones, a white guy, wrote a piece for the Baptist News service, about where he was when he heard the news of the Buffalo shooting. He heard the news while on a trip to Minneapolis – just after he had attended a Beyoncé Mass held near the memorial for George Floyd. We know the Beyoncé Mass – it is a worship experience created and curated by Professor Yolanda Norton – centering the liberative message of the Hebrew Scriptures as embodied in the lives of Black women and girls and the music of Beyoncé Knowles Carter.
Jones heard the news from Buffalo and couldn’t stop thinking about the Word that Professor Yolanda Norton had just preached in Minneapolis. She had said this:
"There is always a Pharaoh who will arise over Egypt. Everywhere I look I see Pharaohs arising. People committed to death dealing and who are not life giving. There are people who have decided that if you are not part of their tribe there is nothing valuable about you. Everywhere I look I see Pharaohs arising. People committed to the death of Black people. … Everywhere I look I see Pharaoh."
And then, over the first lines of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Professor Norton called for repentance, and invited the folks there into communion and the work of beloved community:
"Repentance is not a one-time thing, but a developmental process, a journey that requires a confrontational truth-telling. The liberation and healing of the oppressed. Repentance and conversion of the oppressor. The building of the beloved community."
As Paul and Silas pray and sing, the earthquake rocks that jail. It shakes to its foundation the structure that oppression has built – and the doors fly open, and the chains break loose. The power of Resurrection shatters the old order, and opens the prison door into the promise of this New Creation.
But looks what happens next. After that earthquake, Paul and Silas still sit in that jail. Resurrection breaks everything free, and then invites them to take the next step into this new life of liberation. It gives them work to do. And look what they do. They sit there. They don’t run free, yet – they wait so that their liberation does not result in the death of the jailer. Look at what the jailer does. He repents – he sees his complicity in the system – and repents – and then he sits and he tends to the wounds of the prisoners. Before anything else happens – these wounds he has helped inflict – the jailer washes those wounds, bandages them, begins the work of healing. And then, Paul baptizes him – just as Ananias baptized Paul – and they share a meal – a meal that will nourish them as they all walk free together. We don’t hear what happened to the enslaved woman. I imagine that by now she has made her way to Lydia’s house, been welcomed there, perhaps dressed in purple cloth, where she will greet Paul and Silas on their return.
It’s not true that we are powerless, and we are certainly not alone. In Christ, we are a New Creation – God’s beloved – enlivened by the power of Resurrection – a power stronger than everything that does us harm. And all around us, this New Creation is inviting us into the work that is ours to do.
Professor Norton’s Beyoncé Mass – from the lived experience and voices of Black women and girls – is inviting those who have participated in these systems of oppression to repent and to join the work of liberation.
Royce McLemore and the residents of Golden Gate Village have invited us to walk into the reality of economic racism in Marin County – the long-lasting impact of housing discrimination – inviting us to work in support of those harmed the most – as they have the leading voice in the work of repair and rebuilding, our work to do.
Floyd Thompkins and the Marin City Ministerial Alliance are inviting us to stand with them as they advocate for a civilian oversight board for the Sheriff (with subpoena power) to address racialized policing in Marin County.
And somehow, we must find our way to those who are inviting us into partnerships, collaboration, and advocacy – with whom we can work together for an end to violence and for reasonable gun regulation.
For the past seven weeks now, we have been talking about Resurrection – looking for Resurrection in these texts from Scripture and in the world we see. As we crawl with Paul and Silas out of the rubble of the prison the powers have built, as we hear the voice of Fanny Lou Hamer singing songs of freedom, as we read the Scripture she hands to the jailer’s wife: “The hate done here will be made known... Out of one ancestor, God made all people, we are God’s children too – “
As we stand in the midst of all that, in the ache of our world, here is what comes into view. Resurrection is only fully and completely resurrection when it is alive in us – in God’s New Creation – Resurrection, liberating bodies and setting people free.
I think of some of the things the Apostle Paul would come to write:
"If anyone is in Christ there is a New Creation, the old order has passed away, the new creation is here and now."
"Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – not life, not death, not any power, not the present, not the future, not height, not depth, nothing in all creation."
And then there’s this: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."
© 2022 Scott Clark
 The details of this story are drawn from Mitzi Smith and Yung Suk Kim, “The Acts of the Apostles,” Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018); and Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), excerpted at https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/godslongsummer.htm  See https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf ; https://www.law.columbia.edu/news/archive/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality-more-two-decades-later  See https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-acts-1616-34-8  See https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/why-was-apostle-paul-prison-so-often  https://baptistnews.com/article/the-beloved-community-and-the-heresy-of-white-replacement-how-Beyoncé-mass-gave-me-hope-after-the-buffalo-massacre/?fbclid=IwAR2jsA7OBNRJTIwZu0Ax-xT1vdE5yj3N6_PkFFMIeEbu7-vBUVmk6_lSbIA#.YoVL5S-B2O2
Photo credit: Ivan Aleksic, used with permission via Unsplash