“Listen to the Women” or “My Way or No Way”
When I write a blog, the site I use to publish it requires a title. As I was musing over the lectionary reading in Acts I had two thoughts, hence two titles!
The story I want to focus on is just a little one, a few short verses pushed into the middle of a chapter (Acts 16: 16-19). The central character is a woman. One often gets the feeling that whenever there are verses about women they tend to get marginalized. I appreciate, very much, Anne Thurston’s teaching that women need to be lifted from their obscure places in scriptures and stories re-told with them taking the centre stage. Often the story changes as it is viewed through new eyes (See Anne Thurston, Knowing Her Place).
This tale is disturbing on a number of levels.
It is immediately proceeded by the story of another woman, Lydia. The text makes it clear that Lydia is a rich woman and a home owner. We are told that Lydia listened to all that Paul and company told her, believed them and invited them to stay in her home.
Then it turns to the tale of the slave girl. As with so many of the female characters in the scriptures she is unnamed. I always find that sad. She is a non-person. Names are really important. I just read an article where an experiment had been done in how people’s names affect their chances of being hired for a job. It was shocking study. It showed how deep racism pervades employers thinking. The experiment was that job applications were sent out using four different names. Emily and Brendan got fifty percent more first interviews than Lakisha and Jamal (https://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/spring03/racialbias.html)
Another study about names which I found fascinating was about hurricanes. If a storm is given a female name it results in a higher death toll. It is not taken as seriously as a storm with a male name thus people do not seek shelter as readily from female named storms. It seems patriarchy even stretches to hurricanes!
So names are important. Note that the rich woman was named but the poor slave girl was unnamed. This we could link to the idea of Kyriarchy. This was a phrase first used by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza in 1992 (Wisdom Ways). Included in Kyriarchy would be any form of dominant hierarchy including patriarchy, racism, classism, sexism, economic status, homophobia, etc.
Not only was the slave girl unnamed she was exploited. The text tells us she had owners who used her gifts to bring them lots of money. This exploitation probably left her without help and without hope. It seems to me she was just the sort of person that these followers of Jesus should have been helping.
Yet, what happens next is intriguing. This slave girl is following them declaring a truth. Rather than embrace this and even use it to advantage, the men let it annoy them. Not only that, they took away her means of being useful to her owners without offering her anything else. They too exploited the slave girl. The story does not tell anything further other than her owners were very angry. The fate of the slave girl is left to our imagination.
So I find it interesting and unsettling that the men were happy when Lydia listened to them. Yet they weren’t happy to listen to the slave girl even though she was declaring truth. Obviously listening to a woman was hard for them.
Is it still hard for people today? Perhaps, things are starting to change. This week I have heard about two new bishops being consecrated soon who are both female. It is also likely that the next president will be a woman. These changes are good, but still only small starts, just tiny steps towards the crumbling of patriarchy.
But back to the men in Acts, they only wanted the truth spoken on their terms, through their particular lens and framework of belief. Is truth not truth regardless of who speaks it?
I have always been drawn to the suggestion that the gospels were written to correct and soften the doctrines and practices circulating in the very early church. The gospels were a reminder to return to the simplicity of the life of Jesus with the central theme of love and care for those in need.
Interestingly there is a reminder in the gospels that could speak to this story. The disciples were concerned and went to Jesus because someone, unknown to them, was ministering in Jesus name. Jesus told them not to stop the person because, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
These would have been good words to have remembered as Paul and company dealt with the slave girl. Good messages for us today too. To be open and receptive to truth from wherever it comes.