“PERSPECTIVE……What you see depends not only on what you look at, but also, on where you look from.” – James Deacon
The director and writer of the movie “Harriet” was asked in a recent interview why she chose NOT to focus on the brutality, violence, and the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, like those found in movies such as “12 Years the Slave” and “Roots.” Instead, Kasi Lemmons chose to depict the ideals of victory, courage, and liberation that were experienced by Harriet Tubman, as she fought and won freedom for herself and many others from the heinous institution of slavery in America:
“So, I really focused on these words – it’s a freedom movie; it’s not a slavery movie. It exists in a very perilous and conflicted time in our country; but it’s really about freedom and what you’re willing to do for – not just for you – but for others……… (The Atlantic -” Why Harriet Is Really A Freedom Movie.” David Sims – 10/30/2019).
Perspective is an important and powerful tool. How we choose to “view” ourselves and others, and the lens we utilize to form our perspective makes all the difference. Ultimately, our perspective assists us in what we believe, learn, and understand from our experiences which become an integral part of our lives.
A primary element of individual and collective perspective is our social location (gender, race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and geographic placement). As we consider the stories of slavery in Scripture and those throughout world history, including the African-American slave experience, social location influences and shapes our perspective (s).
For example, the progeny of enslaved ancestors viewing the movie “Harriet” will have a different emotional response than those who do not come from enslaved ancestry , primarily because of perspective. Social location guarantees this to be true. As the great Maya Angelou once observed: “I am (we) are the dream and the hope of the slave.” We, as African-Americans are free, yet we still carry the perspective, the social markers and scars of an enslaved people.
As we consider the connective thread between the enslaved woman of Acts 16 and Paul, the apostle, it becomes our responsibility to thoroughly examine this narrative from both perspectives. Each perspective is equally important. Each perspective can teach us and inspire us to discover new and important ways for studying scriptural accounts and applying biblical wisdom to our own life experience.
paidiske – (Greek) – a young girl, maidservant, female slave, servant-girl [pronounced pie-dis’-kay]
Sibyl – (Greek) – a woman in ancient times supposed to utter the oracles and prophecies of a god. A woman able to foretell the future.
Divination (as defined by the English dictionary) – the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means
spirit of divination (as defined by the Acts narrative) – The spirit of a python, further described as pythian or pythoness. The python was originally the name of a snake that inhabited the Greek city of Delphi. At Delphi, the priestesses of Apollo would deliver oracles, and they were called Pthyia.
And now, THE WORD from our Sponsor – Acts 16: 16-18 (NRSV)
“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. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God to proclaim you** a way of salvation. 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.”
**Acts 16:17 – Other ancient authorities read “to us.”
As we know, the ev angelist and physician Luke, is the recognized author of what scholars refer to as the Luke-Acts accounts. Some scholars suggest that at one time in early biblical New Testament history, the books of Luke and Acts, now separated, were one presentation. When we enter chapter 16 of Acts, we find the author of the narrative is writing in the first person (“we/us”), as to signal he is an eye-witness to the Acts 16 narrative. Again, if we follow traditional New Testament scholarship, the supposed eye-witness is none other than Luke, the 3rd biographer of Jesus.
As Paul and his entourage are guided by the Holy Spirit to leave Asia, they sail to the city of Macedonia and encounter a group of women at the city gate by the river, who are gathered there to pray and worship God. Paul meets a woman named Lydia, who has a job, a home, a household, and enough financial means to offer Paul and his entourage an invitation to stay at her residence. The text informs us that “the Lord opened her heart” and by eagerly listening to Paul, Lydia and her household were baptized.
Then, the narrative takes a sharp turn, as Paul and his entourage encounter the “paidiske”- the slave girl with the spirit of divination. We will first consider a traditional read of this text:
THE TRADITIONAL READ
“The second woman in Paul’s experience at Philippi was as different from the first (Lydia) as day from night. Paul’s first recorded European convert, was an independent businesswoman of honorable character and godly piety. The second was an unfortunate, demon-possessed slave girl exploited by her owners for their own material profit. Also, her name is unknown. The girl was most likely demented, epileptic, or emotionally unstable. Demon possession is often associated with such maladies in the gospels….Luke in his record of the demon-possessed girl, recognized in her, phenomena that was identical with those of the priestesses of Delphi – the wild distortions, the shrill cries, the madness of evil inspiration.” (Christian-Pilgrimage-journeys.com)
Obviously, this commentary is written from the lens of Paul’s perspective. It starts with a notable list of distinctions and an obvious bias for Lydia who was an “independent businesswoman woman of honorable character and godly piety.” The descriptions of her social location are all additions (isegesis), as the text reports instead: “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth.” The perceptions of “independent businesswoman” and the resulting positive character references emanate from Lydia’s perceived social location: CLASS- employed and perhaps elite due to her possession of a large home and obvious resources. RELIGION – Possibly a Greek-Jew or sympathizer (“worshipper of God” and later a Christian convert). Paul’s obvious affection and admiration for Lydia is assumed, in the narrative, by his acceptance of the invitation to stay at her home and Lydia’s comments about Paul.
Clearly, the traditional read of the text, as indicated above, draws a distinct and clear bias for Lydia, who is preferred in the Acts 16 narrative. When Paul encounters the second woman (or girl), the first thing that is mentioned is her lowly economic status: she is a “slave-girl.” The divining slave girl is immediately compared to the pious believer Lydia (“if you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord”). The enslaved girl is positioned in the text as an outsider, “the other,” a strange, bothersome, and foreign presence to Paul and his entourage.
The second thing mentioned with regard to the enslaved girl is the “spirit of divination.” In the traditional read this term is associated with demon possession, demented or evil behavior, emotional instability, and/or chronic and uncontrolled seizure disorder. Upon close examination of the term “spirit of divination,” these assigned characteristics are severely prejudicial since none have an actual association with the reality of the enslaved girl’s abilities. As a sibyl in her own cultural context (Paul and his companions were the foreigners), the spirit of divination would have been experienced by her Greek countrymen as a special gift or talent. Sibyls were considered to be oracles or prophets in their own right, who were able to foresee future events. The python or serpent association, experienced in Western Christianity as evil or demonic, is the exact opposite in Greek and Egyptian cultures. The serpent in these cultures is understood as the manifestation of wisdom, healing, transformation, and rebirth. Paul and his companions were encountering a cultural difference in the enslaved girl that was not a part of their Jewish understanding.
More importantly, in this Acts narrative, Luke NEVER referred to the slave girl as evil or demonic. Upon careful examination of the Luke-Acts texts, Luke is definitive and clear about evil or demonic possession (Luke 4: 33-35; 41, Luke 8: 2 &3, Luke 10: 17, Luke 11: 14, Acts 5:16, Acts 8:7, Acts 19: 13-16). In each of these texts, Luke writes of “evil spirits or demons.” Yet, even though this unfortunate enslaved girl is never referred to as demented, evil, or demonic in the narrative, most commentaries assigned her this negative characteristic.
THE NON-TRADITIONAL READ
“Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more.” (Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori – Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church – sermon delivered on May 12, 2013 (Easter Sunday)
As you can imagine, this controversial and non-traditional Easter sermon was received with ire, rejection, and condemnation around the world. How dare a women, albeit a Presiding Bishop attack Apostle Paul in this matter and dare to exegete the text through the eyes of the enslaved girl? Well, that is exactly what Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori did!
In her commentary of the text, she acknowledges the divining spirit of the enslaved girl, as a gift from God. Yet, Paul cannot “see” the enslaved girl as anything but “the other.” Bishop Katherine also suggests that Paul’s annoyance with the paidiske may have resulted from her ability to share the truth-telling, prophetic stage with him, and his desire to make her just go away. From her perspective, she is a slave; but so is Paul since he often referred to himself as a slave of Jesus, the Christ. Perhaps she sees this commonality as shared experience, but Paul cannot because he carries a gender-class-cultural-religious bias towards her. She is a woman, she is a slave, she is a Gentile, and she is a non-believer. When she follows Paul and his entourage, crying out the truth, she is an annoyance to Paul and he simply wants to rid himself of her. Yet, her persistence in following after Paul may have been her desire to connect to the same community that embraced Lydia and her household. Furthermore, after Paul interacts with her, Paul and Silas offer salvation and baptism to the jailer and his household in the following narrative.
The non-traditional read must ask these questions: Where is her salvation? Where is her baptism? Where is her deliverance? The text simply ends, after Paul casts out the spirit of divination within her. While traditional commentary assumes she received the offer of salvation from Paul, there is simply no evidence of this in the text. Without assistance from Paul’s community, there was a probability that she returns to her owners without her valuable gift. Now what is her fate?
“Some readers will conclude that as a result of the exorcism, the slave girl is free. Free to do what in a slave society? A useless slave did not become a free slave, but as an exposed slave, she was left to fend for herself with no means to take care of herself. Yes, the owners profited from her gifts, and yes slavery is wrong not matter where it is found – on the pages of a sacred text or on American soil. Paul and Silas treated the slave girl similar to how her masters treated her – as an object that annoyed them, but not as a human being.” (Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith – workingpreacher.org)
Ultimately, as students of the sacred scriptural texts, we must learn to “read between the lines.” This holds especially true for the women’s narratives of the Bible. The enslaved girl’s perspective mattered because her story mattered and, most importantly, she mattered to God. Just like the Apostle Paul, Silas, and Lydia, she too was a child of “the Most High God.” As God’s daughter, her story deserves our respect, our consideration, and our attention. Her story teaches us that espite our visible differences, we are all a part of God’s humanity.
As we proclaim in Tabitha’s Daughters and it is the gospel truth – “Every woman has a story and every woman’s story matters to God.”
Questions for our discussion and consideration
In the movie “Harriet,” the plantation preacher quotes from Colossians 3: 22-25, 4: 1: Knowing what you know about Paul’s life, what was Paul’s intent to write the Colossians commandment understanding what slavery was in his own context (consider the actions of plantation preacher in Harriet, also)?
Since we have learned the text never indicates the enslaved woman was possessed of an evil/demonic spirit, why do you think traditional reads of the text chose to view it in this matter?
How can we, as women who respect difference, use the text to change our attitudes about women who are “different” than us?
FINAL CONSIDERATIONS (From Harriet Tubman)
“I freed thousands of slaves, and could free thousands more, if they had known they were slaves.”
“Every great dream begins with a dream.”
“Never wound a snake; kill it.”
“Freedom where are you? Cause I need freedom, too. I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell. Hey! I’ma keep running ’cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” – From the Song “Freedom” – Beyoncé Knowles
SENDING PRAYER (Harriet Tubman’s Prayer)
The North Star leads and guides my way.
Oh Lord show me favor now I pray,
For I’m walking to freedom day by day.
It’s more than a fight, more than a dream,
It’s the fact we’re created equal, so let freedom ring.
So I’m not giving up, I’ll keep fighting still
I’ll die for this cause if that is Your will.
It is my hope for the next generation to see,
What it is like truly to be free.
So there’s no time for worry, no time for fear,
For the light of independence is far to near!
In the name of The Christ, Jesus who sets all of us free. Amen!
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