“With Paul and Silas, we came to Philippi in Macedonia, a Roman colony, and, 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, who proclaim to 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. But 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. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe."
Before Paul could say anything to defend himself, his senior warden said, “Now, Paul, didn’t I warn you about mixing religion and politics. Yes, a spiritual life is important, but people have to make a living.” And Paul’s bishop said, “Now see here, Paul, the owners, uh, I mean the employers of that young woman are very prominent members of the community. They may not be Episcopalians, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t respect them.”
I’m being facetious, of course, but my point is that the story of the slave girl in Acts 16 is about what happens when the Christian faith comes into conflict with economic and political power. I want to illustrate that point with a more recent and more tragic story, but first, a word of explanation is in order. When we hear the word “slave,” we automatically think of slavery as it existed in America before the Civil War, usually called “chattel slavery.” But slavery in the 1rst c world was different.
Slavery in the ancient world was not a racial thing and it was not a hereditary condition. People usually became slaves for two reasons: either because of debts they could not pay or because they were prisoners of war.
The charge that the slave girl’s owners brought against Paul and Silas – “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” was very similar to what people in the Deep South – my people, in other words - said about those who came south 50 years ago to participate in the civil rights movement. They accused them of being “outside agitators.”
Almost from the very beginning, Southerners in general and Alabamians in particular have resented what they have called “outside interference.” At least as far back as the Civil War, Southerners complained that Yankees just did not get it; they did not understand the Southern way of life. Of course, what that meant in antebellum Alabama was that Yankees wanted to put an end to slavery but did not really understand what a good, kind, and benevolent system slavery really was!
More recently, during the Civil Rights’ movement of the 1960s Southerners complained that Yankees (and Yankee journalists especially) did not understand the dynamics of the relationship between black folks and white folks in the Deep South. If they did, then they would just go back home and leave us alone.
There may be just a little bit of truth to the charge that Yankees don’t get the South. How can you explain sweet tea, cornbread, Hank Williams (both junior and senior), Mardi Gras, and any number of other Southern institutions to anyone from Massachusetts, Ohio, or California? Having spent a good part of my life as a missionary to New England, I know what I am talking about.
One of those “outside agitators” who just didn’t get the South, was an Episcopal seminarian named Jonathan Myrick Daniels.
Daniels was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute who had begun work on a PhD in English at Harvard before feeling called to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. While Daniels was at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued a call to the clergy of all faiths to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.
Initially, Daniels did not respond to Dr. King’s call. At first, he thought that the civil rights movement was a purely political affair. But during evening prayer, as he listened to the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s song, he had a kind of epiphany. “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the poor and lowly.” And so Daniels went to Selma.
After the march, he stayed to participate in the work of voter registration. When he participated in a demonstration in the town of Hayneville, the police arrested Daniels and his fellow demonstrators, including a RC priest named Richard Morrisroe. After about a week, they were released. They walked from the jail to a small store about a block away to buy cold drinks. And as they left the store, a highway department employee named Thomas Coleman aimed a shotgun at a young woman who was with Daniels, but he stepped in front of her, took the full force of the blast and was killed. Coleman claimed he was acting in self defense and was acquitted by a jury of white men.
The bishop of Alabama at the time of Daniels’ murder was Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter. Carpenter deeply resented the “outside interference” of Yankees who came to Alabama to take part in the civil rights’ movement. I still find this hard to believe but Bishop Carpenter’s one and only public statement about Daniels’ murder and Coleman’s acquittal took place at the diocesan convention that followed. Carpenter criticized "the crowd of visitors whose presence motivated by various objectives caused us much difficulty and brought unwarranted confusion and tragic consequences."
I don’t know how fully Daniels, a New Hampshire native, “got” the South, but at least he was aware that there was something he did not quite grasp. Not long before he was killed he wrote these words in his journal:
“I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one's motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.”
I love the phrase “self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance.” Every southerner has encountered it, and it can be very annoying to say the least. But speaking only for myself, I give thanks to God for the “Yankee messianism” that motivated people like Jonathan Daniels and Unitarian minister James Reeb (who was also killed) and for Catholic priest Father Richard Morrisroe who was severely wounded and others to risk and sometimes give their lives in the struggle to secure equal rights for African Americans.
But the Episcopal church designated Jonathan Daniels a martyr not because of his “yankee messianism” nor because he, like so many other young men and women from the north, came south to help register African American voters. We honor Jonathan because he gave his life so that another might live and because he was where he was and was doing what he was doing for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A martyr is a reminder. He or she is a sign in our midst reminding us of two things: First, they remind us that grace is costly. As Bonhoeffer said, “Grace is free but it is never cheap.” The cross shows us just how costly grace is. Indeed, if grace were not offered to us freely, we would be unable to afford it. But if we accept the grace offered to us in baptism and at the Lord’s table, then we may have to pay a very high price indeed. Daniels and other martyrs show us just how high the price might be.
Secondly, martyrs are God’s gift to the church to remind us that God is alive and well and active in the world. They are also God’s gift to the world, daring the world to explain away someone who gives her or his life for the sake of the gospel. If the crucifixion is a bonfire, then martyrs are the sparks from the fire. For a brief, brilliant moment, they light up the darkness. They give us just enough light to see the outline of a better world..
For several years now Alabama Episcopalians have sponsored a pilgrimage to Hayneville where Jonathan died and his killer was acquitted. We march from the jail to the store where Daniels was killed and then to the courthouse. The judge’s bench becomes the altar, and the place where Daniels’ killer was acquitted becomes the place where our lives are caught up in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
The most moving part of that event to me takes place during the offertory. Members of the congregation carry large photos of persons who were killed in Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. As the names of the persons in the photos are called, the photos are brought forward and each simply says, “Present.”
There’s no disputing the truth of that. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer affirms that when we sing the Sanctus we are joined by “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.”
The story of the slave girl in Acts 16 and the story of Jonathan Myrick Daniels show what can happen when the gospel of Jesus Christ comes into conflict with our economic and political interest. But they are both Easter stories, too.
Just as the tomb could not hold Christ, so the jail could not hold Paul and Silas. The Easter story tells us that death and defeat do not have the last word. Light defeats darkness; justice overcomes injustice; life conquers death. But Jonathan stated it more eloquently:
“I lost fear in the black belt when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord's death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God…. As [we] said the daily offices day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible "communion of saints"--of the beloved community in Cambridge who were [praying], of the ones gathered around [God’s] throne in heaven--who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and "ends" all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably ONE.”