Monday, 6 May 2013

The Cost of Compassion

Lectionary Passages for May 12. Acts 16:16-34. Ps 97, Rev 22: 12-21 (without 15, 18, 19), John 17:20-26 or for Ascension passages: Acts 1:1-11, Ps 47 or 93, Eph 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

"Dramatic, heart-wrenching, and deeply provocative. A four-star must see for those turning a thoughtfully critical  eye toward our culture."  That's how I imagine a review might read on a movie made from Acts 16. What a story! (read all the way to verse 40-I can't figure why anyone would stop reading at 34!)

How would a movie director interpret the questions raised here? Why did Paul heal the slave girl? Was he compassionate or just worn down by listening to the girl's annoying shouts? And why did it take "many days" before Paul did anything? The story tells us the spirit-possessed girl earned a lot of money for her owners by fortune telling. Obviously, when Paul heals her, the slave owners can no longer exploit her handicap for gain. Perhaps Paul was scared of them, so held off the healing. Maybe Paul was worried about what would happen to the girl once she was valueless to her owners. In that case, healing her would have been a cruelty instead of a blessing. We can't really know Paul's motivations here.

The point of the story, in any case, isn't the girl's fate. This is about what happens to people who "do the right thing" and face up to a corrupt empire. The charge brought against Paul and Silas was that they were outsiders (Jews) making trouble by 'advocating customs unlawful for Romans." What a bizarre charge for an act of healing! They were unfairly beaten and thrown in jail. Instead of bitterness, however, they sing and preach to other inmates. When an earthquake enables a jailbreak, Paul and Silas keep order, prevent the suicide of their jailer, and joyfully share their faith. The next day, when the concocted charges are thrown out, Paul refuses to go quietly to save face for the Roman officials. He waited till the magistrates themselves appeared to apologize and escort them to freedom.

Paul and Silas are models of peaceful, firm resistance in the face of a powerful establishment. Here the truth wins out, but it is a costly fight for them. (What happened to the girl? Likely this wasn't a happy ever after, freedom may have been costly to her as well! What happened to the jailer and his family? How were their lives changed? How did the jailer treat prisoners after this experience?)

I couldn't help but wonder about parallels for today. This past week, Bangladeshi garment workers were killed when their factory collapsed. They might be compared to the possessed girl. Both have owners benefiting from their misery in systems that judge profits as more important than persons. Both may not be better off once the "truth" comes out. Both might end up forgotten, their harsh reality obscured by the machinations of politics and power. Who are our Paul and Silas characters out there whistle-blowing? What happens to them? Do the "slave-owners" ever change, like the jailer did, or do they simply continue placing false accusations and quietly escorting whistle-blowers out back doors? What is ruling the world (then and now) money, or compassion?

Obviously the problems of power and oppression are hugely complex. Disney's pulling out of Bangladesh is a black and white response to a grey world. I suspect they'll just go somewhere else a bit more "under the radar." Bangladesh needs the work, its people need jobs, and they need the powerful companies to be humane and responsible. Are there ways for us to be like Paul and Silas, whistle blowers who refuse to go quietly? Who try to heal the hurting even when it might hurt us? Can the truth be told and responded to in ways that help the "slaves" by providing safe working places and living wages? Are there ways we can change our consumer attitudes to compassion? This story raises so many good questions. I hope it encourages us to acknowledge where we are complicit and to engage where we can be compassionate.

There are other great scriptures to read for this week as well, here's an invitation for you to engage some of those in your comments!

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