In the last few days, while all the madness, joy, anger and mayhem caused by the Supreme Court's Marriage Equality decision has been swirling, I've found myself repeatedly returning to one of my favorite passages in the Bible, Acts 16:20-34. I've said my piece about how I view the SCOTUS decision, and I don't particularly feel I need to reiterate it here…but in light of some the commentary, opinions and vitriol propagated by both sides (myself included) over this issue, I feel led to share some thoughts on a Biblical story that might, at first, seem tangential to the conversations at hand but I feel appropriate, nonetheless.
The story is a good one and, though I often harp on the Apostle Paul, it shows part of why, despite all of my frustrations with him, I continue to admire and respect his place in our history as a Church. It begins after Paul and his companion Silas were thrown into a Macedonian prison for casting a spirit out of a slave girl.
16:20and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, "These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews,
21and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans,"
As an admitted jackass, I could certainly get a good bit of traction by pointing out the ways in which, in this situation, the Romans might be a more appropriate representation of Christians than Paul and Silas, but today, this is not my point. I only ask you allow for the idea that this passage could very easily be applied to both sides of the argument and to, therefore, at least temporarily allow for it to remain neutral.
22And the crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them, and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.
This portion of the passage, especially with the reference to the "chief magistrates," could more easily apply to the conservative Christians of today…after all, if anyone has been getting a beating in the Court of Public Opinion over the last few days, it's certainly been them (here I say "them" because I think I've probably effectively outed myself as something other than conservative) . If this were another day or post, I suppose I would take some time to discuss what the imagery of having their robes torn off might mean…or I might point out that the Court of Public Opinion is generally divided into many smaller courts and that, if you happen to be in any one of those, the symbolic weight of the passage can swing from one extreme of the scale to the other. However, this is also not my point. So, again, I will say only that I could probably argue this from either side…and therefore, I will leave it in Neutral for now...
…which, hopefully, brings us to the point I do want to make without any lines being drawn, or a need to pick a particular side.
But let's return to the story, shall we?
After the aforementioned beating, Paul and Silas were chained and thrown in prison. In Acts 16:25, we see the following:
25But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them: [emphasis added]
When my imagination fleshes the story out, I imagine the prisoners knew who Paul and Silas were. Perhaps they'd heard of them, these traveling preachers who had been spreading their message and casting out demons…these holy rollers, if you would. As they were most likely not the cream of their society, they were probably given to talking a little trash (I say this tongue in cheek, as wagging said tongue is not confined to the so called lower castes…). So, I expect there was some cell block talk…maybe an over under on how long it would take for one of them to break and say something counter to their message...
(…and the prisoners were listening to them…)
…they wanted to know what these guys were gonna do when the chips were down. They knew that when things are stretched at the seams, you can better see how, and with what, they are stitched together. They were looking for Paul and Silas to prove their cynicism about their message right. Or perhaps, they desperately wanted to be proven wrong.
(They were listening.)
In these times, we are both Paul and prisoner, committed to our messages, yet chained and shackled by our perspectives and opinions. We are all tethered to the things we want for ourselves and for others, the things people know we profess, and still confined within the walls of our histories, personal and shared. When things get stretched and torn, we are each looked to for proof that our hope is ill-founded, or that it is founded on something we cannot understand, but desire nonetheless.
(…and the prisoners were listening to them…)
It is, I think, one of the most important verses in the Bible. Because it is so true, regardless of what we believe. And because it is one of the areas where we all, Christian and non-Christian alike, so often fail.
When the SCOTUS ruling came down, the collective gaze of the non-Christian world almost immediately shifted to the followers of Christ. How would we react? What would we say? And we failed. The messages of anger, frustration (and, yes, hate) far outweighed the measured loving responses we are called upon to give, no matter the circumstances. When the steel door clanged shut on this period of our history, we did exactly what the world expected us to do. And not what Christ would have us do. Sad. Sadder still that it came so close on the heels of the shining example set by the families of those slain in Mother Emmanuel Church, one after the other publicly forgiving the man who inflicted that tragedy upon them, and the country. We focused on using some of Paul's words as a basis for our own epithets, rather than relying on his example here as a template for our actions.
(The prisoners were listening.)
But this message is not just for Christians. In an ironic extension of ruling a proclaimed by many to be a victory for Love, many of the "victors" used the occasion to vent their own hateful opinions. When granted a reprieve from their own prison, many turned to gleefully point the finger at those they now felt had been locked up in their place. Such actions cheapen the love and acceptance many have fought so hard for so long to have institutionalized. Those words and actions, too, were a failure to capitalize on a moment in time when the message could have been different. Better.
(…and the prisoners were listening to them, too…)
And now, we come to the end of our story, where, while Paul and Silas were singing hymns of praise instead of weeping and gnashing their teeth, an earthquake came and "immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's chains were unfastened." Acts 16:26
Not just Paul's and Silas', who were the only believers in the bunch. Everyone's. There was no pre-condition. There was no contract. Simply the right message delivered, and heard. And when the jailer came running, saw the doors wide open and believed, understandably, all his wards had fledActs 16:27, Paul cried out:
28b"Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!"
All of them. Not just the "good Christians." All of them.
You see, that's what happens when the message is good. When the message is right. The earth can shake, our chains can fall off and the doors to our prisons can fly open…and we will not be tempted to leave. Because the words we need to hear are here.
The Bible says nothing about whether anyone but the jailer accepted Christ. There was no prison altar call where the masses were converted, else I'm sure it would've been mentioned. Not a single one, other than Paul and Silas, stayed because "God told them to." They didn't take the opportunity to get at each others' throats, either…exact vengeance on the prisoner the next cell over with whom they had a bone to pick…They. Just. Stayed. Because they knew that what was there in those walls was better than what they could find anywhere else.
So I ask you: how compelling is your message? It's relatively easy to keep like-minded people listening to what you have to say. Or to force your words on a captive audience. But what happens when the walls come down? Will people stay to listen? Will those who may not agree with you flee to a place they think is better? Will you yourself realize you were only speaking your words because you had nothing else to do and abandon them for better options?
Or is what you have to say so rooted in the Love we all seem to be professing at the moment that it cannot be resisted, ignored or abandoned?
Are you listening?