Acts 16: 16-24

In 1909, the then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Australia gave a speech to that Assembly entitled The Economic Value of the Gospels. In this speech, he declared unequivocally that the Gospel stands against every system of capital or economic organisation which reduced human beings to nothing more than a means to the end of wealth creation, or which crippled workers’ bodies and minds for the sake of an improved return on investment.[1] 

He might not have been aware of the fact, but in expressing these sentiments, he was closely echoing one of Karl Marx’s central critiques of capitalism, namely, that the exchange of cash payment for labour commoditised the human person, reducing them and their labour to the status of a “good” that could be traded and bought – usually to the advantage of the party that was in the position of being able to set the terms for this exchange.[2]

Many at the time were critical of this Moderator for speaking on issues of economics and politics, areas into which they felt the Church had no business intruding.  But what these criticisms ignored is the fact that the Church actually has a long history of engaging with issues of economic and industrial justice, and advocating on behalf of those who are most exploited by modernity’s construction of work and employment.  It may surprise you to know, for example, that the Methodist church – one of the precursor churches from whom the Uniting Church was founded – was instrumental to the formation of the trade union movement in the UK in the 19th century.  Many early trade union leaders were either Methodists or had benefitted from the education available in the Methodist Sunday School system; and many of the first unions were organised and structured along the same lines as the Methodist church.  Indeed, of the so-called “Tolpuddle Martyrs” who were sentenced to transportation to Australia for trying to organise a union of agricultural workers, all but one were Methodists.[3]

Similarly, with the promulgation of the encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XII in 1891, the Catholic church has released a series of statements over the course of more than a century arguing for the rights of workers to dignity in their employment, as well as the freedom to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining.  And many of you may remember that it was not so long ago that the Uniting Church was a participant in an organisation called the Interchurch Trade and Industry Mission (ITIM), a multi-denominational mission to working people in Australia.

All of which signals the fact that the Church, in its social justice teaching, has articulated a long-held concern about the way in which work in the modern world often leads, not to the liberation of the human spirit, but to exploitation and oppression.  And in doing so, it has condemned without reserve all those systems and processes of work, and policies of government, which objectify and strip the individual of their innate, human dignity.

And for those who may be wondering where the biblical warrant for such a position might come, they need look no further than today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles.  In today’s reading, Paul and Silas are about their missional work, busily travelling and proclaiming the Gospel to anyone who will listen, when they encounter a slave girl who is imbued with a gift of prophecy, a gift which is being exploited by her owners for their own economic advantage.

Now let’s be clear about one thing: this girl is a slave.  She is the property of another person.  In law, she doesn’t exist: she’s a non-person, a thing, a commodity. So the very fact of her being a slave means she is degraded and dehumanised. But in addition to the reality of this degradation, this slave-girl’s owners don’t just use her in the normal way slaves were used, to provide household or agricultural labour, for example; they are exploiting her talent of prophecy for their own economic benefit.  And regardless of what we make of the statement in today’s text that she was “possessed” by a spirit from which this talent for prophecy came, what we need to bear in mind is the reality that this girl is being exploited on the basis of an innate and inherent aspect of her human personhood.  She has a talent; and regardless of the source of that talent, others are using it for their own advantage.  This slave-girl is nothing more than the means to the end of someone else’s enrichment.

And it is in this exploited condition that she encounters Paul and Silas.  And because of whatever it is about her that causes her to have a talent for prophecy, she recognises Paul and Silas for who they are, as well as the nature of their mission.  And she loudly proclaims this truth to all and sundry.  Eventually, Paul gets fed up of being chased about by her proclamations, and in Jesus’ name orders the spirit to leave the slave-girl; and immediately she loses the talent for prophecy which she formerly possessed – or by which she was possessed.

Upon first reaction, we might be tempted to conclude that Paul hasn’t actually done this slave-girl any favours.  Her “value” – or, to borrow from Marx, her “commodity value” – to her owners is her capacity to prophesy in return for receiving cash payment.  But having been stripped – or, as her owners saw it, robbed – of this ability, she suddenly becomes “worthless”, without “value”.  This might lead us to conclude that Paul has placed her in a very precarious position with respect to her owners: that, having lost her “value”, they might discard her or brutalise her or abandon her to fend for herself.

And, indeed, the reaction of the owners is to angrily assert that Paul has robbed them of their livelihood, their means of earning an income.  And so they determine to drag Paul and Silas before the city magistrates.  This reaction itself demonstrates that humanity has a long and tragic history of placing the prerogatives of money over and above the demands of human dignity. Afterall, we are today, for example, still arguing about the issue of how to deal with climate change and investing in alternative energy sources on the basis of whether or not it will “harm” the economy or the vested interests of those who gain from the very industries by which climate change is being driven.  In other words, the response of the owners of this slave-girl is the same response of all those who say that initiatives and changes are not possible because, in the short term, it will cost money or reduce profits or discourage investment or harm the economy.[4]

And to those who say that Paul might have done this slave-girl a dis-service, the Gospel actually responds that if she is “worthless” in economic terms to her masters, then she is incredibly valuable in her human dignity in the eyes of God.  By making her “worthless” and “valueless” as a slave, as a commodity with a capacity to produce economic benefit to her owners, what Paul has done is draw attention to her value and dignity as a human being.  Because once we stop thinking about people in narrowly economic terms, we start thinking about them in human terms, in terms of their worth and dignity in their own personhood.

And it was precisely this recognition which motivated John Wesley and others to involve themselves in the plight of poor working people in the 18th and 19th centuries.[5]  They proclaimed that all people – even the poor and unemployed and the exploited – are precious in the sight of God.  From which it follows that economic arguments about why exploitative systems ought to continue do not hold up in the face of the Gospel proclamation about the worth and dignity of every human being.  And it is this message which is contained in today’s reading; and it is also a reminder to us that the word “economy” held a theological meaning for over a thousand years before the technocrats got a hold of it.  And that meaning derives from the fact that “economy” comes from the Greek root-word oikos, meaning household – and a household is a unit of relationships.  And this is what the Church is called to be: a unit of relationships.  And not just internal relationships, but external relationships as well.  Because the Gospel does not just proclaim the worth, the value, the dignity of people beyond their “commodity value”; it also critiques those aspects of our society which damage and degrade our humanity and the relationships by which it is supported.

That’s important. The modern world – particularly in the industrialised West – is a world in which faith has become privatised.  It has become individualised and increasingly withdrawn from the public sphere.  But today’s reading from Acts reminds us – as does the Church’s own rich history of engaging with issues of industrial justice – that the life of faith is not about holding a privatised, individualised spirituality.  Instead, we are called upon to hold a faith that engages with the human realities of the world, which declares and proclaims the dignity of all people, and which stands against every social, political, and industrial system which break down our relationships and degrade our humanity.

For as that Moderator in 1909 said, no heart which has been touched by the Gospel can subsequently declare that the dignity and the spiritual flourishing of humanity takes second place to the “iron law” of wages.  And in a world of rapid technological growth, in which traditional systems of work are changing, and in which people are coming under ever-increasing pressure to work more flexibly, more effectively, more efficiently, and more profitably, we are called – by the Gospel – to liberate the human spirit from the chains of slavery, and set it free into the realm of dignity and grace.

[1]Ferguson, John, The Economic Value of the Gospel. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1910, p.8

[2] Marx, Karl, Das Kapital Vol.1 and elsewhere.

[3] Scotland, Nigel, “Methodism and the English Labour Movement 1800-1906”. ANVIL, Volume 14 No 1, 1997, p.46

[4] Loader, William “First Thoughts on Year C Acts Passages from the Lectionary: Easter 7” Located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CActsEaster7.htm, accessed 6.5.16

[5] Scotland, Nigel op. cit., p.37

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s