Power through violence

History has demonstrated the power of nonviolent protest for changing the consciousness of a people, thereby bringing about much needed social change as well.

Image by Wendy Corniquet from Pixabay

Unfortunately, nonviolent protest is notable in the first place because it’s not the norm. The pages of history are filled with stories of violent conflict. And in many cases, the violence is perpetrated by the rich and powerful of society, by the ones who will do anything to assert their dominance and preserve their status.

Such was the persecution and execution of Jesus at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities.

And such was the persecution of Paul.

Controversy and violence followed Paul wherever he went. Even from his earliest days as a Christian in Damascus and Jerusalem, people wanted to kill him (Acts 9:23, 29). Later, he was stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19). Thus, we’re not surprised when, despite a warm reception in Philippi by Lydia, Paul soon found himself in trouble again.

As we saw in the previous post, Paul had cast a prophetic spirit out of a slave girl, making her useless to her owners, who profited from her fortune-telling skill. Outraged, they dragged Paul and Silas into the public marketplace, where local magistrates would hear complaints. Luke briefly summarizes the case they presented: “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21, CEB).

Not really much of a case, is it? What they said seems to have little to do with what actually happened. Notice, for example, what they didn’t say. Nothing about lost profits. Nothing about damages. Perhaps they already knew they had no case, and no way to be compensated. But that didn’t stop them from seeking revenge.

Now consider what they did say. Paul and Silas were accused, in today’s terms, of “disturbing the peace” — a potentially serious charge in the days of the Roman Empire. Their accusers didn’t bother to specify the nature of the uproar, and didn’t need to in order to achieve their purposes. They only needed to play on the bigotry of the crowd; in the proud city of Philippi, “They are Jews, we are Romans!” was condemnation enough. Note, too, that only Paul and Silas were taken; Timothy was only half-Jewish, and Luke was a Gentile. Paul and Silas were the ones they need for their racist drama: These foreigners are trying to infect us with their ways!

It worked. The crowd joined in. Possibly fearing a riot (and what would happen to them if they let a riot break out), the magistrates took quick action to appease the crowds. There was no due process, no trial. Luke reports that Paul and Silas were stripped and severely “beaten with a rod” (Acts 16:22-23).

Permit me an important aside: the “rod” in question would have been from a fasces, a bundle of rods tied together, often with an axe protruding from the bundle. These fasces were carried by lictors, men assigned to protect the magistrates and carry out the sentences they passed. Rods were used to inflict beatings, and axes were used to…umm…inflict something a bit more serious.

The fasces has been a symbol of power and authority from Roman times to the present. It is, as you may have guessed, the root of the word fascism; the symbol was particularly important to Mussolini’s regime.

But the symbol can also be found in American architecture and iconography. For example, it was on the back of the old Mercury head dime (albeit combined with an olive branch); it adorns both the Lincoln Memorial and the House of Representatives. Such ornamental uses of fasces are not inherently fascist; indeed, some would argue that the symbol itself was relatively neutral until it became associated with Mussolini.

But let’s face it: it’s not as if the Roman Empire was all sweetness and light. The regime was often brutal in its use of power to stamp out unrest and dissent. How neutral can such a symbol be? More disturbingly, the fasces has begun to reemerge as one of the favored symbols of supremacist movements who have their own dreams of a monocultural, monochromatic racial empire.

So I have to admit: even if you don’t see it everywhere, even if few people understand the significance of the symbol, I’d rather not have American power represented by the instrument that was used to flog the apostle Paul.

When Paul and Silas had been beaten, the magistrates ordered that they be thrown into prison. To make sure there was no possibility of escape, their feet were put in stocks, in the deepest, darkest cell they had. Apparently, the magistrates intended all along to only hold them overnight (Acts 16:35-36), thinking their pain would teach them a lesson. This is the arrogance of the powerful, thinking they were dealing with nobodies, with mere pawns.

In other words, the way Luke tells the story, the attack against Paul and Silas is not about the gospel, at least not directly. It’s about power. On one side, there is the power of the name of Jesus to cast out a spirit and set a slave free. On the other side is the power of the rich, of an angry crowd, and of human governments to protect their interests by manipulation and violence.

This is the world that the gospel transforms. Empire meets the kingdom of God. And Luke is about to show everyone where the real power lies.