three stories

I have three stories for you this morning: a story from a long, long time ago, a story from a short time ago, and a story that is happening right here, right now.

First, a story from a very long time ago:

Paul and Silas, with whom we’ve been traveling for the last few weeks, are still in Philippi, where Paul’s dream propelled them into Europe and they met the wealthy woman, Lydia, at the place of prayer outside the city.

Once again, Paul and Silas make their way outside the city gates to the place of prayer, and they meet another woman. This woman is not a wealthy, independent woman like Lydia. In fact, she is a poor, enslaved girl afflicted with some sort of demon that gives her the ability to tell people’s fortunes. Her owners have taken advantage of this demon-possessed slave, selling the fortune-telling for huge fees to the people of Philippi hungry for some spiritual nourishment. This girl, the text tells us, made her owners very, very rich.

But as is standard in scripture, the demon inside her recognizes the power of the Lord residing in Paul and Silas, and this girl – she has no name remembered in scripture, just the girl – follows them around for DAYS, crying out “these men are slaves of the most high God, declaring to you a way of salvation!” That seems like a fairly helpful thing for a demon to shout over and over, but Paul seems to get very annoyed with her. Something in the way the girl was yelling at them was mocking or sarcastic or…something. Paul, finally annoyed enough to do something about it, turns around and says to the demon: “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And the demon departed, immediately.

You would think that this would be the end of the story: Paul has proven by exorcising a demon in Jesus’ name that he does, in fact reside in the same Holy Spirit power that enabled Jesus himself to cast out demons. We get it, Luke: the disciples are carrying on the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together – preaching, teaching, healing and casting out demons.

But that is not the end of the story. It turns out that exorcisms have serious consequences. Paul was only acting out of annoyance – the word “annoyed” is right there in verse 18 – but what he’s done has not only freed this possessed slave girl of her demon, it has also mightily disrupted the economic advantage of the men who owned her. No longer could they profit off her fortune telling. They were out a lot of money, because Paul, in his annoyance, had – according to the law – destroyed their property.

And the slave owners were ANGRY. They were so angry that they went beyond the immediate legal complaint of destruction of property, a straightforward, open and shut case that they would surely have won, receiving restitution and reward, and push onward to make the complaint that in their exorcism, Paul and Silas are “disturbing the city.” “They are Jews,” the slave owners say, “advocating customs that are not lawful for us Romans to observe or accept!”

And surely, their complaint has validity. Paul and Silas WERE disturbing the city, advocating customs that disrupted Roman custom – not in the ‘raising a ruckus’ kind of way, and not in the ‘disturbing the peace’ kind of way that these men complain about, but in way that was causing deep, deep disruptions of economics and social practice. The gospel was liberating the people that the Philippian society had agreed to be bound. The gospel was insisting that people not be used for profit. The gospel was cutting across boundaries of race and class and gender to free anyone who came to believe in Jesus – to free them for lives of community and service and abundance. Paul and Silas WERE disturbing the city.

And the crowd, sensing what a huge disruption this actually is, turns on Paul and Silas. The crowd, with the full cooperation of the governmental magistrate, present and giving the orders, beats them, flogs them, strips their clothes off, and throws them in jail, where the prison guard is ordered to keep them in maximum security cells.

While they are in prison, Paul and Silas sing and pray and sing some more. All the other prisoners are listening. Suddenly, a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the entire prison, shaking open every door and breaking every chain on every prisoner. The earthquake shook the guard awake, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that every cell door was wide open. Assuming the worst, and knowing that his life depended on his job keeping all these prisoners bound and chained, he drew his sword to end his life then and there. His whole identity rested on his ability to do this job, and he knew that the systems outside the prison – the cruel magistrate, the violent crowds, the wealthy slave-owners that insisted on the sub-human punishment for the ruination of their income would kill him as soon as they found out that he’d failed.

But Paul, seeing what the guard was about to do, shouted from his cell: “Don’t do it! We’re all still here!” The guard called for light, saw that it was true, that none of the prisoners had escaped, that his life had been spared by some strange, inexplicable turn of events, and fell down on his knees in front of Paul and Silas, asking what it was he needed to do in order to be saved. “Believe in Jesus,” they said, and he did. He took them home with him, washed their wounds, and his entire household was baptized into this new reality on the spot.


Second, a story from a short time ago:

Bryan Stevenson spent his career as an attorney working with juvenile offenders sentenced to harsh adult punishments and prisoners on death row, clients whose cases no one else would take. He founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which works on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

In his recent book, A Just Mercy, Stevenson tells story after story of mercy, redemption, and the horrific consequences of our unjust criminal system, stories like this one:

Early in his career, Stevenson took the case of a severely mentally disabled man named Avery. Avery had been convicted of a brutal murder and sentenced to death. When Stevenson met him after agreeing to take his case to appeal, Avery had been in prison for a while. In researching the original case, Stevenson discovered that – although Avery had a long, disturbing history of neglect, incomprehensible abuse, and severe mental disability, none of that had been presented as evidence by Avery’s original court-appointed defense lawyer. Stevenson and his colleagues began collecting research about Avery’s history and went to meet him in a prison several hours from his office.

Stevenson, like many of his clients, is a black man living and working in the deep south. When he pulled into the prison parking lot, he noticed a big truck plastered with Confederate flag decals, racist bumper stickers, and threatening symbols. Stevenson says that he’d lived in the south his whole life but hadn’t ever been so shaken by such a conglomeration of hateful symbols. He tried to shake the feeling, and walked on into the prison.

A correctional officer he hadn’t met on any of his many trips to this particular prison met him at the gate – a big, tall, white man with a military haircut and a cold stare. The guard snarled at him and asked what he was doing. “I’m here for a legal visit,” Stevenson replied, expecting the routine pat-down usually given to lawyers. Instead, the officer insisted, in an intensely hostile way, that he go into the bathroom, take off all his clothes, and submit to a strip-search before he could proceed.

Stevenson, shocked at this proposition, replied as politely as he could “oh, no, lawyers don’t have to be strip searched.” The officer became very angry. “I don’t care who you are, this is my prison and you abide by my rules! Get into that bathroom and strip or get on out of here!”

Wary of the long drive and the packed schedule in coming weeks, knowing that there wouldn’t be another opportunity to visit his client, Stevenson gathered his wits and submitted to the strip search and the following disrespect and nastiness from the officer, and made his way to the visitation room. When they reached the door, the officer grabbed Stevenson’s shoulder and growled in his hear. “Hey man,” he said, “did you happen to see a truck out in the visitation yard with a bunch of bumper stickers, flags and a gun rack?” “Yes,” Stevenson replied. “I want you to know, that’s my truck.” And the officer released him and let him into the room.

Shaken from the encounter with the guard, Stevenson finally sat down with Avery, his new client. HE began to ask questions about his life and history, but Avery was clearly disturbed – kind and polite but also clearly mentally ill. Every question was met with a single request: Can I have a chocolate milkshake? Avery asked over and over, until Stevenson finally replied: “I didn’t know you wanted one but I will try to get you one if I can next time.” That seemed to satisfy his client, and they moved on to business.

Every time he visited Avery after that, Stevenson says, Avery would begin the interaction with the request for a chocolate milkshake. No other question would be answered until Stevenson assured him that he would try to bring one next time. The officer was never on duty again when Stevenson visited Avery, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

When Avery’s case finally went to trial, Stevenson showed up and there was the big, burly, cold officer sitting in the hallway in front of the courtroom. He had been assigned, it turned out, to accompany Avery on the long-distance trip to his trial. For three days, Stevenson argued in the courtroom for Avery’s appeal. He presented evidence about Avery’s difficult childhood, the neglect, the abuse, the severe mental disability – all of what he called over and over again in court the “mitigating factors” relevant to the rescinding of Avery’s death sentence. The evidence was clear that Avery had killed the man in question, but no one had presented any of the evidence of his mental state and traumatic childhood, no one had made any mention of these mitigating factors that should have been taken into account in sentencing.

In the end, the judge granted the appeal, and Avery’s sentence was commuted. But the story doesn’t end there. When Stevenson returned to the prison to discuss the results of the case with Avery, the same old officer from before was there to greet him at the gate. This time, though, his stare was warm, and he addressed Stevenson with polite respect. Stevenson immediately prepared to head to the bathroom and be strip searched, but the guard dissuaded him. “Oh no, Mr. Stevenson, you don’t need to do that. Just sign in, here.” Surprised, Stevenson did, and headed toward the visitation room.

But before he unlocked the door, the officer stopped him. “I need to tell you something. I’m real sorry for the way I treated you before. I sat there in that courtroom for three days and listened to you talk about Avery’s history and all that mitigation stuff. I came up in foster care, too. I got out and went into the military and I’ve been doing all right, I guess, since then, but I think I’m still really angry about what happened to me. I came up in foster care, too. And I listened to you talk about how all of us need that mitigation stuff, and it just touched me. I’m sorry for how I treated you.”

The officer unlocked the door, but once again put his hand on Stevenson’s shoulder. “Oh. And I probably shouldn’t tell you this – I might get in trouble – but you know how ‘ol Avery is. On the way back from court, I pulled off at an exit off the highway and got him a big chocolate milkshake.” The officer grinned. Stevenson shook his hand and walked into the visitation room to talk with Avery. As had become his custom, he started off with an apology: “I know you want a chocolate milkshake, Avery, but I couldn’t bring you one this time. Maybe next time, if I can.” But Avery immediately replied: “Oh, no, Mr. Stevenson, I got my chocolate milkshake. I’m all right, now.


And third, a story going on right here, right now:

On January 19, Matthew McCain died in his cell at the Durham County Detention Facility. The government and groups supporting the inmates differ in their accounts of his death, but this is not the first incident of inmate neglect or mistreatment here in Durham. In December, two guards were fired after holding an inmate down and reportedly punching her in the head, and the NC Department of Health and Human Services has deemed the jail’s medical plan “not in compliance with state rules.” The medical provider for the jail, a private company, is being sued by another family for refusing to provide an inmate’s medication, leading to another death in prison. Last year, there was a seven month lock-back in the Durham jail, a state where prisoners are confined to their cells regardless of behavior, and at one point, only had two hours every other day for exercise, showering, socializing etc.

The criminal justice system in Durham is undergoing an intense scrutiny and forced overhaul these days. Former chief of police Jose Lopez was forced to resign last year, and the city has just announced the hire of a new chief. The Inside-Outside Alliance here in town exists to support inmates inside Durham’s jail and does this in several ways but most interestingly: they believe what inmates say. They maintain a blog dedicated to amplifying the voices of those in jail, and advocate for more just carceral systems. Durham Congregations in Action, an organization that this congregation has supported since its beginnings, is making it a point to learn about what’s happening in our criminal justice system.

I am still learning about how things work here in Durham, and trying to listen to as many diverse voices as possible. But I do think that this story about policing and incarceration here, today, what’s happening in the jail literally blocks away from my house and only a couple of miles from here cannot be separated from these other stories.

Paul and Silas – apostles, disciples, preachers of the gospel and heroes of our own faith were prisoners. Their stories of incarceration teach us, at the very least, that God’s mercy and grace are astoundingly present in such spaces. Bryan Stevenson’s work with inmates on death row and those wrongly convicted or those whose sentences failed to take into account the realities of their lives is a shining example of what he calls “just mercy:” an unexpected, inexplicable grace that shows up where its least expected and breaks not only the physical chains of incarceration or slavery but also the invisible shackles of systemic cycles of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering.

The power of the gospel is the power of liberation. But we are not really experts at knowing what it is we need to be freed, or who it is that’s bound. Paul and Silas were in prison, but they were free to sing and pray and praise God, free to remain where they were when the doors were shaken open, free to witness to their jailer and to receive his tender mercy when he washed their wounds.

The officer that Bryan Stevenson had a run-in with was ostensibly the free one in the scenario, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that he is the one shackled by his own anger, bound by the racist systems that promise him power, enslaved to the need to come out on top and grasp some legitimacy by threatening those deemed less worthy than he is.

And us? Are we, here in Durham, the free ones or the bound? Clearly, we aren’t in jail. But if we choose to ignore the voices of our sisters and brothers who ARE, where does that leave us?

The power of the gospel is a power of liberation. But there is “freedom,” and then there is FREEDOM. If the gospel sets us free, if we profess to believe in the freedom of Jesus Christ, we are pressed to ask ourselves: what is it that we are freed FROM? And what is it that we are freed FOR?



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