Ephesus was a town famous for its temple to the goddess Artemis, goddess of the hunt, wild animals and the wilderness, and protector of young girls, virginity and childbirth. The crafting of idols was big business in Ephesus, and the silversmiths and artisans worried that the anti-idol message of “The Way” (the name for early Christianity) threatened their livelihoods. A riot broke out when two of Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, spoke against idols. Alexander, a Jewish follower of Christ, calmed the crowds by reminding them that there were legal and just ways of dealing with their anger.
I have not lived through a riot. I see them on TV all the time, and I wonder how such a thing can occur. How can rational, law-abiding citizens suddenly turn in mass numbers, and do incomprehensible, frightening things? But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Riots are based in fear and gain momentum as the exhilaration builds on the hope that the outcome of the movement will be something better. Riots are seldom, if ever, irrelevant. They come when social issues such as poverty and inequality reach their tipping point. (For more on the psychology of rioting, check out this article from Psychology Today.)
When I see a riot or even a peaceful protest on TV, I do my best to stand in the shoes of the ones who are rioting. What did they fear? What did they fear they would lose? What did they have to lose? Standing in their shoes, even for a moment, helps me to see that we do not yet live in a world where Christ’s peace and justice prevail. Riots can speak to the invisible and silent injustices we, perhaps, do not want to see. Maybe we can let ourselves be moved by compassion and understanding to make the changes needed to bring this world closer to the kingdom of God that Christ desired.
Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.” So he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia. About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions. Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; even some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater. Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward. And Alexander motioned for silence and tried to make a defense before the people. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” But when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the artisans with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges there against one another. If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.