Rethinking the image of Christ

"Pantocrator in Black and Brown" by Brian Behm, being held, was awarded best in show for the DeColonizing Christ exhibit at St. Stephen's Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

A counter-cultural art exhibit in Pennsylvania challenges inaccurate representations of Jesus while encouraging visitors to consider decolonized depictions of the Messiah.

When I was young, Jesus greeted me every day at my grandmother’s house.

A framed ​​print of Warner E. Sallman’s “Head of Christ” graced the wall adjacent to her front door. Jesus looked like an elegant surfer dude to me — tanned, with honey-streaked brown hair and blue eyes that gazed benevolently to the heavens.

The Almighty didn’t look anything like me, but so what? It certainly didn’t make me question my faith or my self-worth, because my religious experience was steeped in the tradition of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From the all-Black choir that sang the songs of Zion to the Black mothers of the church who prayed over me to the Black pastor who preached that, yes, Jesus loved my little chocolate self, my Blackness was continually validated. At my grandmother’s, I was more concerned about her yelling at me for slamming the screen door than I was about the white Jesus hanging next to it.

What images of Jesus did you grow up with, and how do they align with your vision of Christ now?

But once I became aware of the world and my place in it, I realized that imagery was a powerful tool through which white supremacy operated. Whiteness has always been the default for defining everything America deems worthy: standards of beauty, true patriotism, innovators and intellectuals and stewards of power. Even our most sacrosanct attribute — spirituality — demands that we pray to a God presented as white.

That’s why “DeColonizing Christ,” a visual arts exhibit that runs through Dec. 19 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is so fascinating. It dares to imagine Jesus Christ as what he was, a person of color. It dares to debunk everything we’ve been programmed to believe about Christ’s appearance while interpreting a historical fact.

As the exhibit draws to a close well into the season of Advent, it has offered opportunities for those who have never deeply questioned their vision of Christ to reconsider the frame through which they have been looking.

Some of the exhibit’s artists took license to envision Christ as a woman, a Latino child, or a brother on the street sporting a halo-shaped afro and smoking a blunt. Each of the 40 pieces invites the viewer to imagine Christ as more provocative and edgy than the sanitized version we’re used to seeing.

“There are some people that will deny [that Christ was not white],” said Matt Parsley, of Harrisburg. “But I consider it to be a fact.”

On a recent Sunday, Parsley, who is white, viewed the exhibit with friends Helena Felix and Tracy Cisney. “In the long term, this exhibit could have an impact,” he said. “That’s the whole point of art, is to challenge your way of thinking.”

For the Very Rev. Dr. Amy D. Welin, the dean of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, where the exhibit is displayed, it’s not a stretch to think of Christ as someone other than white and ethereal.

Detail from "American Diptych: The Burning Bush" by Margaret Adams Parker. See the complete image in the slideshow above.

“Christ was edgy, and he hung around with edgy people,” Welin said. “We’ve so emasculated Christ that he’s like our pet gerbil. He’s not threatening — he’s nice. He’s the Good Shepherd. But we also see in the Bible that he’s kicking ass in the temple; he’s turning over tables. So he was good, but he wasn’t nice.”

We are in St. Stephen’s, strolling through the sanctuary, an immaculately reverent space that welcomed an average of 150 congregants every Sunday before COVID-19 hit. The images of “DeColonizing Christ” are juxtaposed with the stained-glass images of Bible characters, all depicted as white, that line either side of the cathedral. Taken together, the disparate images create an interesting theological debate.

“We all enculturate Jesus. Every tribe. We all paint him as one of us, which is fine, because we want to be close to God, and that’s what people do,” Welin said.

If any of these images challenges you, why do you think that is?

“But then we learn that the images of Jesus were used to silence and oppress people in Latin America and Indigenous people and the enslaved in the United States. So there’s this fine line that says we want Christ to be one of us … but we don’t want him to be one of you.”

The narrative of Jesus being “one of us” was normalized through commercialization of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” painting, the one that hung in my grandmother’s house. It has been described as the “best-known American artwork of the 20th century.”

How could your congregation explore the enculturated history of Christianity as part of formation and worship?

Sallman, a religious painter and illustrator from Chicago, styled the painting to appeal to 1940s American Protestant audiences, and it was soon printed on prayer cards and circulated by all denominations, regardless of race. The image, which has been reprinted more than 1 billion times, defined the nation’s religious culture, creating another white default that most Christians took for granted.

“I always thought Christ looked like one of my people,” said Welin, a self-described pale-skinned Irish American. “I went to a Catholic high school, and the images we had in textbooks and religious art were of a Jesus who was definitely European.”

It wasn’t until she was well into her 30s that the revelation hit her: according to the Bible, Christ was a Palestinian Jew. Even as a medieval history major, Welin was never taught that. Years later, after Trayvon Martin was murdered, she started to consider how white supremacy manifests itself in ways big and small. It wasn’t lost on her that public outcry had forced the removal of certain public monuments and other symbols of the nation’s racist past. Meanwhile, every Sunday, the stained-glass images in her own church stared at her almost mockingly.

“It became really clear that the image of Christ had been commercialized and promulgated,” Welin said.

Detail from "On the margins of..." by Michael Reyes, OFM. See the complete image in the final slideshow below.

Last year, a parishioner told Welin that if she really was serious about doing the work of diversity and inclusion, she need look no further than her own sanctuary. “Because all of the iconography in the cathedral says this is a white space,” he told her.

“And I was like, ‘Wow, we need to broaden our palette. This is an opportunity,’” the priest said.

Welin met with staffers at the Art Association of Harrisburg to brainstorm about the concept. One of them pointed out that it seemed the theme of the exhibition should be decolonizing the image of Christ.

“And that’s how we got our title,” Welin said.

She enlisted the Rev. Mack Granderson, the pastor of Crossroads Christian Ministries Church, also in Harrisburg, to chair the selection committee. A music major from Philadelphia who for years owned a jazz club in Harrisburg before going into ministry, Granderson was well-qualified to lead the project. In the ’80s, he served for seven years under then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh on the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

How does the art in your church reflect your congregation’s beliefs?

The committee reached out to artists, universities and arts organizations in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, D.C. They secured a grant from the Arts for All partnership, a collaboration between the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Greater Harrisburg Foundation.

In all, the show features 28 original artworks, plus a dozen on loan from private collections. Although the images are unquestionably thought-provoking and confront racism in diverse interpretations, there is a troubling omission. All but seven of the 17 participating artists are white, and two out of three cash prizes awarded in the juried exhibition went to white artists. Michael Reyes, a Franciscan friar and trained artist from the Philippines, won the People’s Choice award for his work “Christ the Dreamer.”

If some of the most-praised works in an exhibit that seeks to challenge white supremacy are created by white artists, and if lived experience is the biggest informer of personal expression, what does that mean for the exhibit?

It’s a question that gets to the heart of the complicated nature of racism, intended or not. The novelist Toni Morrison once noted that she worked hard to write without the intrusive “white gaze,” the idea that Black writers must explain cultural references to white readers, must hand-hold and make them feel comfortable.

Lori Sweet, of Harrisburg, award winner of the Bishops’ Prize for her work “The Healer,” admitted that she hesitated to enter a piece in the show because her previous religious works focused more on the feminine and nature. Portraying Christ as a person of color didn’t fall into her wheelhouse, in part because she is white.

 

In your church’s context, what gaze is missing? How might it be valuable to include that perspective? How might you invite it in an authentic and respectful way?

“I did feel like, ‘Who am I to represent this, because this isn’t my experience,’” said Sweet, who has a background in social work. “But it’s been part of my life’s work to stand up and be present for people who are oppressed and suffering and bear witness to that. So I feel honored and grateful that I can stand in solidarity with others on this issue — and it’s continuing to inform me.”

“The Healer” features an olive-skinned, hooded-robed Jesus. He has a direct gaze and full lips, holding a lamb that represents “not a sacrifice but the true and authentic part of who we are, the delicate and vulnerable part,” Sweet said.

“I think when people look at each other, they’re seeing the outward appearance,” she said. “And I guess I see Christ as being able to look beyond the surface and being able to see the sacred in each of us, and that is healing.”

"The Touch of Faith" by Romaine E. Brown

Best in show went to “Pantocrator in Black and Brown” by Brian Behm of North Carolina.

For Granderson, who is Black, the lack of participants of color was disappointing, though understandable. His years serving on the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts taught him that recognition for artists of color, getting their works displayed in galleries and museums, has been an ongoing struggle.

“But then something came to mind,” Granderson said. “I was very excited for white artists, because they would have to go through something internally to create an image of Christ from Palestine. There will also be a reckoning that must take place with the person who is seeing the exhibit. I would hope that kind of conversation, even if it’s an internal conversation, must take place.”

Not surprisingly, countercultural images similar to those in the exhibit have drawn controversy. St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore’s “Mama,” depicting a Black Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ body after his crucifixion — with Jesus portrayed as George Floyd — was recently discovered to be missing from a public exhibition of Catholic University of America’s Columbus Law School. Officials at the school replaced it with a smaller version.

Latimore, meanwhile, has faced death threats.

“I think, unfortunately, racism is part of a lot of it, especially death threats [that include] derogatory remarks about George Floyd specifically,” Latimore told Religion News Service, adding that some of the threats took issue with any depiction of Jesus as Black.

“Really white supremacist, racist stuff — which, theologically, is what racism is: a complete denial of the incarnation of Christ,” he said.

It may be that breaking down the barriers of systemic racism starts incrementally, with art exhibits like these. “DeColonizing Christ” not only dares to see Jesus differently but does so with none of the mean-spirited bickering that sullies our public discourse today. In their introspection, exhibitgoers may see themselves differently, too.

How might different visions of Jesus broaden conversation in your church and community?

With that in mind, Welin is giving serious consideration to hosting rotating exhibits that feature different points of view at her church. “I really like the idea of using our cathedral as an art gallery, because then we could expand our spiritual life,” she said.

Harrisburg’s diversity — Pennsylvania’s capital city is 51% Black — demands that inclusivity be addressed. How to build community within the walls of the church is something Welin is still thinking about.

“This has been a local event,” she said. “It is wonderful that this has generated conversation in other churches about the use of art to illuminate matters of social justice. So perhaps the generative outcome is an opportunity to inspire other communities of faith to consider what they can do locally to address issues of justice. Because just like politics, justice is usually a local thing.”

As I sat in the sanctuary talking to Welin, it occurred to me that the exhibit was doing exactly what it was designed for — encouraging conversations that allow for expanding our worldview.

The God I know would be pleased.

“We can’t make up for 1,000 years of oppression,” Welin said, “but we can start to do things differently. And this is a start.”

Questions to Consider

  • What images of Jesus did you grow up with, and how do they align with your vision of Christ now?
  • If any of these images challenges you, why do you think that is?
  • How could your congregation explore the enculturated history of Christianity as part of formation and worship?
  • How does the art in your church reflect your congregation’s beliefs?
  • In your church’s context, what gaze is missing? How might it be valuable to include that perspective? How might you invite it in an authentic and respectful way?
  • How might different visions of Jesus broaden conversation in your church and community?

"The Annunciation" oil painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rather than viewing this season as awaiting a return to the past, we can embrace it as an invitation to transformation and action, writes the director of the Thriving Congregations Coordination Program at Duke Divinity.

Waiting is just the worst.

Whether it’s with joy (anticipating a vacation, an out-of-town guest, a new job), fear (a test result, a jury verdict, a conflict with a loved one) or aggravation (a delayed flight, a trip to the DMV, a parent-teacher conference), waiting robs us of being present. We miss what is happening in our lives right now while we’re busy making to-do lists or fretting or simmering.

It can be exhausting.

And yet here we are.

We are in the midst of our second pandemic Advent, and who wants to spend more time in intentional waiting? We are over it, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti writes in The Atlantic — not just individually but collectively.

We’ve been waiting for the end of masks, the arrival of vaccines and the opportunity to sing. We’ve been waiting for the return of people to the pews, money to the offering plate and parties to the fellowship hall.

We’ve been waiting for the end of arguments about precautions, empty Sunday school classrooms and drive-thru celebrations. We’ve been waiting to move past the need to pivot with each new variant or surge.

We have been waiting to get back to normal.

Oh, church.

“Back to normal” might be familiar — but that doesn’t make it faithful. The waiting posture robs us of hope, curiosity and imagination. It is a privileged position that suggests that what we found comfortable was loving enough, liberating enough, just enough, healing enough for all of God’s people.

The Faith Communities Today report released this fall, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change,” summarizing findings from the largest-ever survey of U.S. congregations, makes plain that our churches were not universally thriving before the pandemic: “Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital.”

Among the key findings: most churches are small, but most people are in larger congregations; attendance at most churches has declined rapidly in the past 20 years; and most congregations skew older than the national average, with aging participants and leadership.

Last month, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report offering an early picture of how churches are navigating the pandemic. It suggests, from surveys this summer, that the pandemic is “exacerbating and accelerating” the declines detailed in the Faith Communities Today report. It also notes that the overall picture is “turbulent and chaotic,” though “not all churches are experiencing the pandemic equally.”

“Normal” before the pandemic wasn’t so great.

Maybe we need this Advent after all.

Advent is not a season for waiting to usher back in the old or get through with gritted teeth. It is an invitation to wonder about and actively work for transformation: What new creation are we invited to participate in birthing? As the Faith Communities Today report notes: “A time of challenge and upheaval can also be a moment of opportunity and revitalization.”

That is not to say that this work is easy or to suggest that we forget the trauma our people and our churches have endured for almost two years. We are called to what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis terms a “chastened hope,” a hope that keenly understands our current suffering and dependence on God.

Choctaw elder Steven Charleston in “Ladder to the Light” offers a mantra for faithful activism: “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away.”

He goes on to urge: “Look up and be confident. Look forward and learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there.”

That practice, he says, allows us to “recognize darkness but trust in light.” Charleston urges us all to choose each day to believe and to hope. By doing so, he writes, “we turn what we believe into what we see.” That is fitting for the season of preparation we are in and the seasons of incarnation and revelation we are anticipating.

But how?

How might we unlock creativity in this season, grieving what has been lost while also holding some hopeful curiosity about the future? We begin with practices of rest, lament and remembering, alone and in community.

In “God and the Pandemic,” N.T. Wright writes that “fresh action” must follow our lament, that God’s kingdom is emerging through the “creative, healing, restorative work” of humankind.

“He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.”

Wright goes on to suggest three questions these Jesus followers will answer: “What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?”

These seem like good questions for church leaders to ponder in their contexts, as a way to stay true to who and where they are while also waiting for an uncertain future with energy and wonder.

They also gesture toward some of the characteristics researchers with Faith Communities Today have seen consistently in “spiritually vital and growing communities” — strong leadership, a clear mission, a spirit of innovation and openness to change, active engagement in the local community, significant lay involvement.

“In the midst of all the unsettledness,” the author writes, “now is the ideal moment to sustain the efforts toward innovation.”

Which got me thinking about Mary and her bold “yes” to a transforming and uncertain future. As pastor Isaac S. Villegas writes in The Other Journal, we are all like Mary: “Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.”

We don’t have to know what the future of the church will hold. We don’t have to like waiting or uncertainty or change. We can be tired and annoyed about it.

But Jesus is coming anyway. Something new is birthing in the church.

Say yes.

It will be worth the wait.

LightStock / Larry Dixon Jr.

The traditions of Watch Night — hymn lining, testifying and praying — are a reminder that life is often a struggle but we draw strength from one another, writes church historian Quinton Dixie.

On Dec. 31, 2019 — the last New Year’s Eve before the pandemic — I was on the phone with my sister talking about holiday plans. I told her I wanted to go to Watch Night service; she planned to join me.

“But wait,” she said, “who is even having Watch Night?”

Gone were the days when every Black church in town was holding worship on New Year’s Eve. Instead of wondering, as I had in my youth, why they didn’t get together and have one big service, I lamented that churches were now forced to collaborate just to draw decent attendance.

I sat there in church that evening as 2019 came to an end, reflecting on how much had changed about the Black worship experience. But that Watch Night service stood as one of the old landmarks yet to be removed.

I can hardly wait for Watch Night this year — to remember the suffering and death COVID-19 hath wrought, to say the names of those who were with us last year but now live on only in our memories, and to resolve to carry our sorrowful joy into a hopeful new year.

It may feel like more of the same as we take mask-muffled breaths, but 2022 nonetheless is another year pregnant with possibility.

My home church of Pilgrim Baptist in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was founded a century before that 2019 service, during the Great Migration. And for 98 of its now 102 years, it has had a pastor from Alabama. The congregation’s Southern and rural roots in the “heart of Dixie” run deep, and that has continued to set the tone for its worship, even today.

The service I attended in 2019 began the way my Watch Nights always have, with hymn lining. Usually some evangelical standard by Isaac Watts or John Wesley, a lined hymn reflects the call-and-response style that is a prominent feature of African American Christian worship.

As a youngster, I could not understand why a four-line stanza took five minutes or more to sing. The slow pace and mournful tone seemed to hark back to the pain and powerlessness of enslavement and segregation, experiences I believed were best left in the past.

But the older I got, the better I understood waiting as a spiritual discipline. When the Holy Spirit moved among the people, hymn lining eventually led to a crescendo of joyful shouts of praise and adoration. Change comes in God’s time, not ours — perhaps not initially, but ultimately, “for those who wait upon the Lord.”

I most look forward to the testimonies of the elders. At Watch Night, there are no pastors offering carefully crafted sermons but instead laypeople giving evidence of God’s goodness. Their stories aren’t interpretations of Scripture or sermons they’ve heard. They talk about what they know to be true through personal experience, about how they’ve been blessed since the last Watch Night service.

This is probably the most important part of the service to me, for I draw strength and encouragement from hearing others speak of struggles, defeats, trials and triumphs. It is most important because I am a glass-half-empty guy. My days are partly cloudy, never partly sunny. I think I prefer it that way so I’m never disappointed when the rain comes; I expect nothing less.

I am therefore always uplifted by people who “count it all joy” — and I do mean all. I recall a woman in 2019 who seemed to be wasting away from some illness that prevented her from digesting. She said her doctor was preparing her for the end and she and her husband were making plans to sell their property and enjoy their last days together.

“Then the Lord led me to a new doctor, an Indian doctor,” she said, “and the Holy Spirit guided him to the right answer. I thought I would be dead and gone, sleeping in my grave. But praise be to God, I’m here!”

The subtext of her testimony was significant, for it said something about the way she believed God works. God didn’t heal her so that she could see another year but so that she could give all glory to God. Also, it wasn’t the half-dozen or so white doctors but a brown man from the other side of the world that God chose to use to cure her. God can use anything or anyone to accomplish God’s will. Therefore, we should look for blessings in unexpected places as well as in the familiar.

The prayers of the righteous are interwoven in the fabric of Watch Night. Indeed, the start of the new year at Pilgrim always found somebody praying — for themselves, their family, their church, the world.

And while to some degree the content was standard, these prayers were extraordinary, in part because of their form. Prayer leaders didn’t stand but approached the throne of grace on their knees in humble submission. Somebody prayed; the rest sang. Of course, this meant no one could hear the prayer. Right, I know. I didn’t get it either.

I remember, as a child, asking my father about this practice, and he said we were helping the person pray with our song. That might have made sense to him, but it didn’t help me hear the prayer any better. Sensing my dissatisfaction, he said, “We don’t need to hear. God hears.” That, I get.

Whether in hymn lining, testifying or praying, the message of Watch Night for me is clear: life is often a struggle, but we draw strength from one another. We are to walk together, rejoice in each other’s victories and be mournful when others are full of sorrow. It is in community that we learn the blessings are not in the things we accumulate. The blessings are in the journey.

God has brought us from a mighty long way, and we don’t know how far we’ve got to go. But we can take comfort in knowing that God will be there every step of the way.

iStock / Painting by Daria Zaseda

Through passages like Acts 6, the Bible makes clear how privilege must be recognized and addressed — and the benefits of doing so, writes an author and leader in racial righteousness and reconciliation.

Within too many congregations, privilege as a topic is denounced, minimized or ignored because it is misunderstood.

Many churches see it as divisive — a concept rooted in condemnation, used to shame or guilt one another into coerced remorse.

Some congregations reject it on theological grounds, claiming that the concept is unbiblical. Other Christians decry it on grounds of individualism, refusing to apologize, take responsibility for, or strive to make amends for the sins of their ancestors or something they personally did not do.

Still others deny the notion of privilege because they believe it insinuates that they did not earn what they have through their own efforts.

Consequently, conversations about privilege in the church generally end in one of three ways: churches and members deny that privilege exists, declare the topic too controversial to address, or lament that they feel immobilized by its weight.

However, when privilege is understood missionally and our lives are guided by the Spirit, it becomes a subversive tool we can leverage to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors.

The gospel offers us a faithful, liberating way to think about and exercise privilege. Acts 6:1-7 is one of many passages that illuminate this generative opportunity.

As Acts 6 opens, the disciples seem to have been functioning as a healthy, missional, interconnected body of Christ. They were actively making disciples, fulfilling the Great Commission and welcoming new members into God’s family.

However, they were oblivious to the injustice happening along the margins of their community, unaware of the discrimination in their midst.

In accordance with God’s expectation, the disciples were striving to sacrificially love their neighbors, particularly the most vulnerable. Throughout the Old Testament, Israel did this via gleaning laws and the practice of Jubilee.

In Acts 6, the disciples were sustaining this tradition by operating a food distribution program for vulnerable widows. A challenge ensued, however. The food program served widows of two different cultural backgrounds, and those two groups of widows had divergent experiences within the program.

The Hebraic widows were cultural insiders, with direct access to the city’s and church’s dominant culture, customs and language.

The Hellenistic widows were Jews who had lived most of their lives in Greek-speaking locations; now, in Jerusalem, they were cultural outsiders. The Hellenist widows felt as if their outsider status was causing them to be overlooked and marginalized in the church’s distribution of food.

The Hebraic widows had advocates at the table of power, as well as cultural, linguistic and relational advantages, all of which led to their receiving superior treatment. They had privilege.

Meanwhile, the Hellenistic widows lacked representation at the decision-making table; they were without advocates in leadership who saw their suffering and identified with their marginalized experience.

As a result, the church did not care for Hellenistic widows with the same intentionality and love that it showed for Hebraic widows. The exclusively Hebraic leadership had a blind spot, and the distribution disparity went unacknowledged until Hellenistic Jews brought a formal complaint. This matter was one of the earliest challenges the church faced as it started becoming multicultural.

Once the complaint was raised, the disciples assessed the institutional structure and program and then demonstrated their maturity in Christ through their response. Instead of being defensive, denying the problem or trying to cover it up, the disciples conducted a sober assessment of the program and determined that the discrimination claim was legitimate.

They did not try to explain away the problem or cast the Hellenistic widows as being divisive for bringing it up. Not only did the church’s leadership acknowledge that there was a problem; they also confirmed that it was systemic. Then they took proactive steps to address it.

To ensure that the discrimination did not recur, church leadership called a communal meeting to discern collectively how to address it. After identifying the need for a council to oversee the food distribution program, the apostles tasked the community with selecting seven men known to be wise and full of the Spirit to oversee the work.

Notably, all seven men selected by the overwhelmingly Hebraic community were, by virtue of their Greek names — Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas — likely Hellenist. These seven leaders resolved the problem and became an ecclesial model for confronting privilege, addressing discrimination and sharing power.

As a result of the church’s maturity, Acts tells us, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7 NIV).

The church’s willingness to confront privilege and address discrimination led to the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem and beyond. The newly constructed Jerusalem council, led by Hellenists, became a crucial bridge that expanded the kingdom, enabling the gospel to reach the Gentile world. Acts traces this progression “from Cyprus and Cyrene” north to Antioch, where members of the council were the first to preach the gospel directly to non-Jewish Greeks (Acts 11:19-21).

This beautiful story illustrates why we must humbly respond to discrimination complaints and address privilege in our midst, and how we must equally prioritize the Great Commission and the greatest commandment — called as we are to fulfill both, not just one or the other.

Naming privilege requires spiritual maturity. It feels threatening because it reveals our sustained complicity with broken systems, structures and laws that deface the imago Dei inherent in our neighbors and infringe upon the shalom God created us all to experience.

Scripture affirms that privilege is real and declares that while we have the option to exploit it for selfish gain or to passively benefit from it, we are called to soberly acknowledge and faithfully steward it.

We will never learn to leverage privilege to further the kingdom and love our neighbors if we continue to deny its existence. Addressing privilege offers us a discipleship opportunity. When we are guided by the Spirit, privilege becomes generative and liberating, compelling us to participate as ambassadors of reconciliation in innovative and subversive ways.

Building from this foundation, Christians should understand privilege as a unique opportunity for us to bear witness to who and whose we are. When we leverage privilege instead of exploiting it, we function as the leaven in the loaf, the moral compass and accountability in spaces and places of distinction.

The church must become courageous enough to address privilege, because when we do not, when privilege is unbridled, it distorts the communion God intends for us to enjoy with our Creator and with one another. We are commissioned to understand privilege as something to be leveraged to further the kingdom and sacrificially love our neighbors.