taking the words of Jesus seriously

Jesus experienced very real, human needs of hunger and thirst. Food was central to Jesus’s ministry to both those in power – the teachers of the law – and also those on the margins – poor, widowed, orphan, women, etc. The temporal reality of hunger – whether experienced by those on the margin or those in power – was used as an opportunity to talk about the eternal reality of salvation. 

Another temporal reality that Jesus uses to talk about the eternal reality of salvation is position. Those who were in need of healing, most often those on the outskirts of town or banned from entering the temple – the lowest of positions in society – were not only healed but also given a position change. In Matthew 9:2 and 9:22, Jesus says “Take heart, my son/daughter, your sins are forgiven.” He gives a title of ownership, “son” and “daughter” that implies belonging and inheritance. At the same time, Jesus addresses those who held a significant amount of power in religious settings by calling out the “evil in [their] hearts.” He later points out that they “tithe” and “load people with burdens hard to bear” but “do not touch the burdens with one of [their] fingers” and “neglect justice and the love of God.” In this temporal practice of decentralizing and demarginalizing those Jesus interacts with, he gives us insight into the accessibility and necessity of salvation. 

God restores those who are oppressed to a status of honor and love in God’s Kingdom, and God humbles those who are the oppressors to a status of equal honor and love in God’s Kingdom. How does this shift what it means to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly” as white Christians who benefit from the structures and institutions in society? Romans 13 calls us to “clothe ourselves with Christ” as we consider our humanity and also our call to “love our neighbor as yourself”. I have come to understand this call as the disembodiment of position, embodiment of liberation, and the re-embodiment of love. 

I mentioned the way Jesus inverts position in his ministry for the centralized and the marginalized. In this call to put on the characteristics of Christ, we first have to take off characteristics of ourselves. As a white American, this means taking off the characteristics of whiteness and privilege. As it relates to the oppressor, James Baldwin, George Lipsitz, and Lisa Sharon Harper each mention the need for a certain degree of separation from self.

Baldwin writes “It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being…must first divorce himself from all prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church.”

Lipsitz describes it as “disinvest[ing] in the ruinous pathology of whiteness.”

Harper addresses a more spiritual yet still practical disembodiment when she says “to live in God’s kingdom, in the way of shalom, requires that we discard our thin understanding of the gospel.”

READ: Clearing the Temple Courts: What Jesus Did About Systemic Justice

This requires an understanding of how our white racial frame influences the way we engage with the realities of race, whether through racial stereotypes, racial narratives and interpretations, racial images, racial emotions, and inclinations to discriminatory action. Now, I’m not saying that this process of disembodiment is simple, nor am I saying that once someone disembodied it the first time that they’ll never have to do it again. Regardless of if you call it continual disembodiment or just learning and growing, this essential practice takes a lot of work and a moment-by-moment commitment to that work. This continual disembodiment not only leads to a deeper understanding of yourself but also to those around you as lies about oppressive identity are traded for the Truth.  It opens your eyes to the pain and suffering you have perpetrated both consciously and subconsciously, helping you realize the extent of which we need and “love mercy.” Finally, it allows you to see God and His Kingdom on earth more fully, which leads us to the embodiment of liberation.

Embodiment of liberation is a phrase I never thought would stick out to me, nor apply to me. Up until recently, I didn’t understand liberation to be for me. In fact, I understood it as people being liberated from me. Turns out, I wasn’t too far off. Yes, people experience liberation from my whiteness, but I also experience liberation from my whiteness. This liberation looks and feels notably different between the oppressed and the oppressors. Through this continual disembodiment of privilege and position, I am actually freeing myself from the presence that whiteness has programmed generations to perpetuate. Now that I know an experience of liberation awaits for me as a white Christian, what does it look like to embody that liberation?

Going back to what Baldwin states, White Americans need to regain sensuality. “To be sensual,” Baldwin writes, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” As we begin to denounce the lies about the whiteness in ourselves, we become free to begin to feel and experience life more fully. It allows us to see the call to restorative action, to “do justice.” “Liberation,” Cone writes, “is more than the recognition that iron shackles are inhuman; it is also the willingness to do what is necessary to break them.” The embodiment of liberation is an invitation to repairing that which we have broken, are breaking, and will break in the times we fail to see others in the image of God. In doing so, we participate in the pursuit of building peace with one another, the practice of individual and communal restoration, and the fruition of justice. This work all must be rooted not in the pursuit of achieving the most knowledge, but in love. 

Love is not a result of action, it is what “ought to motivate Christians to realize justice in the world, having truth as their foundation and liberty as their sign.” I really want to emphasize how important love, more specifically the re-embodiment of love, is as white Christians. Harper writes “To love God is to trust God, to choose God, and to choose God’s way to peace and wholeness.” To re-embody love is to recognize that love is a choice, that we fail, and that we are given grace to choose it again. To reembody love is also to recognize that we are designed to love God and one another fully, and that at some point, our wholeness became broken in our choice not to love. To take it one step further, to re-embody love as a white Christian is to recognize that we succumbed to the lie steeped with pride that we are somehow better than someone else in addition to choosing not to love. That is where our call to “walk humbly” comes into play. “Humility leads us to acknowledge that God has placed wisdom in the minds and hearts of cultures across the globe – and we need it all to survive.” As mentioned earlier, God humbles those who are the oppressors to a status of equal honor and love in His Kingdom. When we choose love and humility, we can more easily disembody our position and also embody liberation leading us back to loving our neighbors. 

Our call as white Christians to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly is seen in the practices of disembodiment, embodiment, and re-embodiment. Disembodiment of position leads to the embodiment of liberation, resulting in deeper understanding of self and community. Embodiment of liberation leads to the re-embodiment of love, which is the greatest commandment we have here on earth. Once you realize that all of this funnels down to re-embodiment of love, the work becomes more simple and motivating. It also opens up our eyes and hearts to better understand the restoration that happens out of love. We are to follow the call of loving all – this all allows us to be “larger, freer, and more loving” and to see God in that way too.

About The Author


Lydia Vander Stelt is from Grand Rapids, MI and lives in Chicago, IL. She is currently pursuing her M.A. in Christian Ministry with a Restorative Arts focus in inside-outside collaborative classrooms at Stateville Correctional Center through North Park Theological Seminary. Lydia credits her continually expanding understanding and expression of the gospel to the learning community inside Stateville.

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