Dying Unto Oneself:
Acts 7 and the Christian Call to Love and Justice
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Acts 7:51-53 (ESV)
The apostle Stephen’s speech during his trial before the Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court assembly, is known and treasured in Christian belief as a powerful example of testimony. He boldly outlines the Christian Gospel, from the creation of the world to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entirety of his speech is powerful and lauded as an example of Christian rebuke; this essay seeks to contextualize Stephen’s words, apply them to the American racial climate, and articulate what Gospel-based sacrifice in the name of justice can look like today.
In its essence, Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin outlines a Christian’s reaction to repeated, perpetuated injustice. He sees a cycle of harm: not only resistance to what the Holy Spirit has done through Christ, but active persecution of Christ’s followers, other human beings. He urges the assembly to break this cycle and begin something new. “As your fathers did,” he declares, “so do you” continue the pattern of not keeping God’s law while claiming to do so. Why not start a new pattern of keeping those commands?
Christians should not limit their interaction with the text to a simple condemnation of the Sanhedrin, which dangerously enters anti-Semitic territory. Rather, the Christian ought to process the text in one’s heart with a readiness to be humbled and challenged. Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection reversed the tide of our otherwise damned fate, and as new creations, we now have the opportunity to apply Stephen’s words to ourselves: to receive the Holy Spirit’s urgings to recognize the repeated, perpetuated cycles of personal prejudices and societal injustices in our lives, and to know that the Bible shows us that Christians are called to break them. Christians are to loudly and actively urge others to break them, and to initiate cycles of healing rooted in the knowledge of how Christ healed us.
In our current climate, it is important to name white privilege and how it has imbued itself in Western societies’ default worldviews, and therefore in contemporary Western Christianity. Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission is a 2018 collection of essays dedicated to unpacking this question. In his contribution, Rev. Dr. Andrew T. Draper provides a concise and clear outline of the evolution of the Christian faith from antiquity to the present. When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Byzantine Empire, he established a foundation for ensuing generations of believers in the West, and in societies influenced by the introduction of Christianity from the West. This faith was accepted and no longer the subject of systematic persecution. It is difficult to remember that Christianity is “syncretistic in nature”—that is, a dynamic hybridization of historical interactions between different cultures (1). Europeans are, by definition, Gentiles in the Christian tradition. To forget this detail, to privilege White Christians, is a revisionist appropriation of salvation history. In extension, a Christianity which forgets that almost all Christians today are objectively Gentiles in origin is a “specific Gentile appropriation of the claim that God was in Christ” (2).
Within the powerful testimony in Acts 7 is a biblical framework concerning the perpetuation of sin, which I apply, in our particular context, to the perpetuation of racial superiority and self-centeredness. “As your fathers did, so do you,” says Stephen to the Sanhedrin. “...whom you have now betrayed and murdered.” In the murder of Jesus Christ, they continued the patterns set by their fathers. When Stephen urges the Sanhedrin to recognize how they have resisted the Holy Spirit, he is urging them to break the cycle of sin, to acknowledge and take responsibility for crimes against Christ, who came to fulfill God’s covenant to Israel. As long as they continue down this path, until the wrongness of Christ’s crucifixion is acknowledged, there is no hope for salvation.
The Christian’s core reaction to Acts 7 is to first take plunging examinations into oneself. In lamenting the actions of the Sanhedrin, Stephen calls for a new cycle of healing. This urging is not based in his own heroism, or in any mention of his own life: it is based in what Christ has done. What Jesus has always called Christians to do is to “deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross[es] and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24). To follow Jesus is to love others the way he loved the world. This concept is commonly quoted and shared in Christian doctrine and conversation, and perhaps has taken on a glib connotation. But to love others the way Jesus loved the world is to, literally speaking, die for them: to sacrifice personal desires and physical bodies. To sacrifice the desire to center oneself and one’s identity, to be open and not defensive. This is not possible as long as the Christian is fixated on their own desires, their own body, their own dreams. As the apostle Paul wrote, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). To be Christian is to recognize, “I was the sinner Christ had to die for.” When Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people,” the first people we consider ought to be ourselves.
Jesus died for the Christian. He died for men, women, children, of all races, who are all made in the image of his Father. Christians believe in a Savior who died for one and for many. This is the guiding principle of Christian love and justice.
Christian hearts listen; they are not megaphones that seize the final say.
Womanist theologian Dr. Love L. Sechrest provides a glimpse into how countercultural the call Jesus gave believers to live like him is. In her analysis of the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, she proposes a perspective that does not fixate on calling Jesus contemptuous for telling the woman that “it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” or the Canaanite woman self-degrading for responding that “even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:26-27). Instead, she urges readers, especially believers with “advantageous positions in the social hierarchy,” to “identify with the woman’s humble posture” as “humble outsiders with no birthright of entry or access” (3). It is because we have no birthright of entry that Christian salvation is a gift of pure, undeserved grace. With that in mind, how can the Christian feel anything but humility? How could a Christian be so arrogant as to deny someone else the love of Christ, as to think that it belongs to themselves?
Bringing this back to Acts 7, the Christian should read the Word by, first and foremost, asking God for humility and embracing the position of the lowly. This longing for humility undergirds all stirrings for justice. In Acts 7, Stephen demonstrates an intimate understanding of this foundation. His exhortation to the Sanhedrin is not based in self-righteous indignation but in the security and courage that comes from knowing that Jesus Christ has saved him. Stephen thus sets his entire being aside to instead be filled with Christ's nature, the same selfless nature that led Christ to willingly die on the cross for sinners like us. The Bible illuminates that because Jesus Christ’s sacrifice has freed the Christian, the Christian is then free to serve others the way they were served by the Savior: by completely relinquishing the self in death.
The text encourages Christians to act on the recognition of how we have been given dignity we could not have earned ourselves. This begins in conversations, big and small. The Christian recognizes when one has privilege and actively sacrifices the urge to be verbally heard. The Christian resists from speaking out of defensiveness when faced with an idea that is uncomfortable. Christian hearts listen; they are not megaphones that seize the final say. If we are full in Christ, what other form of power do we need?
This does not mean that Christians are to say nothing; as Acts 7 shows, Stephen spoke loudly and clearly. But Christians do not speak with their own voices. Since our imperfect, sinful selves have died, we call upon God’s perfect voice. And for that, we can look to Stephen as an example:
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 7:59-60 (ESV)
(1) Andrew L. Draper, “The End of ‘Mission’: Christian Whiteness and the Decentering of White Identity,” in Can "White" People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission ed. Love L. Sechrest et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 376.
(2) Ibid., 376.
(3) Love L. Sechrest, “‘Humbled Among the Nations’: Matthew 15:21-28 in Antiracist Womanist Missiological Engagement” in Can "White" People Be Saved?, 580.
Karis Ryu is a senior at Brown studying History and East Asian Studies.
Photo by Grace Kim, Brown '23.