Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an expansive, landmark text that traces the pain of black life in the Jim Crow South and the thinly veiled racism of the urbane North. The novel is comedic and tragic, gritty and surreal, mythic and symbolic, layered and accessible. Ellison tells of a nameless protagonist’s quest to find dignity in an American society devout in its denial of his humanity.
What determines the protagonist’s invisibility? It isn’t a personal defect in Invisible but a moral fault in those who behold him: “My invisibility . . . occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”
Invisible’s diagnosis of society piques the interest of theologically minded readers. It draws us toward the notion of sin as more than mere disobedience. Sin is a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.
Sin is a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.
For Ellison, this “peculiar disposition” is “a matter of . . . our inner eyes,” an observation that suggests blindness to racial prejudice and societal disparities is not an occasional slip-up, but an error bred in our bones. Yet this ontological problem manifests functionally when image-bearers degrade and limit other image-bearers, making them invisible. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “What makes sin so serious is precisely the fact that man [uses] God-given and God-imaging powers and gifts to do things that are an affront to his Maker.”
How Broken Eyes Degrade
Though the inner eyes of fellow image-bearers are the cause of his invisibility, Invisible feels the restriction bodily. The novel’s early battle-royal scene exemplifies the visceral and bodily consequences.
As the high school valedictorian of his southern school, Invisible is invited to deliver a speech on black humility to the town’s most important white leaders. Upon arrival, Invisible isn’t called to the podium but is instead forced to partake in a traumatizing, degrading debacle. Ten black students are led into a smoky ballroom under the drunken gaze of “the most important men of the town . . . bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants.” They’re stripped naked, set in a makeshift boxing ring, and commanded to blindly beat each other while the townsmen hoot, holler, and hurl racial epithets. Bruised and beaten, Invisible closes the night with his speech, swallowing his own blood and saliva to expound on the need for blacks to be humble and socially responsible. He’s rewarded with a briefcase and a scholarship to a Negro college and feels “an importance I had never dreamed.”
In the novel’s view, the battle royal is society in miniature: black people are visible only within the confines of a commodified existence. Society gazes on Invisible as a means to an end, a human prop for fetishized entertainment, and a muzzled voice to proclaim the absence of black responsibility as the source of inequality. Because Invisible is invisible, he must entertain before he speaks, and even his rhetorical pursuits are confined to the talking points of a segregated society. Invisible must “know his place” and embrace the townsmen’s limits on his freedom, body, and image-bearing. His body must perform violence and his mind and mouth preach a false gospel of dignity through merit.
Skewed Sight, Skewed Actions
The struggle for visibility and dignity are at the crux of much of African American history. When Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wanted to pray in the front of their church undisturbed, they sought to be seen in body and soul. When Sojourner Truth raised her voice for the rights of black women, declaring, “Ain’t I a woman?” she was demanding to be seen. They sought to be seen as those made and dignified by God, for they knew they were viewed by most as invisible.
This history shows us that when it comes to the imago Dei, one’s doctrinal statement can be on point while one’s inner eyes are unholy. One pastor observes,
As I reflect on several racial flashpoints over the past few years, I fear I have been too quick to think to myself, Yes, of course, image of God. Every Christian already knows that and believes that. But white Christians in this country have not always believed that, or at least they have not always acted like they really believe it.
The test of our belief in the imago Dei is not what we say about the doctrine but how we, in real life, view, treat, and relate to our fellow image-bearers—particularly those most prone to invisibility. We can even be attuned to the particulars of black plight without this knowledge changing our behavior. Anytime we eye and engage others for personal gain, our seeing is skewed.
New Ways to See
Honest introspection—if we dare stomach it—may reveal how normal we’ve made it to render others invisible. When we view children as a drain or nuisance, coworkers as footstools, and significant others as receptacles for our frustrations or dispensers of our happiness, we walk in this tragic tradition of fallen humanity. We see God’s visible image-bearers not through the true lens of their dignity but as commodities. We render them invisible. Such sight is a profound moral emergency.
Honest introspection—if we dare stomach it—may reveal how normal we’ve made it to render others invisible.
What, then, is the way forward? If our eyes cause us to sin, we must tear them out, Christ declared (Matt. 5:29; 18:9). How is this done with our inner eyes? How can our moral and social imaginations be redeemed? We must replace our evaluative gaze with convictions about common kinship as image-bearers. This requires both repentance and a Redeemer who can give us fresh vision.
Christ—the image of God—must continually be the center of our vision as the image of true humanity and the Redeemer of broken humanity. He is the One who seeks the outcast and dissolves hostility, hatred, and exploitation. It is Christ, the image of the invisible God, who mends and heals broken image-bearers—body, soul, eyes, and all.