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Thinking Theologically About Racial Tensions: The Image of God

This is part two in a four-part series on thinking theologically about racial tensions. I posted an introductory piece last week. Prior to this series, I also wrote a post on race and American history.

The image of God seems like an obvious and already agreed-upon foundation for talking about race, but it has more to teach us and more ways to correct us than we might at first realize.

The doctrine itself is multifaceted. Considering its significance as a theological concept—highlighted three times in the opening chapters of Genesis (1:26-28; 5:1-2; 9:6-7)—the image of God has not always been easy to define.

Older theologians tended to emphasize the structural aspects of the image of God. They viewed man’s capacity for intelligence, rationality, morality, beauty, and worship as that which distinguishes us from the animals. Even in unborn babies and persons with severe impairments, there is still a unique human capacity for these qualities, however limited by physical or psychological constraints.

More recent theologians have focused on the functional aspects of the image of God. That is, they identify God’s image less with our essence than with our ethics. According to passages like Romans 8:29 (“predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son”) and 1 Corinthians 15:49 (“as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven”), the image of God is not just what we have, it is our eschatological goal—what we are called to do and be (1 John 3:2-3).

Both aspects teach us something important about the image of God, but the Bible allows us to say much more about the functional (what we do) than the structural (what we have). Note, then, three further dimensions of how we live out the image of God.

First, human beings are representatives of God. Just as an ancient king would place statues of himself throughout his realm, marking his ownership and rule, so our presence as image bearers in the world marks out the earth as belonging to God. Further, as representatives, we are called to be rulers and stewards. We are set apart from the animals in that we are given “dominion over the works of [his] hands” (Psalm 8:6; Gen. 1:28).

Second, human beings are made to be in relationship with God. Unique among his creatures, Adam was created for covenant (Hos. 6:7). As Michael Horton observes, the image of God is not something in us as much as it is something between us and God (p. 381). To be an image bearer is to be the sort of creature who can know, serve, and self-consciously worship the Creator.

Third, human beings are made to reflect the righteousness of God. The New Testament defines the image of God as true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; WCF 4.2). Although sin has marred the divine image in man, we can still be renewed by God in Christlikeness so as to increasingly reflect his image (Col. 3:9-10).

This last point needs to be underscored. We will not understand what it means to be made in the image of God unless we know Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15-20). The gospel is the message about the “glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4-6), and by his Spirit we can be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (3:17-18). In other words, the image of God is now, first, and foremost about Christ.

Image of God and Race

That’s only the briefest overview of a massive topic. But with enough of the big ideas in place, we can think about the implications of the imago dei for race and racism. Here are applications worth considering:

First, and most obviously, the image of God speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We should not breeze by this foundational point. For starters, while the world talks often about individual worth and dignity, it is unclear upon what basis secular voices can make such an assertion. Is there any ontological and universal reason that every human being should be treated with respect? Does the worth of each person exist prior to and independent of our personal or legal determination? The Christian doctrine of the image of God can answer these questions. Secular assumptions do not rest on the same secure footing.

Furthermore, the sad reality is that at times Christians have denied or overlooked the image of God in those they deemed to be inferior. Sometimes this was accomplished by simply positing that the “other” was less than human. It could also be accomplished by locating the image of God structurally in, for example, the intellectual attributes, so that if you think the “other” is by nature intellectually inferior, then they also share in less of the image of God. In many occasions, however, the imago dei in the “other” has been affirmed on a basic dogmatic level without really penetrating the heart.

We saw in the theological survey above that the image of God can be considered something we grow into, but on another level it is something inherently true of every human being—black and white, young and old, in the womb and out of the womb. Think of Genesis 9:6, where capital punishment is introduced on the basis of man’s irreducible status as an image bearer. James 3:9 is another key text—“with [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Here the image admits no degrees. Instead, we are given a universal command that depends on the universality of God’s image and likeness in man.

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. Slavery in this country originated in greed more than in racism. As the institution endured, it drew racism out of the human heart. You could argue, tragically, that it was precisely because this country was so Christian that racism became so virulent. Most Americans knew what the Bible required in loving their neighbors as themselves and in respecting the image of God in other human beings. But instead of letting their theology correct their practice, they developed perverse ways to conclude that blacks were, in fact, not their neighbors, not fellow image bearers, and not fully human. For many white Christians, the way to make their Christianity and chattel slavery cohere was to convince themselves that the slave was not the same kind of human being they saw in themselves. Even today, we would all do well to examine our hearts and see if there is any part of us, when encountering someone of a different race or ethnicity, that wonders if we are not actually made of something more refined, more noble, and more divine.

Second, if the image of God reminds us who we are, it also directs us to what we ought to be. As image bearers we were made to know God and be conformed to the image of his Son. This gives us value, but it also gives us a vocation. As John Kilner puts it, the image of God is both our dignity and our destiny.

If we focus only on our worth as image bearers, Christian doctrine can end up sounding the same as any worldly self-esteem mantra. Of course, the Christian has more consistent metaphysical reasons for concluding the same thing, but by itself “Black lives matter” or “All lives matter” captures only one aspect of the imago dei. The image of God is not only what we possess, it is what has been marred and what must be renewed. The image of God gives us dignity, and it gives us direction. It tells us that we matter and what we were made for.

What a wonderful thing it would be to see a recovery of the image of God in our culture, both as an antidote to racism against our fellow human beings and as an antidote to rebellion against God. We do not help people understand the image rightly unless we point them to righteousness, holiness, and a true knowledge of God. The image of God speaks to the worth of all peoples, and it calls every people from every tribe, language, and tongue to worship the One into whose image we must be transformed.

Third, we would do well to start with what we have in common rather than with what separates us. For all the talk of the same image of God in every person, we quickly fall into the habit of talking and acting as if there are different species of human beings separated by a vast epistemological and ontological gulf. I am not talking about a mythical colorblindness, as if we can collectively transcend all categories of race and all permutations of racism. While race may not exist as an essential biological category, it is an observable fact of human existence that skin color is not all the same. I am not eschewing every use of the word “race.” What I am suggesting is that Christians push back against any ideology that suggests that race is the first, and perhaps the ultimate, determination of what it means to be human.

Take a group of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and every other expression of racial or ethnic diversity. What can we say about everyone in the room? They are all made in the image of God, they all inherited original guilt and original corruption from Adam, and they all need the imputed righteousness of Christ. We need to be reminded that before there is the unique experience of being black or white in this country, there is a shared human nature. Make no mistake, for much of our nation’s history white people wielded an oppressive power over black people. That makes for different experiences, different pain, and different fears. And yet, those differences are not intrinsic to black and white. In other places and other times, the differences have played out between white and white, or black and black, or Arab and Jew, or Chinese and Japanese, or free Romans and enslaved Romans.

There is not a white nature, black nature, Asian nature, or Hispanic nature. There is a human nature. Any notions to the contrary only reinforce the sort of racialized ideas we are trying to overcome. When we start with black or white instead of the image of God, we shut each other out of our shared humanity, conducting ourselves as if we can hardly speak to one another, learn from one another, or love one another across the racial divide. When you meet someone of a different race, you should look at that man or woman as someone more like you than different—someone who, deep down, has the same sorts of fears, sins, needs, and aspirations. We ought to think, This is my neighbor with an immortal soul. And though he may have experiences, for better or worse, that I have not had, I am face to face with someone who has been made in the same image as I.

Fourth, as image bearers, we are free moral agents, responsible before God for our choices. By “free” I don’t mean to deny that the unregenerate will is bound to sin. I’m talking about the freedom we have as human beings to operate as our will desires. As I’ve said before, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary and we can be held responsible for them.

This means that while we want to try to understand why people make sinful choices (see below), we ultimately do not want to excuse those choices. This is true whether that environment is the Antebellum South, an Ivy League university, rural Appalachia, or an urban ghetto. No matter the cultural norms or social expectations, the lawless rioter is not excused in his sin, nor is the Jim Crow-era racist justified in his sin. We are always shaped by our history and our environment, but we are never mere products of them. To suggest otherwise is to deny who we are as moral beings made in the image of God.

Fifth, we should seek to understand our fellow image bearers as whole people, not as truncated versions of the worst parts of their life and character. This commitment is a necessary complement to the previous point. Think of the response when a black man with a criminal record has been killed by the police. Some voices are quick to recall (and repeat) the man’s rap sheet. The dead man is reduced to a list of mistakes he made or to the number of citations and arrests he received. To be sure, we need to understand the immediate context in which the shooting occurred, especially if violent criminal activity was taking place at that moment. But such activity has been absent with many of the high-profile shootings of the past few years. The recitation of the victim’s record, then, has the effect of communicating, if not “he had it coming,” then at least “see, he wasn’t a very good guy anyway.” The man is presented—implicitly, and often explicitly—as nothing more than a thug.

As Christians we know that our neighbors deserve to be treated with respect not just because they are image bearers, but because we are called to treat them as we want to be treated. This principle applies to the dead as much as to the living. The people of the past are, in many ways, the most foreign people we will ever “meet.” We may inhabit more of the shared assumptions and experiences with someone who lives on the other side of the world today than with someone who lived in our own country 200 years ago. What’s more, when dealing with the dead, we are dealing with people who cannot respond to our charges, cannot change anything they’ve done or said, and cannot demonstrate to us any further growth or change. That puts the object of our study in a precarious position and demands of the historian honesty and charity.

Does this mean we have to refrain from doing history “warts and all”? Of course not. But we should avoid doing history that is “warts and nothing else.” The complexities of the past are quickly reduced to simplistic talking points for the present. Even when persons from the past deserve severe censure, it is too easy for us to condemn them in toto with the same reductionist tendencies we disdain when it is used in judging us or judging the people we want to defend.

I am not calling for moral relativism, but for moral reasoning. There is a difference between the flawed man who accomplished great things and stood for a heroic cause and the flawed man who accomplished dubious things and stood for a sinful cause. Past, present, or future, no one wants to be defined solely by his or her failings. Dealing with our fellow image bearers as whole people—with honesty, sympathy, and charity—won’t eliminate racial tensions, but we might be able to bridge some of the divide that separates us.

Sixth, we should be slow to attribute to individual image bearers the unfavorable characteristics associated with a broader group identity—especially when that broader group identity was not freely chosen or the broader group denounces those unfavorable characteristics. This last point requires the most nuance, but it may also be the most important. Go back to the passage where James instructs the believer to tame the tongue because we should not “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9). The warning against cursing is not identical with “attributing unfavorable characteristics.” I understand James is making a more serious charge, but the underlying logic is instructive. According to James, the person you are about to curse stands before you irreducibly as someone made in the likeness of God. Whatever else you might think about him or want to say about him, no matter what sins he has committed, you must first reckon with him as an individual who is in the image of the Creator before he is anything else.

There will be little hope for healing in our land until we refuse to tear people down and shut people up based on the worst examples of their broader group identity. And lest you (or I) think this is someone else’s problem, consider:

  • When 9/11 happened, did you think, That’s what Muslims are like, or did it worry you that Muslims would be unfairly singled out because of the actions of a few Islamic extremists?
  • When someone points out that COVID-19 originated in China and that Chinese officials lied about what was going on, do you want to make sure that Asians in general are not mistreated?
  • When Christians are derided in the mainstream press, do you figure it was the result of a bad journalist or symptomatic of a profession that disdains religious conservatives?
  • If an actual noose had been placed in Bubba Wallace’s garage—and the perpetrator was white—would you see this as an illustration of systemic white supremacy or the action of a single racist?
  • When a white police officer shoots an unarmed black man, are you likely to conclude that the officer was a bad apple or that this is just one more example of police bias against blacks?

I could go on and draw up scenarios involving almost any racial, religious, or ethnic group (and quite a few professions too). The fact is, we all hear news of certain bad guys and quickly think, Yup, that’s what those people are like, while we hear news of other bad guys and want to say, “Hold on a minute. Most of those people are not like that.” We could do with a dose of healthy individualism—not the lone-ranger kind, but the kind that allows a fellow image bearer to stand before us as an individual before he is defined by or deemed representative of some broader group. I know individualism can be problematic (aren’t most isms?)—and maybe “individual agency”—is a better expression, but let us not forget that it was Christianity that taught the West to prize the individual. After all, God did not first create a community; he made a single man, and we will stand before him as an individual man or woman (Heb. 9:27). Rightly construed, there is biblical warrant for treating people as individuals.

I know this is easier said than done. As an absolute practice, it’s impossible. We can’t help but generalize based on some external factors and draw broader conclusions from anecdotal evidence. The clothes I wear, the way I talk, the job I have, the place I’m from, the color of my skin—they all give meaningful information about me. The goal is not to pretend we don’t make generalizations and extrapolations. The goal is to do our best not to assume the worst and to let people belonging to broader groups—and that’s everyone—surprise us with their individuality. Even if we cannot avoid powerful first impressions, we can hold these assessments provisionally, with an open hand and with an open heart.

Furthermore, to say we should be slow to attribute unfavorable characteristics to individuals based on group affiliation is not to say we must be slow to confront bad ideas, bad policies, and bad history that may exist in those groups. We can ask questions about the nature of policing, or the nature of Islam, or the nature of evangelical Christianity without imputing the worst examples to every police officer, Muslim, or Christian.

Concluding Thought

Several weeks ago, a Juneteenth street party in north Charlotte erupted in violence. Hundreds of shots were fired, with more than a dozen people either dead or wounded. Charlotte City Councilman Malcom Graham, who serves the district where the shooting happened, expressed sadness over the renewed violence in an area that has been making efforts to improve itself. “This does not define us, but is certainly something very tragic,” Graham said. “What happened last night in the city and on that corner, which has a history of being self-sufficient, a lot of good work going on by neighborhood leaders and organizations. Last night certainly won’t define who we are, but certainly it is giving cause for concern about how we conduct ourselves.”

I agree with Councilman Graham. The actions of a few should not define the character of the many. And what goes for north Charlotte, goes for the whole country. At the heart of our current racial tension is a feeling shared by almost everyone: Why are you judging me based on the worst examples of my skin color, my ethnicity, or my profession?

There are 330 million people in this country. If all our thoughts, words, and deeds were known, you could make the case for a horrifically dystopian America. If we look hard enough, we will find justification for our worst fears. We will always have examples of our tribe being picked on by the other tribe. We will always have examples of our side behaving nobly and the other side behaving dastardly. It assures all of us that our preferred narrative is utterly unfalsifiable.

Some of God’s image-bearers commit acts of atrocious wickedness. They should be deterred, denounced, and punished. Some institutions and laws in God’s world are unjust. They should be changed and their affects ameliorated. At the same time, surely loving our neighbors entails giving the benefit of the doubt to others wherever possible—not assuming the worst about the individual and not assuming the worst individual is indicative of the whole group. If we are going to burn the country down—figuratively and literally—every time we see their bad guys doing bad things, we give power to the worst people to set our agenda instead of to the best. We ought to reject any narrative that tells us that “those other people”—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, cops, protesters, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, rich, poor, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals—are as bad as the worst people of their kind. We should not curse people made in the likeness of God. More than that, we should have a good reason before we castigate them too.

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