I have written elsewhere about how the opening chapters of the Bible are becoming very important to me. I have also made mention that it is out of this idea that love of enemy and love of neighbor is born. C.S. Lewis said in his magisterial The Weight of Glory that your neighbor is the most holy object that you come into contact with apart from the Eucharist.
Why is this concept, “the image of God,” so central to the Christian’s understanding of humanity? What is the big deal?
My tradition is often accused of having a very negative view of humanity. We are the people who coined the phrase, “total depravity,” so I suppose the accusation is warranted. One of our most famous preachers is well known for his sermon, Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God. You don’t get much more negative than that title. Nonetheless, I would argue that this caricature is not truly accurate.
One of my favorite theologians, R.C. Sproul argues that instead of “total depravity” it would be better to call it “radical corruption.” The reason for this is that the idea of “radical corruption” points us to a deeper reality, that our brokenness is not our true selves. Our true identity, is that of image bearer. It might be corrupted but it is there, in all of us. We all reflect the image of our Creator.
When we come to grips with the reality that all people are image bearers it transforms the world around us.
I think that this is one of the things that Jesus was trying to do one day talking to an expert in the law,
“A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (Luke 10:30–39)
The priest and Levite did what they needed to do to stay ritually clean. Most of the people listening probably thought, “Yes, good, that makes sense.” The difference between them and the Samaritan is that the Samaritan was moved with compassion. He saw in the man, someone who most likely on a normal would have hated the Samaritan (for Jews despised Samaritans), something more. The priest and Levite saw an obstacle, the Samaritan saw a person. I would argue that the Samaritan saw in the man the image of God.
How do you see “the other”? You know that person who you can’t stand or a representative of a group of people you can’t stand. Do you see them as image bearers of God?
I have noticed a fascinating truth, when people are discussing hard issues their tenor and tone is very different in person than in the virtual space. Why do you think that is? Why are people more mean in the virtual space than in person? I think it’s simple, it is much harder to objectify a flesh and blood person sitting across from when you can see how your words impact them.
This same thing can be true when a conversation is taking place in person and we immediately place a label on someone: “Millenial,” “Boomer,” “Feminist,” “Conservative,” “Progressive,” and the list could go on. When we engage with someone based on a label then we are able to turn them into an object and dehumanize them. A label is not an image bearer, a person is.
When we are able to dehumanize our neighbor then we have, in effect, erased the image of God from them.
The concept of people being image bearers is so central because if it is true then it means that people have innate worth. We might not like someone but if we understand that they are an image bearer, just like us, then it means that they have worth and that at our core we are more alike than different.
If we could come to grips with the reality that all people are created in the image of God then we might have a shot at true neighbor love. We might even have a fighting chance at enemy love. Who knows, maybe we can even catch a glimpse at why Jesus was willing to redeem us from exile and bring us back into relationship with himself.