Majority culture is accustomed to a “diversity” that parallels Xerox machines—simply a copy with a barely noticeable shadow here and there that proves it’s not an exact replica. Our copy/paste mentality has maimed our very understanding of humanity.
To get it back, the church needs a restored image of the future, one that pines with Ben Winters’ enslaved protagonist in Underground Airlines.
Sometimes it’s possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of this world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger’s sentence, a green, impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.
Winters’s words resonate with the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. This dream for humankind in which all people are at peace is a religious vestige, in a post-fall world that life isn’t as it should be. What life should be depends on how we answer the enduring question “What does it mean to be human?”
But with many evangelicals in the precarious pocket of the president, we must ask if we are prepared to direct humanity to the right answer. Does the American church have the theological framework necessary to reclaim a vision of true racial diversity not just in the church but in the communities, suburbs, and cities they dwell in?
Reclaiming the Image of God in the Era of Idols
The image of human nature that Christianity perpetuates is that of the image of God—something that, if properly understood, should crush racism.
In the biblical story, the image of God is the first way humans are described. In Genesis 1:26–28, God creates male and female in his image and gives them the task of representing and reflecting him to the rest of creation. Within the first nine chapters of Genesis, the phrase “image of God,” the imago dei, occurs two more times: Genesis 5:1 and 9:6. The second is related to the prohibition of murder on the grounds that God made humankind in his image, while the first is a reference to Seth being born in the image of God.
If you keep going into the Old Testament, you’ll find that the language of “image of God” dissipates. What replaces it is the language of idolatry. It is not that the Old Testament bails on the “image of God” concept, but rather the image is now estranged, warped into the concept of idolatry. Every other example of “image” in the Old Testament, apart from one reference in the book of Daniel, is related specifically to idolatry. Humanity, rather than reflecting the image of God, begins to reflect the image of lifeless, stiff-necked idols.
The paradigmatic text for this is Exodus 32—the golden calf narrative of Israel. In the Exodus account, Moses receives the law from God on Mount Sinai, while the people of Israel abandon the worship of God and exalt the golden calf they have created. They discard worship of the Creator for the worship of creation; they failed to image God and reflected instead the image of the calf.
In the remainder of the Old Testament nearly every reference to Israel’s corporate sin alludes to this golden calf episode. And if the golden calf is the paradigmatic text for Israel’s idolatry, Jim Crow era statues might be America’s paradigmatic idol.
In the New Testament, the image of God language reenters the story in Jesus Christ. As the true image of God from all eternity, Christ reconciles all things to himself. Christ submits to the task of redeeming all of creation by the cross and through the Spirit. In his life, in the crucifixion, and in his ascension Christ manifests the true image of God.
Humanity was created in and remains the image of God, but fails to reflect the perfect image of the Creator. Christ himself redeems us to bear the image of life, of eternity, of truth, of God. We were created in the image, we maimed that image, and we are now, because of Christ, being restored to that image. In short, it is the gospel.
Finding a Fuller Understanding of the Imago Dei in a Nineteenth-century Theologian
If the church is to counter the Klan and the narrative of white supremacy, we may want to turn toward the rich theology of Herman Bavinck (1854–1921).
Bavinck was a Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologian who viewed all of the created order as “organic,” copies of the unity-in-diversity that reflects the Triune God. For Bavinck, humankind is the image of God, and this image is organic and therefore displays the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity. Therefore, humankind is a “micro-divine being” and the pinnacle of creation.
There are four aspects of Bavinck’s embodied imago dei that are worth recovering for the church today, especially in conversations on race.
First, the individual human in all its diverse attributes, capacities, and characteristics is unified as a single moral and physical being. Ethically, there is no single component of the human that makes one “more” the image of God than another. Every aspect of the human reflects God, and there is no single attribute alone, like rationality, that makes up the image of God. The entire embodied human is the image of God. Humankind, therefore, does not bear the image of God, but is the image of God. Likewise, while all creatures are organic and bear something of God’s unity-in-diversity, it is only humans who are the image of God.
Second, this image for Bavinck moves beyond the individual, and can be seen in its relational qualities, thus broadening the vision of the image of God. Bavinck explains that the image of God is too rich to be fully realized in a single human. God's image is more fully developed in the family.
Third, Bavinck prefers to speak of the image of God not as being about particular humans, but of humanity. All of humanity throughout time and space, considered as a whole, in its manifold diversity, reflects the Triune God. Humanity is united as a single organism under the headship of Christ or of Adam. The importance of the communal or holistic vision of the image of God is that the individual must consider the whole. No part of the diverse organism is impacted without the rest of the organism being affected.
The fourth aspect of Bavinck’s organic embodied image of God is that of telos, or purpose. All created organisms are oriented toward glorifying God, and this is the case for the image of God. The individual image of God must orient around this purpose, and humanity as a whole is being drawn to this end, when humanity in all of its diversity—all nations, people, ethnicities—will be unified under Christ. This aim sets forth the day when faith will “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Bavinck’s exposition of the imago dei reminds us that the Christian tradition has the theological tools to affirm the diversity of humankind as inherently good, and upholds the unity of the moral and physical human body as essential to what it means to be human.
Relying on a flimsy understanding of the imago dei allows culture to continue on more concerned with the individualistic, stiff-necked ideas of the past rather than our human neighbors.
The reality of the image of God makes it blatantly clear that racism is a sin. The church can only proclaim that effectively with a robust understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. Once we do, we’ll be on our way to reclaiming, as Ben Winters writes, “the impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.”
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.