I am created in the image of God. This is something I have been told for as long as I remember. Sometimes told with words, but often told in images… Sunday School classrooms, church parlors, and acres of stained glass all told me the same thing: Jesus was blond haired, blue eyed, white, and male – just like me.
Part of the joy of living in the white privilege bubble is that this doesn’t seem odd – it seems normal. The fact that so many other kids who did not live in the bubble – they were not white, or not male, or not blond haired, or blue eyed – could not see the image of Jesus as the image of themselves really didn’t cross my mind. Those were happy and innocent days… or should I say blissfully ignorant…
Many of the things I learned were certainly not true. Jesus was not white, did not have blue eyes or blond hair, and really didn’t look like me much at all. He was male – so I get to keep something. I can be forgiven for lack of knowledge as a child, but what about the adults who painted those pictures or designed those windows?
The inadequacy of blond haired-blue eyed Jesus becomes more obvious over time. If every person is created in the image and likeness of God, then each of us should be able to look at the images of God we create and see all the human species. So, it’s up to artists and window makers and others to find that image… Well perhaps I have some responsibility as well. I really think that any image that makes God look like a human being is not helpful.
I’ve recently been reading a reflection on Desmond Tutu’s theology by Michael Battle. These two are “deep end of the pool” theologians, while I’m “kiddy pool” but let me put my toes in the water.
Reading Tutu has caused me to rethink my whole notion that I am created in God’s image. Scripture tells us that we are made in the image and likeness of God – that is beyond question. I’ve sort of understood this to mean that each of us is somehow a
miniature replica of God; each one of us is the image and likeness of God. But there is a bit of leap between “we are made…” and “I am made…” in the image.
Tutu and Battle shattered this muddled and comfortable delusion from my childhood. The writer of Genesis tells us that “God made man/mankind/humankind in [his] image, male and female after [his] image…” Does the writer have a single person, for example me, in mind? You really have to overlook much of the text to make a simple, linear, literal reading possible.
The socially implanted image of God as an “old, white haired man” is something most folks I know have long since rejected on an intellectual level. The challenge is to change the emotional level, where that old guy still hangs out. The problems with the “old, white guy” imagery are legion. But to rid myself of this old default, I need to implant some new, better image. I don’t know what that is, but Battle and Tutu may have given me some clues.
The big shift that Tutu brings to me is a realization that when Genesis tells us that humanity is made in God’s image, it may not be referring to each singular person but rather to all of humanity. I am not a miniature likeness. All of us together are the image and likeness. Collectively we look like God. Individually we look like something much smaller. Once I hear Genesis this way, I don’t suppose I can un-hear it. It is moving and mystical.
This understanding of God’s act of creating humanity as God’s image also brings a great sadness. If we collectively, as a whole, all together form the image of God, then the ways we have found to sort ourselves into little groups – tribes, families, languages, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Black, White, whatever, are ways that we find to be something less than God’s image.
Prisoners are part of the image. Prostitutes are part of the image. The deeply mentally ill
are part of the image. Lepers are part of the image. I think this is why Jesus is at such pains to tell us that how we treat the stranger, the outcast, the prisoner, the other, is critically important. When we cast “them” out, we diminish the image of God. When we make “them” invisible, we obscure the image of God. What a sorrow this must be to God.
What new vision of God might I conjure? Perhaps we might be something like pixels, the smallest unit in a digital image, in the grand display of God. We have our distinct color, our distinct brightness. None is more or less
important than another. By ourselves we don’t make an image. Together, side by side, in concert with each other, we can theoretically display the infinite.
I keep thinking there must be better, more resonant language than pixel… Something like stars… That each of us is like the light of a star scattered across the infinite backdrop of the universe. A single star is, by itself just a little speck of light, but cast across the night sky they are breathtaking. The reason I don’t think this works is stars don’t have the insignificance of individual pixels. This is not to say a pixel by itself is unimportant or meaningless, but it has almost no significance of its own. It needs all the other pixels to form an image – just as we need all our brothers and sisters be the image of God.