Racism and the Imago Dei

The most important fact one can state about any human beings is that he or she is created in the image of God (imago Dei)… Practically, the image of God is the basis for human dignity. A correct understanding of it is the basis for truly Christian human relationships.
John S. Hammett, A Theology for the Church

Racism is once again at the forefront of conversation everywhere you turn. The topic is demanding attention on social media, in family discussions, and some facet of this topic currently fills the 24-hour news cycle on most networks. One of the things that interests me about this topic as it concerns Christian thought is the rationale behind Christianity’s rejection of racism. What ideas in Christian doctrine are at the epicenter of human dignity? And why shouldn’t we be partial to people based on their skin color, economic status, education, etc? I don’t at all intend to deal comprehensively with the topic of racism or what should be the Christian response to racism, but I do want to address the issue in fidelity to a Biblical worldview.

Racism and the Imago Dei

Ask yourself this question: Why is racism wrong? In 2020, the wrongness of racism is one of the most commonly agreed upon presuppositions for western civilization. But even though everyone seems to skip over it, it’s an important question. Why is racism wrong? Why shouldn’t an ethnic group get to lord their superiority over another ethnic group, citing whatever sources they have to verify their claims? If your worldview is naturalistic (excluding a creator) I’m not sure what your answer is—but I know mine.

For many, the answer is simply this: Christians should love all people. While that is not untrue, it’s an incredibly shallow response for two reasons. First, this idea of Christian love sounds like, “Christians should love all people in spite of…” And a person’s ethnicity is not a detrimental aspect of their personhood that needs to be overcome; it’s a beautiful reminder of the infinitely creative potential of a God who purposefully made people different. Second, “Christians should love all people” is “bumper sticker theology”—a true, theological statement so whittled down and foundationlessly stated, it loses its ability to make an impact.

So, what is the foundation of human dignity?

We read in Genesis 1:26-27 that God intentionally made man in his image and likeness. This idea of being God’s image bearer is something exclusive to humanity, and while the implications of this are many, we’ll focus on the high points. When God fashioned man after his image, it marked man as the pinnacle of God’s creation—intentionally set apart from all else that God made with a special dignity and honor. And this honor extends to all of humanity, regardless of their age, ethnicity, intelligence, physical ability or attractiveness. This means that in God’s economy Jeff Bezos has no more inherent value than a disabled child starving to death in an orphanage, because the highest thing that could be said for either of these people is that they bear God’s image.

Furthermore, in Genesis 9:6, when God establishes that the penalty for murder is death, he does so on the basis that man is made in the image of God. In reference to this, Kenneth A. Matthews said it better than I can, “Capital punishment is not interpreted as a threat to the value of human life but rather is society’s expression of God’s wrath upon anyone who would profane the sanctity of human life” (see footnote 1 below). In other words, this image of God that is knit into the creative fabric of humanity is so majestic and extraordinary that the only reason a person should be put to death is to make the purposefully grand statement about how wicked their actions were in snuffing out another human life, another image bearer.

God chose to make humanity differently than he made everything else by creating them to bear his likeness. To show partiality, hatred or indifference for a human being because of their ethnicity, economic status, stage of development, or any other reason is wicked and deplorable, because no human being bears the likeness of God more or less than any other human being. So, despite whatever sociological classifications we invent to categorize  human beings, none of them matter as much as the fact that we have been given our greatest value and our truest dignity by being made in God’s image.

The impact of this cannot be overstated. Because God has established human value in himself, he has declared our value in a system inestimably higher than our perception of ourselves and our fellow human beings. The value he gives us is even higher than the value we perceive ourselves to have. This is vital to the Christian response to the evils waged against human dignity in our world—racism, ageism, ableism, sexism and abortion—because this belief gives Christians the ability to see people with the inherent value given them by God irrespective of their valuation in human systems.

While the imago Dei is the manner in which God made us, it is not his ultimate plan for us. It is commonly stated about humanity that we are all God’s children. This idea absolutely comes from the idea of the imago Dei. What people mean when they say this is that we have all been fashioned by God in his image. However, bearing his image in creation and bearing his image in perfection are two very different things. Ultimately the reason why racism is still a problem in this world is because this world is tragically broken by the reality of human sinfulness. And ultimately, the truest way that you are complicit in a broken and wicked human system is that you are a sinner who was born an enemy of God. And you weren’t just born a sinner; you are a sinner.

Our being made in God’s image does not mean that we are not sinners. It does not mean that our lifestyles and actions are immune or exempt from what God calls sin (I once heard a person try to excuse a sinful lifestyle because they were “born this way in the image of God”). No—we who were born of Adam in sinfulness, must also be born again of Christ in righteousness (1 Corinthians 15:49). If we repent of our sin and have faith in Christ, the perfect righteousness of God the Son replaces our sinful disobedience in a way that reconciles our relationship with God the Father. While the imago Dei is a beautiful way to view humanity, it pales in comparison to how God views justified sinners in Christ. An even greater dignity can be ours in Christ—indeed, “Those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5a).

I don’t have a 10-step plan to offer as a solution to the issue of racism. I’ve seen many Christians speaking out with their proposed solutions, and I think that many of them fail to address the real issue. I refuse to accept any answer to the poison of sin that fails to offer the gospel as the antidote. I refuse to accept any human movement or cause that makes partners out of those who would oppose the gospel. Here’s what I know: Racism exists in the hearts of sinful men and women because a profound belief in and commitment to the doctrine of the imago Dei does not.

  1. Mathews, K. A. Genesis 1-11:26. Vol. 1A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996. Print. The New American Commentary.

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