Twelve years ago, we took our family on a mission trip to China. As part of our daily activity, we went into classrooms where kids would ask us questions and practice their English skills. Usually, we fielded generic questions like: What’s your favorite color? What do you like about China? What do you do? And, once they found out our family was from Chicago, Do you know Michael Jordan?
But one day, a boy raised his hand and floored me with something else. “Do you hate Osama bin Laden?”
|We think we’ve got large class sizes.
This was October, 2002. 9/11 was not yet history. I struggled for the right words, and out came something like, “No, I don’t. I am a follower of Jesus and he asks me to love my enemies. So I hate what he did. But no, I do not hate him.”
I could sense a climate change in the room. A room filled with communist atheist kids had just heard something they did not have the resources to comprehend. I wasn’t sure I did. But their skepticism that our God was relevant turned to interest. What could make someone not return hate with hate?
Remember a time when people got along all the time? No one blamed anyone else for their dumb decisions, and no one got all defensive in your face about it either? We never bullied or inflicted hurt on purpose or put our own wants above someone else’s needs? No one died in mindless acts of hatred.
Yeah, neither do I. Because none of us ever saw it. Only two people ever did. They didn’t hang onto it for long.
It Was All Good. Very Good.
|I imagine looking up in the garden was like this.
When God created the first two people, he declared that the original partnership was very good. It was the only part of creation that earned the adverb “very.” In that beginning, the original pair did not blame and fear one another. They worked together with grace and dignity. Humanity had that “let’s all hold hands and get along” thing down, I tell you. But then, there were only two of them. How much conflict can you get into?
It ended. Rather abruptly.
We’ve been talking about the image of God and what that means every day. How do we discover our identity, what we were born to be and do, by knowing more about that image?
We’ve figured out that being created in God’s image means displaying his character and growing up, like kids, to “look” more like him. It means having his vision for my future and the future of the Kingdom. It means taking on the responsibility of being his ambassador of light in a dark world. Doing what he would do.
One huge aspect of “doing what he would do” lies at the heart of the Genesis story. If all people are created in his image, and if that image is still to be protected and valued even after we completely messed it up (Genesis 9.6), what does that mean for how we value other human beings?
If my purpose is to hold his vision dearer than anything I can dream of myself, I need to seriously look at that original relationship—and then at how we relate to one another now. God’s vision was made clear in the garden. People are equal. People are precious. People are the most beautiful thing He created.
What am I going to do with that?
What I should be going to do is let the rest of the world see how it was meant to be. Let them know God had a plan. Make it clear that I’m committed to restoring that original plan. Even if it’s not a popular commitment.
Who Is God’s Image Again?
I listened to a panel of pastors and others recently talk about racism, privilege, and power. One of the young men told the story of going to Ferguson to participate in nonviolent protest. He spoke of standing face to face with police officers and looking into their eyes. “I could see clearly that neither one of us wanted to hurt the other. We were both people, looking in one another’s eyes. Looking at another person who wanted peace. But we were stuck on opposite sides. Most people don’t want to hurt anyone—we know we’re all the same people.”
Those aren’t his exact words, but that was the scene he painted. People who want to treat one another right, but a world that is so filled with complication, so far from what the original order was meant to be, we don’t really know how.
- Osama bin Laden was made in the image of God.
- Michael Brown and Darren Wilson were made in the image of God.
- Every illegal immigrant you’ve ever seen, talked to, or read about was made in the image of God.
- Every girl trafficked for sex was made in the image of God. So was her pimp.
- The person who annoys you next door or in the next pew was made in the image of God.
- The kid in youth group who just unleashed the longest string of profanity you’ve ever heard put together was made in the image of God.
- The slow old lady up ahead, the grocery checker who made a mistake when you were in a hurry, the kid you just cut from the team are all made in the image of God.
What am I going to do with that?
Darn, but I don’t think God made any exceptions when he said humans were made in his image. And that we are to love them. I don’t see any annotations next to those pretty all-inclusive verses.
Why not? Because as his image, we know two things. One, we are called to restore what his original plan was. Two, the moment I look at you as a lesser being, I forget that I am you. . I am of the same materials. If I look in the mirror, I should see you as much as I see me. I should be able to look at those who stand against me and recognize myself. If I’m living as God’s ambassador, I should look into any eyes at all and see like Jesus would. In fact, I should see Jesus himself.
The world around us tells us we should treat everyone equally and be kind to all. Why? Because . . . well, we’re not sure really, but it seems like a good idea. It’s warm and fuzzy and gets a lot of Facebook likes. It often works out well in practice. So yeah, love your neighbor. That’s a good thing to do.
No wonder it doesn’t motivate a lot of us to change.
The Real Reason
How about this? Treat everyone equally because everyone has the same stamp of the Almighty on his or her soul. And as his ambassadors, we have the chance to help them uncover it. To help another human soul recognize his or her identity as God’s own. To see the spark of joy and empowerment and pure light that comes from that recognition dawning. We get to be a part of that. We get to see it happen–when we start seeing others as fellow image bearers, no matter what.
The other thing to understand, though, is that love is a verb, not a nice feeling. We can’t get away with, “Hey, I love them with the love of God. But they’ve got to conform to my standards before I’ll do anything more.” Love always does something. It never pats someone on the head and moves on. It gets in the mud and pulls people out of it, because no one can discover their true identity covered in muck. And no one can get out of it alone. I couldn’t.
Respecting the image of God means we can’t turn away from damage that is done to it. It requires us to call out injustice. It begs us to stand up for others until they can stand for themselves. That’s what God did, still does, for us. Jesus stood up for us on the cross. We never could have.
Yet some days we can’t stand up for our neighbor, friend, coworker, or that person at church. They are to blame. They should apologize first. They should prove they care for me first. Guess what? Jesus didn’t require that, and I’m glad. While we were yet sinners, he died for us. He didn’t ask for apologies or qualifications first. He didn’t inspect skin color, economic status, gender, nationality, or morality. He didn’t say he’d die for only those who agreed with his politics, word choice, ideas for how to run a church, or theology. While we still rejected him, he died. Thank God.
To be his image is to see the “very good” of Genesis in everyone. . It’s to look at another soul and recognize the same image that is in you. Every human soul. How can I act hatefully toward my own face?
Next week, we’ll actually ask that question. It’s not as easy as it sounds.