Updated: Sep 8, 2020
On the basis of one idea, Christians can affirm that all human life has value: born and unborn, saved and unsaved, of all colors, both genders, and every economic class. That idea is the imagio Dei, the image of God, imparted to all human life since our creation. Every human has within them some imprint of the God of all Creation. On this basis, if for no other reason, their life has infinite potential and infinite value. Bartolome de las Casas in 1515 demanded humane treatment of the American Natives from King Charles I because they, too, had God’s image within them. Any ideology which considers one race lesser than another denies the reality of the imagio Dei in them. This image has been part of our humanness since the very beginning,
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)
Scripture doesn’t make it entirely clear quite what the image is or how it manifests in us. Different generations have formed their own hypotheses, including: our physical bodies (especially popular among Mormons); our capacity for reason and rationality; our capacity for deep-felt emotions; our unique ability to live in relationship with one another (a reflection of how God exists in triune relationship with Himself). The true product of the imagio Dei is mysterious—it is perhaps none of these things, or all of them. All we can say for certain is that, from the beginning, God made us, all of us, in His image. From ancient days, this has been a matter of great consequence.
After the flood, God bestows on Noah’s family a blessing. In this blessing, He establishes a new law: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image” (Gen. 9:6). Generations before the Levitical codes would be delivered through Moses, before Israel was even a nation, God declares all human life sacred and special for one reason: all human life bears His image. Human life has unique value because of the imagio Dei. James doesn’t even allow for insult of fellow humans because they bear God’s likeness (James 3:9-10). The direct voice of God in Noah’s age and the Holy Spirit speaking through James command us to affirm that God has given His image to all humans, and, in this, given us unlimited value.
Like our brother Bartolome, we now have a biblical basis to unreservedly condemn the anti-Black racism this present moment forces us to confront (indeed, bigotry of all forms, but racism is our focus today). Black lives matter because they bear the image of God. For that reason alone, they matter to God and to the church. Every disciple should be able to affirm this with confidence. Only the most radical and extreme opinions would argue otherwise and, in doing so, would expose themselves as being unbiblical and unserious and, on the judgment of 1 Jn. 2:9-11, unconverted. Understanding the imagio Dei does not allow us to discredit the life and value of any human.
It might sound, then, like I am also affirming, after having just said “Black lives matter,” that “all lives matter.” Indeed, I am; my theology demands it. Frankly, it sucks that both the phrases “Black lives matter” and “all lives matter” are treated as political objects. We can supposedly tell what side of the political spectrum someone is on based on which they affirm. Yet, both saying express something true. Of course, Black lives matter—they bear the imagio Dei, after all, and whatever systemic forces that are working to devalue their lives should be reformed. This should not be the sole responsibility of the Black community, either. All groups should be animated when, in one group, the imagio Dei is not assumed, or is disregarded. I wish so dearly that we could say “Black lives matter” without someone assuming we must also stand for the radical Marxism and hateful anti-cop, anti-family, anti-American views espoused by the official group of the same name; we should be able to say “all lives matter” without someone assuming we are also trying to erase the unique challenges of our Black sisters and brothers.
Politics has perverted the language, but our theology allows us to affirm both sayings. Black lives matter: the imagio Dei compels us to stand up against injustice done to them. All lives matter: all humans bear God’s image and have God-given value. Both are true at the same time.
Everything we’ve discussed so far is simple biblical theology, and yet we’ve touched on so many of the ideas surrounding us in the present moment. We can both discuss police reform and condemn violent riots because we know what sin is and we know it affects human institutions and movements. We can defend both the idea that “Black lives matter” and “all lives matter” because we know God has given unique value to every human life. And none of this discussion is built on the fragile, shifting sentiments of human movements. Our reasoning is shaped by the Scriptures we’ve visited, not popular thought and sentiment. We’ve condemned racism and rioting with a doctrine of humanity and hamartiology (study of sin). With that part of our theology established, it is now time to look inward and consider what this means for our lives as disciples and members of Jesus’ church.
Riots and Racism Series
Pt. 3: Racism and the Image of God (Imagio Dei) (you are here)
Pt. 4: Racism and the Disciple (You!)
Pt. 5: Racism and the Body
Pt. 6: Final Thoughts