Is the imago Dei and race a misplaced argument?

By August 23, 2017 No Comments

With such an emphasis on racism these days, especially after Charlottesville and its reminder that hateful dispositions still remain in our society, the concept of imago Dei has gained much traction. And why shouldn’t it? After all, the long entrenched disparities that have existed in American society for so long screams that racism must be dealt as a transgression against the image of God.

I’ve been chewing on this and intend to do some research. But I find myself asking more and more, what exactly are we doing with the image of God with respect to race? It seems at times, it is an easy punt that perhaps doesn’t quite get to the real mark.

As I ponder this question, I came across this fantastic article on the 9Marks site written by Thabiti Anyabwile. I may not always agree with Thabiti but one thing I have always appreciated about him is his thoughtfulness in parsing out various components of issues. This 7 year article entitled Many Ethnicities, One Race is no exception. I would encourage a reading of the entire article but I want to highlight some of his points as I believe they are germane to asking this question about the imago Dei and race. This is not going to be a scholarly treatment of the topic but I hope to at least be a theological one.

As the title suggests, Thabiti rightly notes as theologians have grappled with this question of what to do with racism that has plagued society and the fabric of our society for so long, a missing element is the fact that in the image of God as outlined through the biblical narrative, there is no such thing as race. So how do we reconcile this with the image of God?

I hope to write more on the image of God, but a couple of concepts are important, briefly. First, the image of God belongs to him, not us. We must contend with what this means in relation to his revelation and character and be careful to not burden this theological concept with extraneous or self-indulged baggage. Second, we must consider what all being in the image of God means. It’s more than just skin color or other biological features, but also encompasses the rational, relational, spiritual, moral, and governmental functions. There is much more to say about this and theologians have debated, but this is a general consensus.

One Race

On race, Thabiti notes;

We may safely conclude that insofar as genealogy is concerned, the Bible plainly records that there is only one race. With regard to bodily properties like skin color, we may conclude that, though differences exist, all people are made in the image of God–male and female; black, brown, and white; red-haired and black-haired. There is nothing about bodily distinctions that either disrupt the organic unity of humanity (Acts 17:26) or obscures the image of God in some groups with certain biological properties.

Strictly speaking, the Scripture knows nothing of our contemporary notion of ‘races.’ People may have different skin color (or hair color), but they do not therefore belong to different ‘races.’ The idea of ‘races’ is, therefore, a fiction. There is but one human race descended from one parentage, all of whom are created in the image of God spiritually, rationally, morally, and bodily.

Race was a social construct devised in the heart of wickedness. This construct  transgresses the image of God as a beautiful array of people with different hues and cultures as descendents from one man, Adam. It was implement as a means to elevate one group and degrade another.

Race and Sin

We don’t get very far in the biblical narrative to know what happened to this genealogy. In Genesis 4, we see that impetus of elevation and degrading germinates through the story of Cain and Able; the animosity towards another rise up with accompanying jealousy, pride and pompous justification. One only needs to keep reading through the Bible to know the impact of the fall infested families, tribes and nations that resulted in all kinds of schemes, hostilities and wars.

It is in this vein, that racial superiority reared its ugly head. Hatred based on a biological factors, i.e., melanin, infested a whole group of people based on a notion that God never approved. It was a false contradictory concept to the image of God and idols to the ones who held race dear.  As Thabiti notes, “to state this problem another way, we could say that our allegiance to races is a form of idolatry. They are constructs inherited from the alienation produced by the Fall.”

Race and Culture

Of course, this maligned way of thinking occurred in an historical context. It infested culture and intermingled with it. I think Thabiti gets to the heart of our entanglement with race, here;

In other words, we have let our fallen cultural constructs of ‘race’ over determine who we are as individuals and groups. As Dave Unander observes: ‘identity, an accurate and appropriate understanding of oneself, is often a casualty of racism and bigotry.’ The damage to healthy, biblical identity occurs because we uncritically take real cultural differences, root them in an imagined and often idolatrous trait like ‘race,’ and proceed to engage the world on this basis. So much of our identity is rooted in a racialized and cultural self-understanding that the pillars of our persons would appear to tremble and collapse with any significant re-examination of the notion of ‘races’ or fallen culture.

But conforming to a biblical standard is the only antidote for centuries of distortion, abuse, and neglect. To advance a theological anthropology that addresses and perhaps helps revers the abuses and errors of earlier period, we must disentangle humanity (particularly redeemed humanity) from their productions (cultures). We must be able to say that the human being made in the image of God is something distinct from the culture he has created, and we must be able to jettison all of the cultural developments that are contrary to what it means to be human in the image of God. This represents for most of us a daunting risk of faith and spiritual renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:1-2).

This raises an obvious question in my mind when we focus on race to try to combat where infractions have occurred. If race is a contradiction of the image of God, are we not shooting ourselves in the foot with an insistence that “blackness” or “brownness” is to be valued as racial equality? How does this not equate to the same thing that “white” people have done? Are we really upholding the image of God with making arguments based on race? I know it’s tricky since this is the premise that has been set for so long. This is why I’m increasingly gravitating towards the concept of the sin partiality because that is precisely what has happened and more in line with the language of Scripture. I can’t help but see partiality can work both ways by focusing on race. I think Thabiti is absolutely right that Christians must disentangle from the cultural captivity of race and think differently about how we are supposed to relate to one another.

The Corporate Image of God

Thabiti concludes his essay with an aptly corrective sections to this dilemma, The Cross, the New Humanity and Redeemed Culture: Unity in Christ. Here he lays out the case that this false notion of race can be absolved by considering that our image can only be fully realized in the reconciliation that Christ wrought. As I noted in my recent blog post, In Defense of Colorblindness, Ephesians 2-3 dismantle this notion of “racial” hostilities that has been ingrained in our culture for so long and compels us to relate to one another according to our identity in Christ, first and foremost. But this relation also is contingent upon recognition of where such partiality have existed in our hearts. It is only through this reality, that any real reconciliation can occur and deal with the very real differences of cultures and experiences. It is here that the image of God corporately manifests to the world, the counter-cultural paradigm of Christ’s kingdom.

I know this is not easy stuff. It’s particularly hard on the minority whose contemporary experiences and heritage has cried out from the dehumanizing injustices that have occurred for so long. I can’t help but see that demand to value the “black race” or “blackness” is a sorely pressing need to seek validation. It’s hard for the racist and the bigot who would rather follow the dictates of a worldly culture that values “whiteness.” But I am convinced by Scripture, and reminded by Thabiti’s words, that the kingdom of God must know none of that.


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