You are a person, made in the image of God. To draw out what this means, let’s begin with your body. Feel the breath in your chest. Feel your clothes touching your skin. Become aware of the food in your stomach, giving you energy for the day. Exhale, and let your shoulders loosen as the wind from your lungs rushes across your lips.
Now, let’s turn to your memories. Recall the first thing you remember. Recall a time your heart shattered in your chest and remind yourself you survived even that. Bring to mind a moment you knew you were loved. Now, think of when you’ve been most afraid. Remember the things that have brought you this far.
You can create. You can compose beautiful works of art. You can call people into community. You can build networks of relationships and manage the flow of resources in ways that make life better for the people with whom you share the world. You can make something where before there was nothing. What do you create?
Finally, let’s sit for a moment in faith. How are you aware of God’s presence? Perhaps, if you’re a Methodist like me, your heart might be “strangely warmed” as you attune yourself to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Some of us might be able to articulate precisely how we understand God is present, our churches bathing us in their doctrinal traditions since we were young. Your awareness of Divine presence, on the other hand, may be indescribable, experienced, not defined. Perhaps it’s a dance of doctrine, experience, and mystery that makes you aware of God.
Now, tell me exactly how valuable your life is. Tell me precisely how much another person’s life is worth – their body, their experiences, their capacity to create, the presence of God in and surrounding them.
If Christians do not name the value of a person, other stories and forces will fill the gap. Within the American context, the economy has become the standard used to define human worth. Whitney Wilkinson Arreche captures this phenomenon in a recent article in The Christian Century. She connects an appeal made by the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, to sacrifice older adults to COVID-19 for the sake of the economy, with the history and continued consequences of slavery. Wilkinson Arreche traces how humans were made into commodities and sold, their labor exploited, to establish the foundations of the same economic system in which we still operate. As revealed in Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, the blight of slavery did not disappear; it molted like a snake, remaining crucial to the economy while we found new ways for us to call sin by other names. This same economy forms this moment in our history.
If Christians do not name the value of a person, other stories and forces will fill the gap.
We are active participants in, and some of us are beneficiaries of, a system built on a rotten foundation. We’re swept up in a narrative – that every object and every action either makes a profit or causes a loss. Profit becomes a standard to measure morality. We imbue profit with a sacredness that justifies the human cost of affordability and luxurious excess. Companies like Amazon can work people like mules because of the convenience it offers. Private prisons make bank through government contracts, disproportionally harming poor folks and People of Color. A perverse logic reduces the child’s smile, the held hand, the grieving tear, the dignity of work, into a commodity to be exploited.
We cannot confront racist police violence, or ecological poison, or a global pandemic, without saying “no” to stories that reduce a person to what they cost or produce.
The Christian tradition offers language for describing humanity that cuts through the crass abstraction of profit-loss mentalities. Genesis 1:27 reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (NRSV).” God has stamped His image upon each person from the moment of creation. It is a gift, a golden thread that weaves through all our identities and forms the foundation of what it means to be human.
We see affirmations of the fundamental worth of the person overlaid across Jesus’s ministry. Jesus clearly articulated that his vocation, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was “to bring good news to the poor. . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).” Jesus, a poor, first-century Palestinian Jew on the edge of a mighty empire, is the incarnation of God; Jesus is God living in, touching, breathing the air of creation. Through his life, Jesus reveals that God is intimately concerned with the needs of each person, viewing them not as an obstacle to overcome but as a person with wounds that need healing, sin that needs forgiving, a heart that needs loving. Their value is found in the love God has for them.
Through his life, Jesus reveals that God is intimately concerned with the needs of each person.
As a Christian, as a follower of the Christ who recognized the humanity of each person he touched and spoke with, I cannot allow my imagination and ethics to be formed by stories that reduce a person to what they can produce or what they cost. I cannot endorse mindsets that justify the use of violence to protect property. I cannot accept the notion people exist to produce. The foundation of what I believe and do must be grounded in what is best for all people, not just the most powerful.
Each person is made in the image of God. Cultivating our ability to recognize this truth is a spiritual discipline. Only by study, prayer, worship, fellowship, and action can we shape our imaginations to perceive God’s presence in all people and challenge the narratives that tell us something else. We must name the images of God.