“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
— Genesis 1:27
“You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”
— Leviticus 19:14
“The destitute, the ignorant, the misfits sought him out. His presence made them feel important; he gave them what they needed most: dignity.”
— Elie Wiesel (speaking of Jesus)
These posts on our history of racism have been difficult to write. Perhaps you share my sense that we are breathing poisoned air.
A Time of Untruth
How can I write about the sanctity of all persons in a culture that believes in the sanctity of some persons and uses that selectivity as a weapon in a political war?
How can I speak of the evil of all expressions of dehumanizing, in a culture that believes in the legitimacy of dehumanizing some people, also in the name of political power?
How can I speak truth in a culture of propaganda, on the right and the left?
How can I speak truth when people believe the lie that truth is simply a label used by people who want access to power (which includes those who say such a thing)?
The God of Truth
Truth is a treasure. We see in part and at best make thoughtful guesses at truth. It is good to do so. But what if there is a God, who sees all that is? And he has spoken faithfully of what he sees and knows? Then his word would be truth and utterly reliable.
I have said that one of my life goals is to cultivate a Christian Mind. A Christian Mind affirms the reality of truth. It begins with God’s word. God calls us to pursue and learn his word as truth. This is more than quoting passages from the Bible. Scripture is a framework through which to see life. Piecing together its witness is the labor of a lifetime, sometimes of generations. But in my years, I have found that a comprehensive reflection from Scripture offers wider and deeper insight than all the ideologies of our leaders. My goal is not to align with any political or ideological system, but to think independently of them.
Now to the matter at hand . . .
Racism and Dehumanization
Our nation has a history of vile racism.
Racism is, in essence, the dehumanizing of another person. It is contempt for others. Like a virus, it spreads. Contempt soaks into the soil of a society when people with influence form a culture and laws to uphold their evil.
Frenzy and clarity
Our culture is in a virtue signaling frenzy over racism. While their moral judgment is correct, I am not sure I can say the same for the grounds of that judgment. Correct conclusions for the wrong reason lack foundation. I can treat people well because it is profitable or I can treat them well because it is right even if unprofitable.
Such moral judgments will not stand the test of time. When we target only one of the many ways we show contempt for others, we twist our correct judgments. Add a large portion of power politics and you no longer have moral clarity but a caricature.
I want solid foundations. Throughout my project I have deliberately stepped away from things like critical theory to understand racism. God’s word gives me reason to hate racism. It tells me why it happens. Scripture also gives me the tools to understand the evil dynamics in the development of slavery. It even offers me a way to see how racial superiority became part of the warp and woof of our our culture (more on that later).
Dehumanizing and the ordo amoris
In God’s created order, God is eternal and infinite in value. Humans are next. Of all that he has created, humans are weightiest. That is why we called to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Human persons are distinct from all other life. The gap between the weakest and most incapacitated human life and the highest animal life cannot be crossed. Not every living being has the same value. Nor should it be treated with the same love. That is called the ordo amoris.
We thoroughly enjoy our dog Sasha. So do most people who encounter her. She spins, dances, and cuddles when she smells the possibility of a new raving fan.
People have stopped their cars, rolled down the window, and quipped, “I love your dog.” People say, “Your dog is so smart.” We care for Sasha, make sure she takes her seizure medication, and gets exercise. It would be wrong to cause her pain. God gave her nerve endings.
But my 4 month old granddaughter is light years more advanced than our dog. And she has immeasurably more value. Someday our dog will become ill and I will take her to the vet to be euthanized. Someday our granddaughter may become sick and I will spend every dollar I have to make her well.
That is because I believe, intuitively and by Scripture’s word, that every person carries a weight of glory. The psalmist muses:
. . . what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
The highlighted Hebrew words for glory and honor speak of weight and significance. When I was young and talked like a hippie, I would hear what someone said and say, “Man, that’s heavy.” What I meant is that it had deep significance. You and I are “heavy.”
Visible and Invisible
How does this show up in life? God makes it very clear that next to God himself the most significant being in all of creation is a human person. This is how I summarize that idea:
How we treat the visible image of God is how we treat the invisible God who is imaged.
Let me put this simply: God takes it personally when you or I snub, ignore, slander, or do violence to another person. He takes it personally because you are assaulting his image.
What does that mean? This is not rocket science. Vandalizing protesters understand this. They deface statues to express their hatred for what the statue represents. So it is with God and his image. The human race is opposed to the true God. But they cannot get their hands around his neck. He is invisible. So they reach out to ruin his image.
Racism is wrong because people have dignity and every person has equal worth.
“Wait just a minute,” you say, “what do you mean we hate God?” We will come back to that in the next post.
So what do we say about slavery and Jim Crow?
God hates every expression of dishonor to his image. Turning millions of people into chattel, transporting them without regard for their lives, splitting apart husbands and wives, whipping the men and raping the women, and later establishing laws to keep them in their place as inferior beings — ALL of that is not just cruel, it is blasphemy of God’s image. Therefore it is blasphemy of God.
An infinite creativity in evil
Have you ever heard of The Middle Passage? It was the route ships took in the African slave trade. Africans betrayed Africans to the traders, all for profit. Traders maximized their return by stuffing as many people as possible into their ships for the weeks long journey. See the picture next to this.
Two by two the men and women were forced beneath deck into the bowels of the slave ship.
The “packing” was done as efficiently as possible. The captives lay down on unfinished planking with virtually no room to move or breathe. Elbows and wrists will be scraped to the bone by the motion of the rough seas.
Some will die of disease, some of starvation, and some simply of despair. This was the fate of millions of West Africans across three and a half centuries of the slave trade on the voyage known as the “middle passage.” (from USHistory.org)
At the point of delivery, survivors were emptied from the ships and sold as property. They, their children, and their children’s children became slaves. Slaves were sub-human. Slaves often lived in the most primitive conditions.
Once slavery was abolished, southern states created a culture called Jim Crow. Jim Crow was a system that treated blacks with contempt.
When one image bearer treats another image bearer with contempt, they show contempt for God.
A Perspective of History
Human history is a record of the infinite number of ways we can do evil, especially in dehumanizing others. This is not to minimize the evil, it is to maximize the depths of our disease. Knowing what is right and legislating about what is right does not make us virtuous people. The best human culture and government can do is tamp down particular manifestations of this sin. Its like a massive game of whack-a-mole.
Christians are signs of the kingdom
I do not expect any human culture or government to get this right. But Christians are sent to be signs of the reign of Jesus the King. Outsiders should look at our behavior and find evidence that we are not like the world around us. God calls his people to live out the dignity of every person. Let me give one example:
Wayne Alderson became a Christian. He determined to apply his Christianity to his workplace. As a manager in a steel company, he had been trained to see labor as an adversary, rather than as image bearers. With purpose from God he set himself to see them as people with dignity, men and women with bills to pay, spouses to love, and children to raise. He left his office suite to meet and know the people who worked in the foundry. Their families received birthday cards. When they faced a death, the company sent flowers. The turnaround in morale was so great, it launched a movement: The Value of the Person. The movement was grounded in a biblical doctrine of human dignity.
Churches are signs of the kingdom
God has visible churches to show what it looks like to be a community under the power of his rule.This includes the nurture of virtue as well as the correction of sin and error. The fruit is love and holiness.
Forty years into ministry, I can testify to many beautiful acts of God’s people in churches. I have seen a group of women gather around a sister in Christ when they learned of the prolonged abuse she had known from a husband who was on his way to prison. They brought her to wholeness. An older couple in a church sheltered an abused woman and her son. They stood against the threats of the angry husband. This couple eventually found a way to send them away to safety, and offered continued support from a distance.
Churches should welcome first, ask questions later. But we should ask questions. We should be like Jesus. To heal us from the disease of sin, Jesus brought moral clarity to sinners, doing so while showing them the deepest respect. Then he laid down his life to redeem them.
Christians and churches must act as though they know the God who is the Father to the fatherless and protector of widows (single parents). Tragically, churches either justified or turned a blind eye to the blasphemy of slavery and Jim Crow. Many denominations, faithful to the Scriptures, have faced their history and acknowledged their failure. What motivates them is seeing the sin as God sees it, not fitting into the politically correct culture.
My life and the God of the marginalized
Last January, in the aftermath of a series of pastoral ministries to people who were vulnerable, I opened up my Bible to see all that God said about power, powerlessness, and oppression. I began with my Masters thesis.
What I found was that the words of the law and the prophets, given to Israel, were about honor to God and honor to those who bore his image. God is zealous for his image bearers. He calls for people to honor individuals, marriage, families, property, and reputation. He makes clear that he opposes all forms of dehumanizing people, especially the powerless and vulnerable.
He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:18)
How committed is God to human dignity, to protecting the powerless and vulnerable? Listen to this:
“You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:22–24)
God is angry at those who mistreat the powerless (in this case the widow or orphan). He will avenge them.
Is ignorance an excuse?
Philosophical types ask the question: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it still make a noise? I had to ask a slightly different question:
If a brother or sister in Christ faces injustice and I do not know, does it still matter?
If God is the father to the fatherless, the protector of the vulnerable, and raises the poor from the dust — is it godly for me to isolate and insulate myself from those needs? especially when it was within the same family of Christ? If Jesus preached good news to the marginalized, if his ministry attracted the last, the least, and the lost, is following him in the same path optional?
Then came COVID
Further clarity came through the pandemic.
As early as April, it was obvious to many that the COVID crisis and the government lockdowns would affect the poor far more than the middle class. This is global. But it is also local. Let me give you two numbers: 1000 and 9000. The first number represents the total number of COVID cases in the four zipcodes of our church. The large number is the number or cases in the barrios and impoverished portions of our city. That is 9 times greater.
When I first saw this trend, I concluded that it was not OK for me to be indifferent to my brothers and sisters in Christ who faced far greater COVID impacts than I. My wife and I believe that unless we are willing to use our time and resources and relational connections to serve the people near at hand, it would be hypocrisy to demand that government do something. (I am suspicious of people who grasp for power so they can spend other people’s money to do what they will not spend any of their own resources to do).
Start with honor to every image bearer around you
So how do we start?
It is hard to imagine addressing our history of racism while treating the people around me now with contempt or indifference. Maybe we should stop trying to change society and begin with changing ourselves.
For example, start with children. Jesus welcomed children to his side. The grown ups in the room thought he was wasting his time. And so it continues. We often speak and act in ways that show contempt for little ones. Parents long for the days when they are done with the distraction of their kids. Churches find it difficult to staff nursery.
Look around you. There are people on the margins. They are silent and invisible. Perhaps they are in assisted living homes. What about single parents? And other races or ethnicities? or immigrants? Ordinary workers, truck drivers, delivery people, those who check us out at the grocery store — these tend to be invisible to us.
Moral lecturing, canceling, and virtue signaling will not bring deep change. They may change our habits of dehumanizing in some cases, but every one of us will still show contempt to others. We have to go deeper.
The root of dehumanizing is pride. Pride is fed by self-righteousness and moral superiority. As long as we live by our perceived merits, we will have a deep source for arrogance and ongoing blasphemy against the image of God.
So what is the solution? The simple word is grace. Grace is God’s generous love to the undeserving through Christ.
Jesus embodied the grace of God. No matter what the moral history of any person, if they sought to be with him, he welcomed them. To come to Jesus meant coming on the level ground of desperate need and an incurable illness. No matter how sin-sick, the great physician took them in to heal them. The only people who refused him were those who refused to relinquish their sense of moral superiority.
Christians are not people who are better at being moral. Christians are people who admit they cannot be moral. And contrary to all expectations, they find that Jesus came for people just like them. Once they trust him, they look around at their fellow citizens of the kingdom of God and discover they are all the same. There is no distinction. It is all level ground around Jesus. They stand in grace alone. And that means every motive they once had to treat another with contempt is put to death.
In my next post I will develop the dynamic of how the evil of our lives works with the evil of others to create systems that uphold our racism.