At the very beginning of our faith story, we are told that God creates humans in God’s image. Along with everything else in Their creation, God finds humanity “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This is the first time humans appear in the Bible, as the blessed image of God.
Throughout the centuries, church theologians have put forth many different theories for how this imago Dei, this “image of God,” actually manifests. Is it, as Augustine suggested, our capacity for reasoning which separates us from animals and is therefore the divine image? Is it a seed of holiness in our souls, distorted by sin but still present, as Calvin thought? Or perhaps, according to Barth, the imago Dei is revealed through relationship with God and with others. David Clines, a British scholar, recalls the use of similar language in other Ancient Near Eastern cultures to revere the king as the image of a particular god, the one who could speak and act on the god’s behalf. In the Genesis narrative, it is not one ruler who is the image of God, but every human. Whatever the specific interpretation, the idea of imago Dei has maintained significance and resonance across many iterations of our faith tradition.
The imago Dei is at the core of how I understand social justice. There is a divine spark inside all of us, no matter the other circumstances of our lives. Each and every human is made in God’s image, and every single part of creation has been called “very good.” Everything, and every one, is worthy of love and protection.
Unfortunately, many voices tell a different story, both inside and outside the church. They say, “If he just worked harder, he wouldn’t be homeless.” “God hates gay people.” “The earth is a resource for human consumption.” “Immigrants, go home.” These voices deny the divine spark in each of us and deny the goodness of creation.
A universal view of the imago Dei sounds nice, but paradoxically, it can also obscure movements for social justice by downplaying structural systems of oppression. The primeval creation narrative in Genesis paints a picture of an ideal world, in the garden of Eden. It tells us much about our relationships with God, each other, and creation — but unfortunately, not much in the way of practical advice for our time. For that, we must look elsewhere in scripture.
The first concrete advice we get comes from the books of the law — Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Israelite society organized itself around these laws, an attempt to live in the manner God called them to. And though every person is made in God’s image, we see that the law is applied equitably rather than equally. There is special consideration for those who are societally vulnerable, such as immigrants, widows, orphans, and people with disabilities. Provisions are made to help protect Israelites who are destitute from becoming homeless, regardless of what caused them to fall into dire straits. The Israelites are reminded consistently that they, too, have been immigrants and enslaved.
In his ministry, Jesus embodied what liberation theologians call “the preferential option for the oppressed.” He ate with social outcasts, included women among his closest companions in the midst of a strict patriarchy, and literally turned the tables on religious practices designed to exploit disadvantaged worshippers. He gave his attention to the marginalized of society, caring for their physical needs by healing and feeding them at the same time as he welcomed them into spiritual relationship through salvation. Physical, emotional, and spiritual care are linked in Jesus’ ministry, as they should be in our work as people of faith today.
Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founders of liberation theology, wrote: “Christians . . . have not perceived clearly enough yet that to know God is to do justice. They have yet to tread the path that will lead them to seek effectively the peace of the Lord in the heart of social struggle.”
The more I work for justice in my professional, personal, and religious spheres, the more I understand that we must exercise the same preferential option for the oppressed that Jesus did. It’s not enough to simply say we extend a “radical welcome for all” while maintaining the religious status quo which has so often harmed LGBTQ+ people. It’s not enough to say “all lives matter,” or even to proclaim “Black lives matter” if we are not actively working to care for Black lives.
The book of Esther describes one person’s decision to advocate for those who were in danger of state-sanctioned violence. Esther could have sat back, comfortable in the palace, and watched as the Jews were wiped out; but she chose to risk her own security to speak up on their behalf. Right now, the risks and the necessity of work for social justice are on full display. Racism, ableism, poverty, queerphobia, and more wreak havoc on those — all of us — who bear the image of God. At such a time as this, we must individually and collectively seek the peace of the Lord in the heart of the struggle for justice.