A couple of weeks ago, I was walking around campus with a student who had requested time together to talk about some theological questions. As we began our walk down College Avenue, he asked, “So what does it mean when the Bible says that humans are created in the image of God?” “Great question!” I said, and then I began describing some of the different ways that theologians have understood this concept in Jewish and Christian communities.
Incidents on campus have brought this question to the forefront again this week. Over the weekend, an unknown individual spray painted a racial slur along with a student’s name on a sidewalk near Christ Chapel. Legally, the incident is considered a hate crime, and the St. Peter Police Department has launched an investigation. Morally, the campus community has condemned this act as reprehensible and unacceptable.
As people of faith, we also hold theological convictions that support and go beyond the legal and moral dimensions of this incident. We are called to reflect and respond to incidents such as this in conversation with a whole range of Christian teachings, one of which is the biblical claim that humans, female and male, are created in the image of God.
Now unfortunately, the Bible does not ever directly define what it means when it says that human beings are created in the image of God. Because of that lack of definition, Christians throughout the centuries have made a lot of different proposals. If we look to Jesus, the one who bore the image of God most faithfully and completely, to understand what it means to believe that humans are created in God’s likeness, we will find a baseline from which to build out our theology. In the way he lived and taught, Jesus revealed his belief in the belovedness and dignity of all people. As his followers, then, when we claim that God created humans in God’s own image, we are saying we believe in the core of our beings that each and every person’s life is sacred, that each and every person bears the image of God.
In the case of the hate crime incident on campus last weekend, both the person who committed the act and the person who is the victim are created in the image of God. Both of their lives are sacred. However, the one who used the spray paint to denigrate the other wasn’t just being mean. The act of harming another is at once a forgetting of one’s own belovedness and a denial of the sacredness and dignity of the other.
Most of us are probably not directly involved in this particular incident on campus, and may be thinking “I would never do such a thing because I am a good person”. While it may be true that many of us would never commit such an act, our cultural and personal habits so often lead us into ways of thinking and behaving that fail to live up to the belief that all people are made in the image of God.
This week, the college hosted its 49th Nobel Conference, and it was a provocative and exciting event. Over the course of four dinners and two lunches, I had the chance to dine with several of the presenters. I’ll admit to being a little star struck. This group of people is particularly accomplished – three are Nobel laureates, and they have published dozens of books, hundreds of articles and made numerous movie and television appearances. As our guests of honor, Gustavus treated these folks with our finest hospitality and care. When we know about and are impressed by people’s successes and accomplishments, we tend to be individually and collectively very good at treating people well.
On the other hand, a traditional story illustrates a contrasting yet familiar scenario. Once there was a devout but poorly dressed Jewish leader who traveled by train to a far away town. A man who shared his train car with him insulted him to the point of being verbally abusive. When the train reached its destination, the leader disembarked and stepped onto a platform filled with thousands of enthusiastic disciples who were waiting for him to arrive. The man who had insulted him on the train looked embarrassed as he stood beside the Jewish leader. “I’m so ashamed. I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies.” The leader turned to him and said, “Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to everyone else. When you insulted me, you did so because you thought I was everyone else.”
How often, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways do we relate to people based on what we know about their accomplishments rather than by our conviction that all people are sacred and bear God’s image? I see this struggle in myself, and I see it in the culture all around us. It is much easier to denigrate, judge, or, more likely, ignore people when we don’t know anything about them.
Jesus, it seems, did not have this problem. He ate with tax collectors and sinners, religious leaders and close friends. He conversed with people who others ridiculed and shunned. He paid loving attention to the people that most wanted simply to ignore. Jesus saw people for who they really were, each one precious and sacred, regardless of status or success.
We, of course, are not Jesus. We will make mistakes and misjudgments. It is not wrong to respect people who have worked hard, have remarkable talent or have achieved something outstanding during their lifetime. However, we do fall short of our calling as Christians if this is the default lens through which we make choices about who we are going to pay attention to and how we are going to treat people.
When a hate crime or other act of degradation occurs in our midst, it is an opportunity for us to remember what we believe most deeply about God, what it means to be humans in relationship with God, and how we want to live in community together.
Meditating deeply on the biblical notion that human beings are created in God’s image is one pathway for helping us to move forward. We are called to remember our own belovedness, that each one of us is a beautiful and sacred child of God. When we truly believe this about ourselves, we also grow in our capacity to be able to see the inherent dignity in all people.
We will not all be involved in the official investigation of this particular incident, but we can all respond. Your response may be to spend some time praying for the people involved and for the whole community as we move forward together. Perhaps your response will be to simply remember your own belovedness. Or, maybe you will have conversations with your friends about the theological dimensions that undergird our moral convictions about the sacredness of life. Whatever our individual responses may be, let us ground ourselves in God’s presence within and among us, so that together we will become agents of healing and reconciliation in this broken and hurting world.
The Rev. Siri C. Erickson is a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. She is an ordained ELCA pastor and a graduate of Carleton College and Claremont School of Theology.