Last week I continued sharing some applications that Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition recently wrote about “Thinking Theologically about Race Relations: The Image of God.” Today, he shares with us his 4th and 5th applications.
1. The image of God speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
2. If the image of God reminds us who we are, it also directs us to what we ought to be.
3. We would do well to start with what we have in common rather than with what separates
Fourth, as image bearers, we are free moral agents, responsible before God for our choices.
By “free” I don’t mean to deny that the unregenerate will is bound to sin. I’m talking about the freedom we have as human beings to operate as our will desires. As I’ve said before, if the intellect has the power of choice (freedom from physical necessity) and the will can be exercised without external compulsion (freedom from the necessity of coaction) then our sins can be called voluntary and we can be held responsible for them.
This means that while we want to try to understand why people make sinful choices (see below), we ultimately do not want to excuse those choices. This is true whether that environment is the Antebellum South, an Ivy League university, rural Appalachia, or an urban ghetto. No matter the cultural norms or social expectations, the lawless rioter is not excused in his sin, nor is the Jim Crow-era racist justified in his sin. We are always shaped by our history and our environment, but we are never mere products of them. To suggest otherwise is to deny who we are as moral beings made in the image of God.
Fifth, we should seek to understand our fellow image bearers as whole people, not as truncated versions of the worst parts of their life and character.
This commitment is a necessary complement to the previous point. Think of the response when a black man with a criminal record has been killed by the police. Some voices are quick to recall (and repeat) the man’s rap sheet. The dead man is reduced to a list of mistakes he made or to the number of citations and arrests he received. To be sure, we need to understand the immediate context in which the shooting occurred, especially if violent criminal activity was taking place at that moment. But such activity has been absent with many of the high-profile shootings of the past few years. The recitation of the victim’s record, then, has the effect of communicating, if not “he had it coming,” then at least “see, he wasn’t a very good guy anyway.” The man is presented—implicitly, and often explicitly—as nothing more than a thug.
As Christians we know that our neighbors deserve to be treated with respect not just because they are image bearers, but because we are called to treat them as we want to be treated. This principle applies to the dead as much as to the living. The people of the past are, in many ways, the most foreign people we will ever “meet.” We may inhabit more of the shared assumptions and experiences with someone who lives on the other side of the world today than with someone who lived in our own country two hundred years ago. What’s more, when dealing with the dead, we are dealing with people who cannot respond to our charges, cannot change anything they’ve done or said, and cannot demonstrate to us any further growth or change. That puts the object of our study in a precarious position and demands of the historian honesty and charity.
Does this mean we have to refrain from doing history “warts and all”? Of course not. But we should avoid doing history that is “warts and nothing else.” The complexities of the past are quickly reduced to simplistic talking points for the present. Even when persons from the past deserve severe censure, it is too easy for us to condemn them in toto with the same reductionist tendencies we disdain when it is used in judging us or judging the people we want to defend.
I am not calling for moral relativism, but for moral reasoning. There is a difference between the flawed man who accomplished great things and stood for a heroic cause and the flawed man who accomplished dubious things and stood for a sinful cause. Past, present, or future, no one wants to be defined solely by his or her failings. Dealing with our fellow image bearers as whole people—with honesty, sympathy, and charity—won’t eliminate racial tensions, but we might be able to bridge some of the divide that separates us.