As race tensions in America continue to boil, we have an opportunity to learn compassion in two different directions: toward the long, painful struggle of African Americans, and toward the heavy criticism and untold dangers of first responders.
Few of us feel compassion in both directions at the same time, but our calling, as Christians, is to keep trying. We need to feel empathy, the power to personally identify with people unlike ourselves. We need to understand the tensions of others’ lives, whether the black man’s history in America or the daily life of an American police officer.
As we learn to speak with empathy into one another’s lives, as we try to understand the reoccurring episodes of racial tension in America, and as we watch video clips of police shootings, angry protests and athletes on a knee—we need help. Does the church have anything to say?
Imago Dei in the Civil Rights Movement
The church does have something to say. It’s called imago Dei, or “the image of God,” and it originates in Genesis 1:27: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
And it proved essential to the Civil Rights Movement of a previous generation, according to Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr., 69. Ellis is the academic dean of the Makazi Institute in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is also the author of Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience.
Ellis marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and he remembers the importance of human dignity to King’s cause. “The imago Dei was essential to the Civil Rights participants,” Ellis told me, “even if the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement didn’t have it very well articulated. It was a Romans 1:20 kind of thing. They knew about human dignity, they believed it, and not only did they believe it, they lived it out—treating their oppressors with a great deal of respect. Their actions proved they believed it. But yes, it was absolutely essential. The Civil Rights Movement never could have succeeded without imago Dei.”
In the end, if we fail to celebrate imago Dei—with God at the center of human worth—we will end up celebrating imago White or imago Black, warns Ellis.