In this excerpt from Ministers of Reconciliation, Matthew D. Kim discusses how pastors can address racism through a full understanding of the concept of the image of God.
Race and ethnicity are taboo subjects in many pulpits across the United States. Knowing that some of their congregation will see it as “liberal” talk, a social gospel incongruous with the true gospel, or a ploy of the political left’s agenda, many pastors shy away from teaching and preaching on the issues of race and racism—regardless of their rationale for such avoidance. Two camps emerge out of this salient concern. The first camp wonders why we are still needing to talk about race, while the second camp is exhausted by having to explain to the other why discussions on race and racism are essential.
The current climate of anxiety, suspicion, hostility, and even angst makes race and racism particularly ripe topics for conversation in the church. In the spring and summer of 2020, after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, books on race were flying off the shelves as many congregations in our country and around the globe tried to make sense of the heinous debacle that we found ourselves in. As a pastor, you may be wondering, “Where do we begin?” and “How can my church’s leadership equip and encourage our congregants to act in this turbulent season?” I would suggest that you begin these conversations with a Scripture text that is found in a very early part of the story of God. In order to move forward in our personal and corporate understanding of race and racism, and to clarify the actions we should take, we must properly exegete the concept of the image of God.
Persons made in God’s image
While Genesis 1:26 is where the concept of the image of God is introduced, the focus of this chapter will be on 1:27. In his commentary on Genesis, Kenneth A. Mathews explains that this verse is a poem that consists of three lines. The first two lines are arranged in a chiasm (inverted repetition), and the last line explicates the first two:
a So God created man in his own image
b in the image of God he created him
c male and female he created them
The Hebrew prepositional phrase translated “in his own image” in 1:27a, betsalmo, is used in the third person, indicating that God is speaking about himself. The second prepositional phrase, betselem (1:27b), is general and thus translated “in the image of God.” Verse 27c adds that God is the creator not just of males in his image, but of both males and females. When God had spoken the universe into existence—with its galaxies, solar systems, planets, land, sea, sky, and all living creatures—he still wanted something more to inhabit this world. For this reason, humankind constitutes the pinnacle of creation. The NIV Zondervan Study Bible explains the creation of humankind in these verses as the “last act of God’s creative work,” which “is the climax.” Mathews adds: “The crown of God’s handiwork is human life.” As beautiful as all the wonders of the world are, God’s greatest delight is in the creation of human beings. But what does it mean for men and women to be created “in his own image” or “in the image of God”?
Many scholars have grappled with this mystery. Old Testament scholar M. Daniel Carroll R. has helpfully put these into three different categories, which have to do with “what [humans] inherently are, their potential relationship with the Creator, and their capacity and privilege as rulers.” What these categories have in common is that they underscore “the particular value of all persons.” This value is accompanied by the role of stewards. God delegated responsibility to Adam to cultivate and take care of the garden of Eden (2:15), even tasking him to name all of the living creatures (2:19–20). Stated another way, Michael S. Heiser observes: “Humanity is tasked with stewarding God’s creation as though God were physically present to undertake the duty himself.”
In New Testament terms, the image of God refers specifically to the incarnate Jesus Christ, to whom Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 4:4 (“Christ, who is the image of God”) and Colossians 1:15 (“The Son is the image of the invisible God”). The example of Jesus shows the rest of us what it truly means to image God. As Heiser continues,
Paul writes that believers are destined to be conformed to the image of God’s son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29). This language is a call to act as Jesus would—to live like him. Acting like Jesus points to the functional idea of the image of God; it suggests we think of the image of God as a verbal idea. By “imaging God,” we work, serve, and behave the way God would if He were physically present in the world. In Jesus, God was physically present. Thus, we are to imitate—or, image—Christ.
Through active participation, New Testament Christians are to imitate Christ as God’s representation, and thereby become more fully the image bearers of God we were created to be.
The image and racism
There are many sins that arise from disregarding the image of God, but the particular sin that we are considering in this chapter is racism. Racism is an aberration from God’s desire for all human beings to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). It is an attempt by one ethnic group to have dominion over another. While there are legitimate positions of authority in human society, such as elected government officials or church leaders, God never intended for people to have dominion over others. Only God is in the position to have dominion over us all.
Racial prejudice has been defined by Scott B. Rae as “negative stereotyping on the basis of race and/or belief that particular races/ethnicities are inferior to others. Racism is the combination of racial prejudice and the institutions of power in any given culture that enable a group to perpetuate patterns of discrimination. … However, no one’s race exempts them from holding immoral racial prejudices.” Similarly, in The Color of Compromise, Jemar Tisby writes, “Racism can operate through impersonal systems and not simply through the malicious words and actions of individuals. Another definition explains racism as prejudice plus power. It is not only personal bigotry toward someone of a different race that constitutes racism; rather, racism includes the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.”
Rae and Tisby show us that racism and racial prejudice occur at both the individual and systemic levels. On a systemic level, “prejudice plus power” involves the concept of “white privilege [which] often refers to the advantage that comes with being in the majority. It refers to not having to be conscious of one’s ethnicity and to the majority culture being seen as the norm. It brings advantage because the majority tends to be respected and trusted in ways that minorities often are not.” We should view racism and racial prejudice not just as seeing others as inferior, but also as seeking to preserve a system in which the dominant culture holds power and sets the norms.
As pastors and preachers, we must not ourselves, and we must not let our congregations, be content to pat our backs because we are not actively part of the problem. We must be proactive in fighting the sin of racism against all people of all skin colors and races, thereby celebrating the image of God in all people. Prayerfully consider preaching on Genesis 1:27 and the image of God to confront the sin of racism as we ask ourselves and our listeners what our attitudes are toward those who are different from us. Challenge your listeners to confess the sin of racism particularly when we view others as being made less than in the full image of God.
This post is adapted from “Preaching on Race in View of the Image of God” by Matthew D. Kim in Ministers of Reconciliation: Preaching on Race and the Gospel edited by Daniel Darling (Lexham Press, 2021).
Read the rest of this chapter in this 11-page sample from Ministers of Reconciliation.
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