A Christian Theology of the Imago Dei and Human Equality: Their Applications to Race-Relations in America

The Human Person as “the Image of God”

The Biblical Basis of Human Equality

Human equality is rooted in the human person as the imago Dei, the “image of God.” Sirach, the sage or wise person, writes, “The Lord created human beings out of earth” (Ecclesiasticus 17:1a, NRSV). Hence, all human being are created by God. Then the sage goes on to say that the Lord “made them in his own image” (Ecclesiasticus 17:3, NRSV). Sirach takes his readers back to the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, where the sacred author writes,

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, ESV).1

To be created by God as a human being or a human person is to be made in the image of God. “Man” — in the Hebrew Bible (adam), the Greek Bible (anthropos) and Latin Bible (hominem) — is a generic word, including male and female human beings. Thus, God created “humankind” or all human beings in his image.

What All Human Beings are Made in the Image of God Means

St. Basil of Caesarea, echoing the words of Genesis 1:26-27, writes, “[B]y nature every man is of equal honour with the rest.”2 Ultimately, whether one accepts the miraculous, direct creation of the first human persons or theistic evolution, with God setting the evolutionary process in motion, resulting in the first humans, all human beings have the same origin, coming from God the Creator. That makes them equally human. In the words of Elaine Pagels, formerly professor of history and religion at Bernard College of Columbia University,

“[T]he Hebrew account … [of Genesis] describes Adam, whose name means ‘humanity,’ as being created in ‘the image of God.’ … The account implies the essential equality of all human beings, and supports the idea of rights that all enjoy by virtue of their common humanity.”3

There are five similar, yet related, theological meanings to being made in the image of God. First, it means, “without exception,” that all humans are equal in being, that is, in dignity or worth.4 Second, because all human beings are made in the image of God, they are all equal as persons.5 Third, “no human being is more or less human than another.”6 Fourth, all humans are equal “by virtue of their common humanity,” being made by God.7 Fifth, all humans are members of one or the same species, namely, the human species.8

Since every human being shares equally in God’s image, then some, say, white people, do not have more of his image than others, such as black people. Each human being is equally endowed with the divine imprint and, therefore, each is equal in being. Each has the same sacredness or God-likeness in being human persons. That point is expressed well by Martin Luther King, Jr., the prominent Civil Rights leader and Baptist Minister. For example, he writes, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”9 What does King mean by the phrase “child of God?” A human being, says King, is “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”10

Philosophically, the image of God means every human being has the same human nature, the same kind of being. There are no superior human beings, as though some have more of the divine image than others. Conversely, there are no inferior human beings, as if they possessed less of God’s image than others. All human beings are made in the image of God. Therefore, all human beings are equally human, equal in being, regardless of their race, religion, color, gender, nationality, age or socio-economic status.

What All Human Beings are Made in the Image of God Does Not Mean

However, being made in the image of God does not mean that “all human beings are equal in all respects.”11 The extreme view of equality, insisting that human beings should be equal in all respects is called “egalitarian democracy.”12 But that view is patently false, because it can be known by both human observation and experience that humans are unequal in not a few respects. First, take, for example, virtue: Some men and women are good, law-abiding citizens; while others are evil, constantly committing crimes. Hence, they are not equal in virtue. The second is skill or talent: Some men are great baseball players; while others are average or good at baseball. Similarly, in a foot-race, the person who is faster than I is superior to me as a runner. However, he or she is not superior to me as a human being. The third is physical abilities, with some men and women being stronger than others.13 They are equal in being human, though they are not equal in human strength. The fourth is intellectual aptitude, with some being smarter than others.14 A person, then, who is smarter than I is superior to me in intelligence. However, that person is not more human than I. The fifth is differences in skin-color. Although my neighbor and I are equally human beings, made in the image of God, my neighbor’s color may not be the same as mine. That, however, does not make him or her inferior to me as a person. Rather, it only means that he or she is different from me as a human being. Therefore, all human beings are made in the image of God applies to humans of all colors, all different kinds of skin-pigmentation. In short, it applies to people everywhere, on all parts of the earth.

Political, Social and Moral Lessons Following  from the Human Person as the Imago Dei

At least four political, social and moral truths follow from the doctrine of being made in the image of God. First, that people do not and have not lived up to the truth that all human beings are equally made in the image of God does not mean it is not true. It is true objectively, true in itself, regardless of the subjective or human errors of appropriating its truth. That is to say, the theological doctrine of human equality it is true, whether people fail to live up to it or not. Second, it is also true, whether people understand it or not. Third, it is true, even if people do not recognize the universalism of the doctrine. In other words, it applies to all human beings. Fourth, it is true, whether people believe it or not. Therefore, the biblical doctrine that all human beings are made in the image of God “stands” above them, judging them in their shortcomings and challenging people to live up to it.

Moral Clarifications about Racism, Nationalism and Hate in America in the Light of the Human Person as the Imago Dei

In the light of the doctrine that all human beings are made in the image of God, it would be well to make four moral clarification about racism, nationalism and hate in America. First, racism is still racism, whether it comes from white or black persons. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. Second, racism is still racism, whether is directed at white or black persons. It is equally wrong for persons of every color. To “nuance” or make an exception to those principles is already to justify racism. Ultimately, racism is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, therefore, not a person’s color, needs purification. Third, nationalism is still nationalism, whether its advocates are white or black. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. There are no exceptions to that moral rule. Nationalism, ultimately, is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, then, not a person’s color, needs purification. Fourth, hate is still hate, whether whites hate blacks or blacks hate whites. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. To make exceptions for that principle is to begin to justify hate, which, ultimately, is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, therefore, not a person’s color, needs purification.

To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons with new eyes, the eyes of human equality, being made in the image of God. To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons with new eyes, the eyes of God’s love. Now, neither politics nor government alone can purify the human heart. However, love can do that, the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, an appropriate prayer for a change of heart for anyone struggling with racist, nationalist or hateful tendencies in America is “Create in me a pure heart, O God.”15

Endnotes

  1. Cf. Genesis 2:7; 3:19.
  2. St. Basil of Caesarea. 2020. Letters, Letter 262,1. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Company,1895). Revised and edited by Kevin Knight. New Advent. [Web:] https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202262.htm [Date of access: 19 August 2020].
  3. Elaine Pagels, “The Roots and Origins of Human Rights,” in Human Dignity: The Internationalization of Human Rights; Essays Based on an Aspen Institute Workshop, eds. Robert B. McKay and Harlan Cleveland (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1979), p. 4.
  4. Mortimer J. Adler, We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (New York, N.Y.: Collier Books/ Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), adapted, p. 42.
  5. Ibid., adapted, p. 45.
  6. Ibid., adapted, p. 43.
  7. Ibid., adapted, p. 141.
  8. Ibid., adapted, p. 42.
  9. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think about the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization, ed. Max Weismann (Chicago and La Salle, IL.: Open Court Publishing Company, 2000, 5th printing 2002), adapted, p. 418.
  12. Ibid., p. 419.
  13. Ibid., adapted, p. 422. 
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO.: Liguori Publications, 1994), no. 1936.
  15. Cf. Psalm 51:10a, NIV.

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