Difference, Division, and the Image of God

Have you ever played the game “one of these things is not like the other.” You look at a bunch of objects, and you try to figure out which one doesn’t belong. Six apples and an orange. That’s easy. An apple, a tomato, a cucumber, and a carrot? That’s a little trickier. (You could say it’s the apple since people think of the other three as vegetables. But I’m thinking it’s the carrot since apples, tomatos, and cucumbers are all scientifically classified as fruits.)  And on the game goes, each time asking you to figure out when something doesn’t belong.

That’s a fun game to play with fruit. It’s dangerous with people. When we start sorting people into those who belong and those who don’t, we’ve made a tragic mistake about what it means to be made in the image of God.

Hard-Wired for Difference

Scientists tell us that we’re hard-wired to notice difference and sort things into categories. It’s part of how we make sense of an otherwise chaotic universe. And we do the same thing with people. Walk into a crowded room and you’ll immediately notice anyone who doesn’t fit in. It could be the way they dress, their skin color, or just their tone of voice. We have finely tuned radars for people who don’t belong, those who are different.

And there’s nothing wrong with difference. I remember the first time my daughter asked me why one girl in her class had dark skin. She wasn’t concerned, just curious. She’d noticed a difference. And differences make life interesting.

But the journey from difference to division is both brief and easy.

The Journey from Difference to Division

It begins with community and identity. We all develop our understanding of who we are and where we belong from the communities that shape us. That’s what it means to be us.

But for there to be an us, there must also be a they. That’s just obvious. And it’s not necessarily a problem. This is just another way of saying difference. They are not us, and that should highlight the sheer diversity of the world.

But too often, we see those who are different as a threat to our community and identity. For whatever reason, we think they are undermining us. And it doesn’t matter if we think they’re doing it on purpose. They’re still a threat. And once we begin to see them as a threat, even a small or merely possible threat, then the difference becomes division. We turn they into them, no longer just people who are interestingly different from us, but now objects of fear and scorn, two attitudes that so often coincide.

The church experienced this in the early persecutions, attacked by their neighbors for undermining their way of life just by existing as a them in the midst of us. And, in turn, Christians did the same to the Jews for so many long centuries, lashing out whenever community and identity were threatened. And I wonder if that’s not an apt description also for how many people view the immigration debate today. I realize that’s a complex debate not easily reduced to a single concern. But some of the angst that I hear about immigrants flooding the country and destroying our way of life sounds a lot like the same fears about community and identity that have turned difference into division so many times in the past.

Our Shared Humanity

When we allow difference to become division, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be made in the image of God. That’s because the image of God drives home three important truths about being human: things we forget to our detriment.

1. The Image of God = Shared Identity

We’ve been talking about the image of God for a while now, and everything has pointed to the fact that, at the very least, being made in the image of God gives us a very particular identity through our relationship to God: we are his images in creation. And the Bible clearly wants us to see that all humans share this identity simply in virtue of being made by God as humans:

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

That’s it. Our identity. Images of God. And it’s an identity that belongs to all. Some Christians have sadly questioned at times whether particular groups really are made in God’s image: notably women and non-white people. But the image of God isn’t ours to limit. It’s not our gift to withhold.

Our shared identity doesn’t eliminate difference. My daughters share the identity of being my daughters. But that doesn’t stop them from being very different people, something we’re reminded of every time they try to agree on what movie to watch or where to go for dinner. The same is true for God’s images: differences grounded in a common identity. That’s who we are.

2. The Image of God = Shared Mission

And, as a result, we have the same mission: to manifest God’s glory in the world. We’re not very good at it, and many of us have simply rejected it. But that doesn’t change the mission.

We’re a lot like Jonah in that way. He was a terrible prophet. And he even tried to reject his mission as God’s spokesperson. But that’s not how it works. When God calls you to a task, it’s your task. You can run from it, hide from it, and even deny it. But it’s still yours. He gave it to you.

We’re God’s image bearers in the world. That’s our mission. It doesn’t matter if I’m a white, male Christian living in Portland or a Chinese, female, atheist living in Beijing. Images of God. Both of us.

3. The Image of God = Shared Humanity

The only conclusion left is that being made in the image of God means that we all share the same common humanity. Despite our differences–or, better, through our differences–we stand united as the creatures that God has summoned to serve as his image bearers in the world. We are human.

That may sound like a trivial truth. We look human, smell human, and probably taste human, though I’d rather not test that assumption. So of course we’re humans! Everyone knows that.

But it’s far from trivial. If history has taught us nothing else it’s that the differences distinguishing humans from one another (e.g. race, gender, culture, geography) constantly press us toward division. And it’s a pressure that we normally fail to resist even when we affirm our common humanity. And that’s because the affirmation isn’t grounded in anything deep enough to let the differences flourish without the corresponding slide toward division. We need more.

Image of God. Our shared identity and mission as God’s image bearers has to be the starting point for affirming our shared humanity. And that’s because our humanity isn’t grounded just in how we look, smell, or taste. And being human isn’t even about having the appropriate set of capacities or the right genetic code. Ultimately, being human is about being called by God to be one through whom he would manifest his glory in creation. That’s what it means to be human. Nothing more. But that’s enough.

[We've been exploring what it means to be made in the image of God. In the first half of our series, we focused on what "image of God" means in the Bible. Now we're turning our attention to whether the image of God matters in the everyday world. The short answer is yes. The long answer will take a little more time. Follow along.]

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