Reflecting the Image of God in Community

If you had asked me a month ago if things could get worse than they had been, I would have made some sort of joke about the apocalypse descending among us.  Yes, it has been a rough few months for us, of course. The job I have been called to and loved has been completely upended.  I’ve spent more hours at the grocery store gathering supplies for a ten day stretch than I could have ever imagined. My kids have had to deal with online school and cancelled events.  The beginning of my course of study for a Doctor of Ministry degree has changed significantly. 

But as for me personally, has it really been that bad? No, all things considered.  Melissa and I remain gainfully employed, those in our extended family who had Covid-19 have recovered.  Of course, I’ve walked with families and parishioners through their own difficulties, including the deaths of parishioners—and that loss has weighed on me a great deal. But overall these months for me can been summed up with the depictions on the Snoopy mask I now own: #StayAtHome it reads and underneath are pictures of Snoopy sleeping on a pillow, digging in to a large pizza, and surfing the internet. 

But the same has not been true for those who are poorer in this country. In March, nearly 40% of those with a household income of less than $40,000 a year and had been employed in February suffered a job loss: 40%. Additionally, 48% of those who did lose a job reported that they were “finding it difficult to get by.”  I’ve seen news reports of people waiting for hours in a long string of cars to receive a couple of gallons of milk. Further, minority populations have been hit harder by the pandemic. In New York, African Americans while making up 18% of the population account for 33% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations. In Louisiana were blacks make up ⅓ of the population, they have comprised 70% of the  COVID deaths.  

So when George Floyd who had been accused of passing off a fake $20 bill was brutally killed by police in Minneapolis even while begging for help, well this year got much worse. Minorities, and in particular black Americans, who have dealt with racism in one form or another for over 400 years have had enough. They—and Native Americans, and Latinx folks—have been talking about it for a long time, and rising up together at moments throughout our history, of course. But it’s easy enough for me to quarantine in the 3000 square foot home you all provide for me and my family, and wait for things to get back to normal.  I don’t have to worry about being stereotyped by others; I don’t have to teach my kids how to interact with the potential authorities who may judge them based on how they look. I am a person of privilege.

What has resulted is that we see on full display a nation that doesn’t have the resources to equip medical personnel with proper protective equipment during a pandemic but can outfit local law enforcement with extensive military gear. That we can look at another human being and declare that they are less than human. That they are less than what God had created them to be.

Which brings us to the book of Genesis. We read one of the creation accounts included in the Bible this morning. We hear how God separated light and darkness, how God formed the land on which we walk.  How the birds came into existence and all the creepy crawlies as well.  And then we get to Day 6 with the culmination of all creation.  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ … God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

Today we focus on the Trinity—the belief that the Godhead is comprised of three persons, each unique, while also being intricately woven in each other in unity so that we worship just one God. Father, Son and Spirit in community with each other and yet what one experiences or when one acts, all three are present. The connection between them all is love, of course. This mutual indwelling, this “divine dance” as St Gregory of Nanzianzus coined it.

And, according to Genesis, we all bear God’s image. Each of us reflects the divine imprint in our beings.  And as such, we should not consider ourselves to be individuals who can stand alone, but always we are best known as people in community, people who together reflect the image of God in the Trinity. As Father, Christ, and Spirit dance in mutual love with one another comprising one God, so we as humans made in the very image of God together become an icon of the Trinity. We cannot do this by ourselves. I do not think we can individually reflect back to God the full image of the divine, just as I cannot by myself represent the entire body of Christ. It is only together, only in connection and community and compassion, that we can most fully exhibit the image of God.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes all of this in the use of the Zulu word “ubuntu.” Ubuntu can best be translated, “I am because we are.”  Archbishop Tutu describes those who embody the concept of Ububtu as those who are “generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate.” Further, “in this theology and ideology, Tutu seeks restorative justice over against retributive justice to give opportunity for the healing of both the oppressed and the oppressor as children of God.”  It is only together that we can fully come to know ourselves. We must begin to more fully listen to the stories of our black sisters and brothers—as well as the stories of other minorities—and not discount them simply because that has not been our experience.  And for those of us who are white and privileged, we must seek to stand alongside those who have endured too much as allies that they may fully live as children of God and not fear for their own safety.  We must seek to change systemic racism that is baked into the very fabric of our society against those who also bear the image of God. 

Some may say, “Yes, it is a terrible shame that George Floyd died, but the looting and rioting of private property has got to stop.” We can say that such actions are not helping at all, perhaps making things worse.  And yet, notice how that sentence is formed to show where our privilege may come in.  (And I would certainly frame the sentence in that same way myself, acknowledging both my own privilege and the need I have to undo years of racist tendencies in my own life.) How that sentence should be put together is like this: “Yes, it is a terrible shame that there is looting and rioting going on by a small number, but the unlawful killing of African Americans like George Floyd has got to stop.”  

“I am because you are.” “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’ … And God saw that it was very good.”  Each and every one of us shows forth the divine no matter where we come from, how we worship, and most especially the color of our skin.  

It is time for us to acknowledge the sins of our past in response to the blatant disregard of the full dignity of people of color both individually and systemically. We have both done and left undone things that have intentionally and unintentionally degraded others. We cannot join in this work that has been going on for many many years without first repenting of our own implicit bias and racist actions—and I readily admit that in my own life. While I have for many years sought to not be racist, I learned earlier this year in discussing Dr. Ibrahm Kendi’s ideas that that it is incomplete. Kendi writes, “it’s not enough to simply be ‘not racist.’ The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’  It is ‘antiracist.’”

So let us stand alongside our sister and brothers of color seeking peace. Let us work for systemic change, rooting out racism and the systems in place that hinder the lives of minorities and those who are poor. Let us use our influence, as people of privilege and disciples of Jesus, to call for laws and provisions for those who need support and care and to end unnecessary violence in all its forms. And let us finally look deep into our own lives where we harbor our own fear of the other, our own discrediting of those who bear God’s image, simply based on what they look like.  It is then, when we seek forgiveness and reconciliation, that we can fully realize that our reflection of God’s image is only made complete in our love and compassion for one another. 

Photo Credit: Boris Thaser Flickr via Compfight cc

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