I had the opportunity recently to visit the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis. This little gem was unknown to me for my previous 12 years in this history-rich city along the Mississippi. During our extensive tour with the fascinating woman who told us of the history of this unobtrusive little house, we spent a little time discussing personhood and the image of God. Well, she might not have told you that that’s what we were discussing, but we were.
There is a wall in this museum of photos, ads, signs and other media that depict the stereotyped images of the black race that have been perpetrated over the years. It included such things as caricatures of black men that were half-ape and half-man, a spool of thread called “Nxxxxx Brown,” signage from the Jim Crow days, pictures of black people eating watermelons and more recently – an ad for a black baby doll nicknamed “Li’l Monkey” and her stuffed chimp (Really, Costco?!??). We talked about how the depersonalization of an individual or people group leads down the treacherous path of abuse, neglect and oppression.
We wonder sometimes, “How could this have happened? How could human beings treat other human beings in this way?” They can’t. They can only treat other human beings in such a heinous manner when they have first turned them into something other than a human being. The depersonalization process is always first. It is the anesthesia to the macabre massacres that follow. This is true of our own country’s blight of the enslavement of Africans and the “containment” of Native Americans. It is true of the Hutus who slaughtered the Tutsis. It is true of the men who daily ravage the bodies of tiny girls as objects of their own pleasure. It is true of the Nazis who experimented upon and incinerated millions of Jews. It is true of the many millions of babies who have never taken their first breath. It is true of the oppression of the Dalits in India, born into the wrong caste. And it is true of the women with disabilities in Sierra Leone and around the world, who have been told since they were able to hear that they are half-human, refuse to be discarded.
Ideas have consequences.
The idea that a person is not really a person, but rather something less than a person, justifies behaviors that we would never consider normal or acceptable on a fellow human being. Even those who perpetrate such injustices upon others would never think of committing such acts on someone they valued. They must first devalue and dehumanize the individual, or the entire group of individuals who share a characteristic different from them.
So where does the Gospel speak to this? Where do we start to unravel such a tangled web, filled with the tightened knots of deceptions and lies?
At the beginning.
Genesis 1:27 – So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
It starts there. Imago Dei. In. His. Image. All people. Everywhere. Image bearers of Almighty God.
Can you slaughter that? Can you put chains on His neck? Can you suffocate Him under your oppression? Can you throw Him out? Ahhh – but we do…
But the Gospel frees us. It frees “them.” The whole Gospel, for whole people. Not for half-humans – for whole image-bearers. See, it isn’t about being pro-life, or anti-slavery, or inclusive, or tolerant. It’s about reclaiming the image of God – for all human beings everywhere. It’s not about a cause.
It’s about HIM.