What does it mean to be truly human? My atheist friends would propose something along the lines of being able to live up to the maximum potential of our current evolutionary state, with a view toward preserving social order and therefore species survival. Atheist Makeesha Fisher says, “We believe humans are responsible for their decisions and the consequences of those decisions and that we can do amazing, wonderful, spectacular, generous, kind things to make the world a better place using our compassion and intelligence…” In many ways, we Christians live as if we believe that same humanitarian and beautifully articulated yet reductionist and functional view. In Christ, however, God offers us infinitely more than a life of high-functioning humanitarianism. What He offers is divine, sacred, and resurrectional living.
The Individual Story and the Imago Dei
This past weekend, I was in the produce section of Whole Foods Market when I spotted an attractive, fashionably dressed young woman looking a bit worried. After about 15 seconds of shuffling about, she exclaimed to her male companion, “They don’t have butternut squash!” Five seconds later, she followed that up with an incredulous, “Is that even possible?!” Looking rather crestfallen, she went on to explain, “Now I don’t know what I’m going to make for my lunch dish!” I really thought she was going to start crying. Her companion looked at her, put his hands on her shoulders, and remained quiet.
I don’t know how that situation eventually played out, but the scene has stuck with me in unexpected ways. My initial response was to roll my eyes and laugh. I even entertained the possibility of making sport of the young woman for my own amusement, maybe tweeting something like, “Privileged girl shopping at Whole Foods freaks out over not finding butternut squash. SMH. #FirstWorldProblems” Sadly, that reveals more about my own character flaws than it does hers. By God’s grace, though, instead of acting on my initial impulse, I asked Him to help me see her through his eyes. And oddly enough, I suddenly saw myself in her – someone who freaks out over things that other people would undoubtedly find trivial and absurd but nevertheless represent something weighty to me in the moment. Am I to dismiss her as simple and ridiculous while I reason that I, in contrast, am complex and therefore justified in my own version of absurdity?
We are not often privy to the greater life context of the people we encounter day to day. If we were, we would probably frame a great many of these brief encounters quite differently from how we tend to frame them. Not being privy to such context, however, does not excuse us from cultivating an awareness that one does in fact exist for each person. The fact is I don’t know what the young woman’s emotional reaction to not finding butternut squash really represents. The possibilities that come to mind are virtually endless and tell vastly different stories. Maybe it reflects the constitution of a wealthy and sheltered girl who grew up having everything she ever wanted and needed effortlessly handed to her, and now that she is living apart from her parents, she is finding it difficult to navigate even small inconveniences. On the other hand, maybe she was sexually abused growing up and is therefore always a hair’s breath away from being fully in touch with the gnawing and debilitating sense of powerlessness that constantly threatens to unravel her, so she attaches all of her negative emotions to trivial things as a way of life, in order to cope.
We simply don’t know.
One thing we do know, however: whether her reaction represents the first possibility or the latter, or something altogether different, the fact remains that she is a bearer of the Imago Dei, God’s very own likeness, and that makes her life sacred. It was marred by the fall, yes, but the divine spark fundamentally remains. And because such a reality informs our understanding of what it means to be human, it must also be allowed to inform how we relate to every human being we encounter – the rich, spoiled and sheltered, as well as the poor or deeply wounded, and everyone in-between.
The Collective Story and the Lord’s Table
People are tribal. We are constantly engaged in an exercise of Us vs. Them, whether we recognize it or not. I was tempted to place this young woman in a “Them” category, to dehumanize her as a means to solidify my own tribal connections, even fleeting and superficial ones. The fall has damaged our sense of belonging, our ability to form meaningful and constructive community. And so we use what limited power we have in order to restore that sense of belonging and create a sense of community for ourselves – often in ways that demean, dehumanize, and exclude those who are not of our own tribe – though usually unwittingly rather than consciously and maliciously. When we do this, especially in the Church, we ultimately succeed only in diminishing ourselves, because we were called to be one body with many parts, not many territorial parts vying for supremacy. I’ve seen this play out in the way people in the church relate to one another about politics, racial issues, gender identity issues, doctrine/theology, liturgical practices, music, and more. We stand in judgment (or at least disapproval) of those who think, worship, interpret the Bible, and even exist… differently.
Yet we desperately need one another.
The poor need the rich in order to be adequately cared for and connected with knowledge and resources they don’t have. The rich need the poor in order to prevent their lives from descending into a cesspool of narcissism, materialism, and triviality. Blacks need Whites to join with them in order for unjust systems to be made just. Whites need Blacks in order to understand the healing role of communal lament and to see more clearly the warrior, defender, and deliverer traits of God. Protestants need Catholics in order to understand and value the deep, unifying role of sacrament, liturgy, and two millennia of church history. Catholics need Protestants to help them evaluate whether the form of their liturgy is still internally connected to its content. So how can we afford to be tribal-minded fundamentalists about whatever it is that we’re clinging to, to the extent that we dismiss and dehumanize those who are other? When we do so, we become less human than the way Jesus intended for us to be. And we do harm to the Church, to ourselves.
In a recent blog post, Jonathan Martin, founder and former pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC, argues eloquently that the divisions among us are probably less about our traditions, how we interpret the Bible, and what we believe, and more about what we have failed to believe about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
When we don’t believe that God is revealed to us in the bread and wine, something else will be more determinative for our understanding of church—music, politics, ideology, culture, popular current conversations about sexuality and gender. Yet being the Church can never be about being on the “right” side of these lines, but rather the abolition of these lines through the blood of Jesus. Without an over-arching belief that the love of God expressed around Christ’s table is bigger than any and all such things, we damn ourselves to a temporal tribal identity based on belief, rather than a transformational identity located in the cross of Christ.
By His body and blood, He put to death all that has the potential destroy us as individuals and to divide us as a body. And by his resurrection, He secured our resurrection, which begins to take shape in this life at both the individual and corporate levels and will culminate upon his return.
May 2015 be a year in which I practice being more truly human, recognizing the Imago Dei in everyone, and remembering what the Lord’s Table says about our united identity and resurrectional destiny in Christ.
References: Fisher, Makeesha. “Do atheists have a low view of humanity?” March 6, 2013. Accessed at http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/makeesha/do-atheists-have-low-view-humanity on January 9, 2015.  Piper, John. “The Image of God: An Approach from Biblical and Systematic Theology.” Studia Biblical et Theologica. March 1, 1971. Accessed at http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-image-of-god on January 6, 2015.
 Martin, Jonathan. “on going to (an episcopal) church.” January 6, 2015. Accessed at https://medium.com/@theboyonthebike/on-going-to-an-episcopal-church-428781564139 on January 7, 2015.[Image by Masahiro Ihara, CC via Flickr]