Social Justice and the Image of God

Often when talking about justice, we start by talking about injustice. After all, it’s often the injustice that catches our attention. Whether a horrific headline, a political outrage, an unfolding disaster, or chronic problems like poverty, inequality, violence, environmental degradation or economic exploitation, these are often the things we use to initiate a call for justice.

But this is not where the Bible’s many calls to justice begin. Instead, the Bible’s story opens with a world that is “good” and human beings who are created in the image of God. While theologians and philosophers have long debated what specifically about human beings reflects the divine image, in most traditions in Christian history, as well as in the world’s other monotheistic religions, “made in the image of God” is a foundational tenet of what it means to be human. But our reflection of God’s image is also the key to our ethical responsibility for how we act toward our fellow human beings.

Empathy and the Image of God

What is appreciated but not often preached is the truth about how socially transformative, economically disruptive and politically challenging this understanding of our human origins and value are. Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, columnist Michael Gerson highlighted the tensions in history between how faith has been used to diminish and to ennoble, to oppress and to liberate, to hurt and to help. He also writes how essential—and politically inconvenient—is this core formulation of human identity. “Christianity inevitably raises [this] question,” he reminds us. “What if everyone we favor, and everyone we fear, and everyone we help, and everyone we exploit, and everyone we love, and everyone we hate, were the reflected image of God—unique, valuable and destined for eternity?”

To insist that all people are created in the image of God has dramatic political and practical implications. If we believe this foundational teaching of our faith in any meaningful way, much of what currently passes for political debate is simply unacceptable and unsustainable.

Putting it another way, Belinda Bauman describes this failure of belief as “the most significant barrier to empathy.” In fact, she suggests that a belief in each person as the reflected image of God is how we produce true concern for others. It is a lack of faith in this belief, “the idea that some people matter more than others,” that serves as the foundation for the perpetuation of injustice and inequality in all their forms. The reality is that some people do matter more than others—to us. We have a natural affinity for our family, friends and even community members, as we should. But we must also and always resist the temptation of assuming that others beyond our circles are of lesser value as human beings.

A Value System for Victims

Oftentimes when we are assaulted with and overwhelmed by the cumulative weight of injustice, tragedy and suffering in our world, we start to place value judgments on those who suffer. Some News media outlets operate in this way, employing a pyramid of proximity that assumes that the closer a story is to the viewer the more valuable it is. This causes a single death in our community to somehow become more valuable than hundreds in a country whose people and policies are not like ours. These damaging classifications perpetuate the belief that people who don’t look like us don’t feel like us, don’t hurt like us, don’t grieve like us.

Compounding this human tendency are those who would cynically or even hatefully exploit our fears and prejudices for political purposes. As one unfortunate example, in recent years, my home country of Australia has contributed greatly to undermining the international framework for responding to refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced people. Damage that we now see being played out in the rhetoric and harsh practices of many other nations around the world.

Australia and Asylum Seekers

This became such an issue in Australia not because we were being overwhelmed by refugees, but because it was politically expedient. Belying the small number of people who have arrived in Australia on unregulated boats over the past two decades, this issue has been deployed politically to move the public conversation from that of a necessary and compassionate humanitarian response to a dominant and divisive political debate. This political posturing has required the implementation and progressive escalation of a regime of mandatory and indefinite detention of even legitimate asylum seekers on remote Pacific islands. This decision brings with it a great cost to Australia and great harm to many people already vulnerable and traumatized after having sought to escape danger and persecution from their countries of origin. And this shift has been observed, applauded and adopted by other political “leaders” and opportunists around the world.

While many people of faith in Australia have raised their voices in protest, it is also those politicians who have most professed Christianity who have overseen and implemented this inhumane policy. This public debate reached a new low last year when the Australian government’s Minister for Home Affairs urged that “Australians must guard against compassion towards refugees”—a statement that is deeply troubling in every way. A nation warned to “guard against compassion” is being led in profoundly unhealthy and dangerous ways.

Compassion is Our First Response

So it is not hard to see why the Bible’s foundational teaching about what it means to be a human being is so politically confronting and challenging. It means that we cannot use people for political point-scoring or applaud those who do. It must change how we speak, how we vote and how we live. It insists that compassion must always be our first response (compare Matthew 9:36), even when we are tempted to fear. It demands that every person matters. It urges that the surest way to respect our Creator is to care for His creation, perhaps pre-eminently His human creation: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him” (Proverbs 14:31, NLT). It is the foundational way of understanding our world and our highest calling for living in it. It is the recognition that our best reflection of the image of God is living with generosity, creativity, courage and love.

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