Image of God
The Church

The Image of God and the African American Experience- Part 2

Jemar Tisby

American culture has been defacing the image of God in people of African descent for centuries.  Nearly four hundred years after the first dark-skinned people arrived in the “new” country, Africans in America still stagger under the weight of this country’s racial history.

In my last post, I examined the doctrine of the image of God. This biblical teaching shows us that God created human beings in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Each person is a uniquely crafted individual who singularly displays God’s glory. The image of God in humanity gives everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, economic level, or anything else—inherent dignity and value.

Racism Is Sin

Unfortunately, after God’s exquisite acts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 we arrive at Genesis 3. When Adam and Eve lost their original righteousness through sin, even the image of God was damaged. The center of humanity’s existence moved from God to self. Sin twists all of our thoughts, words, and actions into efforts to sit on the throne that rightfully belongs to God alone.

One form sin takes is racism. Racism attributes superior or inferior characteristics and qualities to people based on race. Racism is a manifestation of rebellion against God.  As John Piper once explained, “Anybody that would have the audacity not to submit to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords would not have any problem putting you down.”

Racism in America Defaces the Image of God

In spite of everyone’s divinely endowed worth, U.S. history and culture call the image of God into question, particularly for African Americans. Grand jury decisions not to indict the white police officers who caused the fatalities of unarmed African Americans Mike Brown and Eric Garner have set the country aflame in racial tensions once again.

But the marches, protests, and outrage have a familiar tune. In fact, the recent unrest can be traced to centuries of marginalization African Americans have endured. Various forms of injustice have challenged the dignity, identity, and significance of dark-skinned people. For African Americans, it has called into the question the teaching about the image of God and how it applies to them.

“Discrimination is a hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind them that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.”—Martin Luther King, Jr.

Slavery and the Image of God

American slavery arose from economic considerations. In order to supply the growing agriculture industry in the American colonies, the landowners needed cheap labor. This came in the form of human beings, mostly shipped from the west coast of Africa. Divorced from their native land, traditions, language, and institutions these men and women were easy targets for oppression.

Americans practiced a particularly heinous form of slavery. Unlike other forms of slavery common in other parts of the world, American slavery was based on physical features such as skin color. Slavery in America was for life. One could never “earn” his or her freedom. Once a slave, always a slave. And slaves could be treated more like animals than people. Slaveholders spoke of “breaking” slaves through whippings, beatings, rape, and other forms of torture and brutality. Africans in America were not treated as humans in God’s image but as property to be exploited.

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God cannot retain it.” —Abraham Lincoln

In America the economic roots of slaveholding took on existential implications. In order to justify the brutal practice of slavery in America, those in power devised myths about the inherent humanity of Africans. They were purported to be ineducable due to their low intelligence. They were seen as uncivilized brutes who were fit only for hard labor and breeding. Treated more like livestock than live people, Africans in America had their image bearing questioned from the start.

Jim Crow Laws and the Image of God

It took a war to finally break the chains of legalized slavery, but the war did not stop the racism. After a brief period of limited progress known as “Reconstruction”, African Americans once again faced the onslaught of racism. Jim Crow laws were legalized forms of segregation and discrimination. Promoters of these laws insisted that races could be separate in all public facilities and residences, but still equal. The unwritten ideology of “separate but equal” was that Blacks were unequal which was precisely why they needed to be separated from Whites. Jim Crow extended the paradox of America–one country with two realities.

“There are two Americas – separate, unequal, and no longer even acknowledging each other except on the barest cultural terms. In the one nation, new millionaires are minted every day. In the other, human beings no longer necessary to our economy, to our society, are being devalued and destroyed”.—David Simon

Jim Crow laws led to generations of discrimination in housing availability, loan disbursement, educational resources, and political power. African Americans daily endured the jab at their humanity whenever they observed signs that said “White” or “Colored”. W.E.B. Dubois described the effects of this sort of injustice. “One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In the era of Jim Crow Black people knew without anyone saying a word that to be “Colored” was to be “less than.”

Throughout American history, African Americans were spurred to action by the innate sense of their dignity as image bearers.  Although they received constant messages to the contrary, nothing can drown out God’s voice saying, “You are my creation.” So, in 1955 the Civil Rights struggle became the Civil Rights movement when Rosa Parks asserted her right to sit wherever she pleased. A previously unknown preacher from the Deep South named Marin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the racist status quo in America began to crumble. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 finally struck down Jim Crow, but changed laws could not change hearts.

Microagressions, Instutionalized Racism, and the Image of God

Racism continues today, but it is more subtle. Microagressions are death by a thousand cuts.  While few people commit overtly racist acts—in public, if they can help it—the lesser status of African Americans in this country is constantly reinforced. Examples of racial microagressions include: being followed in stores for no apparent reason, being told “You speak so well!” or “I don’t even really think of you as Black.” A microaggression occurs when Black hair becomes the subject of intrusive fascination (“Can I touch it?”). It’s a microagression when you are expected to be good at basketball, dancing, or some other activity based on assumptions due to skin color.

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”—Dr. Derald Wing Sue

Racism today has become institutionalized. White hoods and burning crosses are taboo. Instead we see inner-city communities comprised almost entirely of poor Blacks and suburbs made up mainly of middle class or wealthy Whites (although this is changing). Racism today comes in the form of the massive incarceration of Blacks. It gets displayed in the lower rates of high school and college graduation among African Americans. You can see it in the high rates of unemployment for Blacks. Although we can’t ignore the role economic status plays, we should also remember that race and class are virtually inseparable in America.

Reclaiming the Image of God

In decades past, people of African descent asserted their existential value through the phrase, “Black is beautiful.” In these days of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner the cry is “Black Lives Matter.” These phrases are more than political chants. They snatch back the image-bearing dignity that has been stolen from Blacks in America. The strongest proof that human beings are made in God’s image is the persistent struggle to resist anything that denies that image.

“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”—Frederick Douglass

Racism has changed over time from race-based chattel slavery, to institutionalized segregation in Jim Crow Laws, to ongoing forms of microagressions and systemic inequality. No matter the form it takes, though, racism constantly tries to dim the image of God in men and women. But the image of God is indelible. It can be damaged but never dispelled.

In God’s providence African Americans began following Jesus Christ. And through the indwelling Holy Spirit they discovered a theology that allowed them to endure centuries of suffering. It is this theology of suffering that allows African Americans to persevere when the grand jury does not indict. It is the instinctual awareness of the image of God that allows African Americans to boldly assert their personhood even when others would deny it. And it is the hope of the gospel that allows African Americans and their allies to still pursue racial justice today.

Part Three of this series will explore solutions and paths forward as Americans become increasingly aware of existing racial tensions and desire to move toward racial justice.

For further resources on this topic, visit RAANetwork’s Amazon store: The Bookshelf.

1 Comment

  1. Art

    “…..but changed laws could not change hearts.”

    This is where I seem to land when contemplating racism. Recognizing that racism is a result of living in a fallen world I can better deal with its existence. It is one data point among a plethora of data points that characterizes the sinful nature of human beings. I feel that we should give racism the same emphasis as any sin (i.e. fornication, adultery, homosexuality, murder, pride, etc.). Instead of the “Civil Rights Movement” we should have the “Sin Movement”. But other sins don’t stir up our emotions like racism does.

    That being said my personal fight against racism is not laying down in the middle of the street blocking traffic, but on my knees praying to a sovereign God to save the lost. I am truly blessed to be living in a time where legalized racism is not on the books and am thankful for the souls that God used to remove those laws. However, I do often wonder how eternally effective the civil rights movement was being that it was natural man versus natural man waging war in a natural arena. How many souls were saved because of the Selma to Montgomery march? Was Rosa Parks ever convicted of her sins? How about the bus driver that told her to move to the back of the bus? Is MLK hallowed for his faith displayed by his fruit (i.e. was he known to live a righteous life) or was he simply a civil rights juggernaut?

    In summary, was the civil rights movement (and the current protests) an attempt to make life on this earth more comfortable/enjoyable or was it one that had an eternal focus in mind where souls would be saved (and as a result of a soul being saved the heart would be changed also)?

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