Image of God
Theology Identity

The Image of God and the African American Experience- Part 3

Jemar Tisby

Some have called slavery, and the resulting racism, the “congenital defect” in the birth of this country. They are wounds that will not heal. They have become infected and inflamed. Despite many gains, the “race problem” remains.

The Image of God in the African American Experience

The first post in this series, “The Image of God in the African American Experience”, surveyed the Bible’s teaching on the image of God. Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us [the Triune God] make man in our image, after our likeness.” Human beings, finitely patterned after their infinite Creator, have intrinsic worth. Every person is a jewel in the crown of God’s creation and precious in His sight. So every person—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, ability, language, or any other factor—has the right to a dignified life.

My second post described how the image of God has been defaced in all people because of sin. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God, their divinely endowed inclination to worship turned from God to self. Now all human beings seek their own glory and do it at the offense of God and the expense of each other. Racism is a specific expression of rebellion against God resulting in broken relationships with each other.

Throughout long centuries of enslavement based on race followed by decades of racism enshrined in the laws of Jim Crow, African Americans have endured constant assaults on their image-bearing status. Being counted as 3/5 a person for voting purposes, living under the morbid rule of “separate but equal”, and absorbing the subtle blows of micro-aggressions have fractured the African American concept of self as made in God’s likeness.The grand jury decisions not to indict the White police officers who killed unarmed African Americans Mike Brown and Eric Garner have enflamed the problem.

An Identity Realer than Race

Although our identity as African Americans has been devalued we have a greater identity in Christ. Jesus Christ offers us a realer identity than race. The Son of God teaches us all—White or Black, male or female, rich or poor—who He made us to be.

In the gospel of Matthew, after several incidents when the Pharisees tried to discredit Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, Jesus asks His disciples, “‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’” His disciples listed the claims: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, another prophet. Then Jesus asks another, more pointed question, “‘But who do you say that I am?’” Christ wanted to know what His closest followers believed about his identity. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

When Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ, the Lord pronounced Him blessed and calls him by his name, “Simon Bar-Jonah”. This is what happens to us as believers today. When we recognize Christ’s true identity we find our true identity as well.  Christ pronounces us blessed and He calls us by name. Jesus affirms and redeems our identity.

For African Americans, faith in Christ means that we don’t have to be what other people say we are. We are no longer defined by the labels history and culture pins on us. Instead we are defined by Christ. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Followers of Christ have died to race as their primary identity and their life is hidden with God. Race can no longer define one who has died to self and lives to Christ.

The Implications of a New Identity

Gaining a new identity as a disciple of Jesus has dramatic implications for what it means to be Black here and now. First, African Americans can now survive and even thrive in majority Anglo settings. Apart from our true identity in Christ, self-consciousness around Whites could be paralyzing. We might constantly question our ability and worthiness based on our perceptions about how Whites view us. This could lead to a futile and frustrating effort to gain the approval of Whites in order to feel justified. Although, we may still struggle with this at times, as Christians we know that we have the Father’s blessing and acceptance. “What can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6)

Rooting our identity in Christ allows African Americans to boldly and passionately pursue multi-ethnic community. We don’t have to constantly surround ourselves in a bundle of blackness to feel safe. Ethnic-specific groupings can be helpful, but they don’t have to be perpetual. Christ redeems our racial identities to appreciate the unique expression of God’s beauty in ourselves. This frees us to express curiosity and gratitude for the distinct demonstrations of His creativity in others.

The Final Redemption of Race

Yet we still live among sinners, both redeemed and unredeemed. African Americans will still endure racism. We will still see our people in prison almost as much as in college. We will still see have to talk to our Black boys about how to survive an encounter with the police. We will still be assaulted with negative stereotypes based on skin color. And we will thrust our own racist ideas on others, too. None of us is immune to the heart disease that is racism.

But we live this life in faith that a day is coming when race will be fully redeemed. We endure the pain of today knowing that Tomorrow is coming. On that day no one will question our identity. Skin color will no longer determine one’s social value. We will never again feel the loneliness of being a minority. The centuries of physical and emotional abuse caused by slavery and racism in America will fall off like the shackles they are. We will finally and truly be free.

Yes, image of God in African Americans has been deliberately and unrelentingly assaulted. We have suffered much. But so did our Savior. But through His suffering comes our salvation. Christians of all races are becoming a new community—called by the Father, secured by the Son, and bound together by the Spirit.  We are moving unstoppably toward the day when people of every tribe, tongue, and nation worship God together. It is in the light of the heavenly vision and the strength of Christ that the diverse body of believers seeks racial justice.

Other Parts in the Series:

The Image of God in the African American Experience- Part 1

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

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