Recommitting to the Imago Dei on Dr. King’s Birthday
A couple months ago I read Dr. Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. I’ve been ruminating over it ever since. It’s a masterful work, rich with references to theology, philosophy, and history, giving me plenty to think on these weeks since. I marvel that he wrote it in the margins of the newspaper in which an open letter from eight clergyman in Birmingham appeared. That letter was signed by Christian and Jewish leaders who opposed Dr. King’s non-violent protests coming to their city. Without any tools—no typewriter, no Bible, no reference materials—Dr. King wrote 21 pages back.
What has stuck with me the most from that letter is Dr. King’s appeal to the Imago Dei—the doctrine that says the image of God is in each and every human. His letter, his premise for protesting, and the very foundation for all that he taught and for which he fought was based on the truth of the Imago Dei.
This doctrine is as fundamental as it gets. It’s rooted in Genesis 1:26, "Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness.’” When God created man, he created us to take after him. We are not like the rest of creation. We know that. We are set apart. Different. We are not like the animals that teem in the water, or the birds of the air, or the creatures on the land. We take after our Father.
It was this truth that moved Dr. King. It was this reality that caused him to persevere, enduring so much brutality. He rightly believed that all men are created in the image of God and therefore all men deserve to be treated well.
This April marks 50 years since Dr. King was murdered. I can’t help but wonder what he would think if he were still with us today. Would he marvel at progress towards racial reconciliation in our nation? Or would he be heart broken by stagnation or maybe even call it regression?
In his letter from a Birmingham jail he said, “I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’” As a “white minister” of sorts, these words stir me and spur me. Am I committed to doing what is morally right because others are my brothers?
Do I really treat and consider all other humans as my brothers? What about Mexicans? Or Syrians? Or Russians? Or Indonesians? Or Somalians? Or the poor? Or the homeless guy who always sits with his dog on the corner of I-25 and Lincoln? Or the aggressive and agitated residents in my dad’s nursing home? Or the imprisoned (whether wrongly or rightly)? Or the opioid-addicted pregnant woman? When I see them in person or in the headlines, do I believe that I am looking into the face of my brothers and sisters? Because the truth is, they too bear the image of God. The creator of the universe is their maker and mine.
Denying the Imago Dei in others is at the heart of every act of evil we commit against one another. When we don’t acknowledge the image of God in ourselves and in others we are tempted and sometimes willing to commit everything from road rage to rape. When I am unwilling to remember that God’s image is in all people I am all too willing to ignore their plight. In my mind and heart they become other, distant, not my problem, even deserving of what they’re getting.
Dr. King’s words convict me. He said then, “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging facts of segregation to say, ‘wait’… In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no disappointment where this is not deep love.”
Whether it’s segregation or war or starvation or unjust incarceration or poverty or whatever—I have not felt those stings! I am privileged. I am protected. I am wealthy. And I am lax.
Dr. King’s words have caused me to remember and recommit to the good, Biblical truth of the Imago Dei. The image of him who made me and saved me, the image of him who bore my sins, the image of him who conquered death is in each and every person in my city, in my nation, and around the globe. May the Lord help me to rightly view each man, woman, and child in this way and may I be propelled to love my neighbors as I love myself.
Happy birthday, Dr. King. Today I am praying 1 Peter 3:8, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” Amen.