Not for the first time, in our neighborhood yesterday my children witnessed the handcuffing and arrest of a man. It was a weird sight for me, more so than for my kiddos. For them, there are good guys and bad guys and if he was getting arrested, he must have robbed someone or something. What I saw was a black man getting down on his knees, willingly putting his hands behind his back, before the police officer walked toward him with her handcuffs. My heart just sank. He could be a total jerk, a conniver, an opportunist, irrational and angry, entitled, dangerous or even simply a real parasite to his friends and family. But this arrest was part of his story line and seemed as part of his expectation of the world and how it works. Cars kept streaming past, just as ours did, none of our appointments or plans being in the least bit altered by this event on the side of the road. We don’t know this man, will never know him, and can slip him into the category of the stereotypical black man getting arrested for what we assume is probably another bad decision. And we go on.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen. 1:26-27
That man was made in the image and likeness of God, to rule over the fish, birds and all creatures. God does not minimize him into a caricature, dismiss him because he may or may not be a jerk. God sees him. God knows him. And, God loves him. This is not mere bleeding heart drivel, this is crucial for my own relationship with God. Because if God does not see, know and love this man, what makes me so confident that He sees, knows and loves me? The only thing that could decieve me into believing I am more easily seen, known and loved is a lack of understanding of the truth about who I am apart from the righteousness of Jesus. That I am not the kind of person one sees being arrested on the side of the road, is that what elevates my intimacy with God? And which “kind of person” might that be? And which “kind of person” do I then presume to be? I have forgotten that the line which separates “good guys and bad guys” runs right through my very own heart. When I strip this man, or the little anonymous girl with beaded hair walking behind a grown up to the bus stop, of dignity, I am stripping the truth about my own dignity away as well. And I do…strip dignity that is.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? James 2:1-4
I strip dignity because just like Adam and Eve, I mistake the source of my dignity as something intrinsic to my own self rather than purely and wholly originating from the One I was made to reflect. I am a judge with evil thoughts. And “evil thoughts”, rather than being something only had by someone with long bony fingers in a dark cave, are the very thoughts encouraged by the serpent that life is about my own exaltation and God’s ineptitude or even His untrustworthy selfishness. I need the favor of the man wearing the gold ring and fine clothes when I fail to rest in the favor of the ruler over all creation. People, then, become utilitarian, only as valuable as what I can get from them in a material or political manner. They have no other dignity, gold bejeweled or not, than what I can get from them. I, in turn, have no greater dignity than my utilitarian function to others. And the dehumanizing process is moving rapidly toward the ultimate goal of the serpent, to seek and destroy God’s image.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. 2 Cor. 4:7-12
Left to myself, I would be like one under hypnosis, absolutely powerless to resist my instincts of favoritism and misplaced valuation of people. But just as death could not hold Jesus down, nor can God’s enemy destroy His image. That is my hope, both for my own dignity and that of others. Oh that I may be able to cherish the man in hand cuffs as much as I hope to be honored. That the life of Jesus may be manifested in my body and that I may be given eyes to see the life of Jesus at work in the story of those I pass along the side of the road.