I grew up in a white community.
My neighbors were white. My friends were white. My church was white. My public school was (very) predominately white.
My small world was white.
This is far from an attack on the people who surrounded me in my corner of Northeast Mississippi. Many of my neighbors, friends, church family, and classmates had an unforgettable impact on my spiritual and personal formation.
This is just the way things were, and no one really questioned why.
You’ve likely heard this statement. In fact, I bet it conjures images of the way things are in some of your communities:
People of color overwhelmingly live in your city’s limits. Black students sit on one side of the cafeteria, and white students sit on the other side. On Sunday morning, black churches and white churches worship separately on the same county road. The way things are—the racial divide—looks different in different places.
When I was sixteen years old, God uprooted me from my Mississippi hometown and popped my homogenous bubble. In 2008, I packed up my bedroom plus some peanut butter and moved to Mississippi’s only public boarding school for mathematics and science.
I lived down the hall from other Anglo American, African American, and Asian American students. I had lunch with peers who vaguely remember their early childhood in China. I edited and wrote pieces for our student newspaper alongside one of my best friends who was Egyptian American. In the classroom, I sat beside classmates whose families were from the Middle East.
I wish I could say that I fully leaned into this multi-cultural space and learned from others’ stories and experiences that were very different from mine. I was heavily invested in my schoolwork and traveled home most weekends. During those two years, my deepest friendships were admittedly those with people who shared my culture and color.
That’s just the way things were.
In 2010, I began college at the University of Mississippi: a university plagued by its complicated history and continuation of racial division. Despite its shortcomings, the campus’ honest dialogue and racialized atmosphere forces its students to confront their hearts’ own prejudices and biases.
In essence, God unsettled me during my time at Ole Miss about the way things are.
I began to learn about the doctrine of the imago Dei: a staple of the Christian faith that all people are made in the image (imago) of God (Dei).
This was not news to me. I grew up in the church and had heard many times Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Until college, I never contemplated the weight and implications of the imago Dei: this doctrine that every human being is an image bearer of God.
Reader, can we pause and sit in that truth about the way things are?
EVERY human being is an image bearer of God.
Every HUMAN BEING is an image bearer of God.
Every human being is an IMAGE BEARER of God.
Every human being is an image bearer of GOD.
In seminary, God has continued to challenge whether I truly grasp the weight of this doctrine.
Do I live like this is true that every human being is an image bearer of God? Do I give others the same respect and dignity that I demand? Is my pro-life stance simply a political statement about abortion or a spiritual statement about people? Do I seek how best to “love my neighbor” from the womb to the tomb?
These are not easy or comfortable questions to face because the answer is often a call to die to self, as Jesus commanded of his followers.
As Walter R. Strickland wrote, “[W]e are self-interested creatures. Said differently, people (white and nonwhite alike) are interested in issues that are most pressing to them and are not as likely to contemplate deeply the circumstances of others.”
Left to our own sinful natures, we are indeed self-interested creatures. We are attracted to our likeness in people. We are quick to “other-ize,” stigmatize, and ostracize those who are not like us.
This self-interest is the most basic answer to the way things are.
The question then becomes, “Am I fully experiencing God’s image, or am I simply worshipping my own?”
In college, this question made me rethink the way things are:
Just because things are the way things are doesn’t mean things are the way things are supposed to be.
I realized why I hadn’t seized every opportunity in high school and college to experience a fuller picture of Almighty God beyond those of a white Jesus (a brown-skinned Nazarene Jew) in nativity scenes and stained glass windows.
To see a fuller picture of your God is to love your neighbor as your self.
I think on this as I read Romans 1 in which Paul describes sinful men and women who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (verse 25).
This chapter includes a list of sins, but the theme binding them together is self-interest: worshipping and serving the creature (and the creature is me!) rather than the Creator.
One of those ways that I worship and serve myself is by denying—intentionally or unintentionally—the truth that those different from me equally bear God’s image.
Furthermore, I actually miss out on beholding the beauty and fullness of the imago Dei when I do not live in community with the “other.”
Christ is constantly calling on his church to question the way things are. Jesus certainly questioned the way things were during his life.
I get it. Swimming against the current of the way things are is not easy, especially in a hometown like mine where we must intentionally seek heterogeneous spaces.
Racialization is woven into the fabric of our nation. You will easily find this information with a bit of research.
But reconciliation is woven into the fabric of Christ’s church.
My friend has this tweet pinned to the top of her Twitter page: “I am made in God’s image. He is not made in mine.”
This is why God’s children must refuse the way things are in pursuit of the way things are supposed to be: every tribe, tongue, and nation representing the imago Dei in its fullness.
Someone recently asked me this question in reference to the increase in my social media posts and in-person conversations regarding race in our churches, communities, and nation.
I realized when she asked that I’d admittedly assumed people were just tracking with me.
So I’ve decided to address this fundamental and important question in a four-part blog series this summer. I cannot speak as a voice of authority on people of color’s experiences. But I can testify to my own experience. Please leave comments or questions, and let’s learn together.