In God's Own Image Sun, 17th September, 2017
As I witness the horror unfolding around me in St. Louis this weekend, with yet another cycle of racially motivated protests and police violence, I'm wondering what the hell I'm doing in my seminarian ivory tower studying the Old Testament. After all, I want to go into ministry to make the world a better place, fight injustice and foster new or deepened understanding among all those whose lives I touch. How does reading books - and ancient ones, at that - accomplish any of this?
While I'm studying the Pentateuch and ancient Jewish history, my brothers, sisters and siblings of all colors and backgrounds are being beaten down, literally and figuratively, by an alarmingly militarized army of riot police wielding batons and tear gas. I have been struggling to find a connection between theology and this potent real-life conflict among people of the same city and the same country. People who continuously and willfully misread each other's actions and motives. People who can't see each other's perspective.
As a creature of white privilege, like it or not, it's easy to think that this fight isn't really about me or the people like me. "Just be safe" we white folks tell each other, which means "Stay out of harm's way. Don't do anything stupid like participate in dangerous protests." In my virtually all-white workplace on Friday, all the concern and discussion was about how to avoid being trapped in our Clayton office building in case the roads should become blocked by protests and inconvenience us from getting back to our luxurious suburban homes. Incredibly, our building actually went on lockdown, lest the "other" invade the sanctity of our tidy workplace. We were bolting the door against the hurricane of anger that was brewing outside, but somehow felt like it had nothing to do with us.
But after consuming the scenes and hearing the stories of what's happening in our streets, the repeated body blows become unbearable. "Be safe" rings hollow, even cowardly, in the face of historical injustice.
But of course theology does have something to say, at least the kind of theology that I'm immersing myself in now. When I began my studies just a few weeks ago, we started at the beginning. The classic creation myth of Genesis 1 teaches us that all are made in God's own image. And it was good. And alongside Genesis, we are also studying the Africana interpretation of the scriptures, which includes the perspectives of African-Americans, among others.
Theologian Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. wrote about the Africana experience in interpreting the Genesis story. The focus of that tradition is a familial relationship between God and humanity. From this perspective, how can people justify demonizing "the other"?
For Africana peoples, he writes, one of the most important things taught by the story of Genesis is that we are all made from the dust of the earth, in the image of God. And implicit in this understanding is members of the same family cannot and must not do violence to each other.
Dr. King had also incorporated this into his own theology of civil rights, writing that "Man is a child of God made in His image...Until men see this everywhere, until nations see this everywhere, we will be fighting wars."
I'm praying this day that all can see the humanity - the common face of God, the spark of divinity - in each other's eyes, and base our choices on this understanding of universal human worth.
This reminds me of the Zulu (African) concept of Sikhona and Sawubona. This traditional dialogue, used as a daily greeting and affirmation, reflects this Africana conception that all of us belong to a common human family. When two people meet, the Sikhona calls the first person to say "I am here to be seen." The Sawubona calls the second to respond, "I see you."
Let us pray that the Black Lives Matter movement can be rightfully understood as a cry of "I am here to be seen." Not made to feel that these lives don't matter. To understand that black lives have to matter before we can even begin to say "All Lives Matter." And may the response from all of us, not just police and the courts, be to look into those beautiful and fearful black and brown faces, and say "I see you."