I Am, You Are, They Are, We Are the Image of God - Reservoir Church
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We Are Reservoir - 2023

I Am, You Are, They Are, We Are the Image of God

Steve Watson

Sep 17, 2023

I’d love to tell you a couple things about where I come from. 

I grew up in the outer suburbs of Boston in the 70s and 80s. My little town of 4,000 people had no stoplights; it was still pretty rural. It was also almost 100% white. 

Greater Boston’s culture and its media were still pretty overtly racist my whole childhood. Boston’s bussing crisis around school desegregation happened not long after I was born. And the sordid Charles Stuart affair occurred right near the end of my childhood. If you’re not from around here, you can look that stuff up if you’re interested. Super-racist, though. 

Like most all-white places in America, my town wasn’t so white by accident. We lived on indigenous land that was taken by white colonists in the 1600s. Fun fact – my house as a kid was less than three miles from where most of the executions took place after the Salem witch trials. The area of Boston’s north shore I lived in had been developed by Boston’s wealthy white elite in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The most famous of them might have been Henry Cabot Lodge, a longtime US senator a hundred years ago. Some of his ancestors had gained their generational wealth like a number of New England white families – through the shipping industry, transporting opium, rum, and enslaved persons. Parts of those businesses were eventually made illegal, but no penalties, no reparations were ever paid. Lodge himself, like many early 20th century politicians, was a xenophobe who disparaged Catholics and immigrants and tried to keep America as white and Anglo as possible.

My town wasn’t white by accident. There was the cultural heritage I mention. Also, like a lot of Boston suburbs, loans and sales weren’t made to people of color there for a long time. And then zoning laws were changed to require you to own more and more land to be able to build a house, keeping people with less income out.

My own family and ancestors weren’t flaming racists. They were nice, white folks who were only casual, mostly unconscious racists. No racial slurs or anything like that, but all my family could remember vividly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated. None of that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Just not informed or curious about the flourishing of non-white peoples in their country, so not especially committed to them or their concerns either. 

I dated a biracial person for many months when I was a teen, but despite evidence to the contrary, I didn’t fully process that she wasn’t just white. I just didn’t have much category for culture and race beyond whiteness. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I really understood being white in America didn’t just mean you were normal, the norm, the standard, and that it wasn’t just other people that had culture. I had a lot of catching up to do to be a healthy member of society. Let alone to be able to be a safe friend and partner and colleague and family member in interracial and cross-cultural relationships. A lot of work to do. 

Just a couple more things about me that may not seem related at first, but are. My family was churchgoing almost all of my childhood. I didn’t perceive that as important or valuable to my life until I was a teenager, but even then, not a single person ever pointed out that the forms of Christian faith I inherited were exclusively shaped by the culture and writing and practice of white people. People could mention things like the Black church, but no one ever noticed that we were part of the white church, who sang white songs, were shaped by white colonizer European Christianity, and had pictures of white Jesus and white Bible characters in our Sunday School rooms. Totally white-washed Christian faith. No one talked about that.

Also, the religious heritage of my youth – in addition to being super-white – was also kind of shame based. Some of that started at home, but then in the church, I also learned that without Jesus, my existence was a moral offense to God. That God loved me, but God could only be in relationship with me, because Jesus was better than me, and Jesus died for me, so when God looked at me, we were all good, because God didn’t really see me anymore, he saw Jesus instead. 

When you’re basically ashamed of yourself, as I was as a teenager, that sounds like good news at first. But in the end, that’s messed up. We want to be loved because someone – God included – sees and loves us – not because someone pretends we’re as good as somebody else. 

I share all this about my background because it helps you understand how I came into two different questions that I think are still critical to ask about any church or place of worship, any faith tradition and any part of the Christian tradition.

We should ask:

is this church, is this faith, going to make people and communities more or less racist?

In our case, we can ask:

is Christianity a racist or an antiracist tradition, and what’s this church doing about that?

And two, another question that sounds different but is actually related.

Does this church, does this faith teach us that it’s good or it’s bad to be a human? Do we mostly need to be punished or do we mostly need to be healed and set free? Is our humanity the problem or the answer?

First the first question, then the second. Let’s read a very short excerpt from the New Testament letter called Colossians. It’s from the third chapter.

Colossians 3:9b-11 (Common English Bible)

Take off the old human nature with its practices 10 and put on the new nature, which is renewed in knowledge by conforming to the image of the one who created it.

11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.

So is Christianity a racist or anti-racist religion?

Well, the truth would be: both.

Later in this same chapter, there are instructions to Roman households, including instructions to slaves in those households. The heads of those households are given instructions too, but no one tells them to repent of their ownership of human beings and to set them free. 

This is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in the New Testament. And it’s not just here but one other place, in the letter called Ephesians as well. There may have been reasons, there may have been change getting promoted more slowly, but still it’s horrible.

Later the Christian story gets worse. As Islamic empires rise and take land and influence people in majority Christian countries, Christianity starts to organize itself against Muslims, demonizing them as the enemy and weaponizing their faith and scriptures against them. In the European colonial era, all that demonizing and weaponizing language gets turned on indigenous people and enslaved African peoples, sometimes immigrant peoples too, as most of the Christian world sanctifies and justifies racism and race-based violence. It’s just a horrible, horrible turn for the Christian faith and an evil betrayal of its best origins. 

So yes, a lot of the Christian religion has been and still is racist.

On the other hand, not entirely so, at all. 

The most vibrant expressions of Christian faith in the United States flourish in communities of color, and the global Church is largest and most vital in South America, Africa, and East Asia – not in the old seats of Christian empires in Europe or North America.

I think this can happen because at its core, the Way of Jesus isn’t racist or oppressive at all. It’s liberative, it is anti-racist.

This excerpt I read is one of just many examples. 

This bit of Colossians echoes a baptismal formula that you also get in the third chapter of an earlier letter in the Bible, Galatians. A baptismal formula is something pastors would say to people, that people would repeat themselves, as they were participating in a ritual that marks them as a participant in this faith community. 

And here it’s a kind of creed about the universal dignity, worth, and mattering of all members of the human family, created in the image of God.

Greeks, Jews, men, women, slave, free, people of hybridity who don’t fit those categories – biracial, non-binary, dual citizens – all the human family gets to proclaim: I am the image of God. It’s me! And also, everybody, if they want to be in the way of Jesus, has to say of their brothers, sisters, siblings in the human family: You too are the image of God. It’s you. They are the image of God. 

We all reflect God. We all, no matter what we think of ourselves, no matter what we think about one another, we all look a little bit like God. We’ve all got that family resemblance to our Creator. And we’re even better together. We best reflect God together, in diverse community.

I am the image of God, you are the image of God, they are the image of God.

But most fundamentally, we are the image of God. 

At the beginning, in telling my story, I brought up this question of human worth and human shame in the context of racism and anti-racism. Here’s why. They’re connected.

In the Western Christian tradition – that’s Protestant Christianity, that’s Catholic Christianity too – in the Western tradition, it’s our humanity that is the problem that we need saving from. Our humanity is messed up at its very heart, it requires transcending for us to be saved. 

So Western Christians have assumed that people without saving faith in Jesus are an offense to God, worthy of punishment. The problem is that if you really believe that, it’s easy to hate yourself. Unless you count yourself as one of the lucky, or blessed saved ones; then it’s really easy to hate all the people who aren’t saved. 

This is one reason that Western Christianity, with this doctrine of universal human depravity, fits so well with colonial oppression and racism. It’s easy to punish, subjugate, and dehumanize people if you think that people’s humanity is a bad thing at heart. It’s easy to damn people to a living hell if you think they’re already damned to an eternal one.

On the other hand, there are Christian traditions more to the East that don’t teach this. These include the Orthodox churches. Now the Eastern Christian tradition can also be crappy. The leaders of the Russian Orthodox church have been spewing violence and all kinds of toxic stuff lately. 

But in the Eastern Christian tradition at least, humanity isn’t the problem. Humans are after all created in the image of God. We are good. I am good. You are good. We’re all good. Being human isn’t the problem. 

The problem is the accumulated stains of sin, harm, and hurt laid upon the human condition. We don’t do right by ourselves, and we don’t do right by one another. And into this mess of hurt, Jesus comes as the true human to restore the glory, dignity, and the beauty of our humanity. 

Christianity has been dehumanizing for sure. But at its best, the Way of Jesus is profoundly humanizing. We are good. We are beautiful. We are loved. 

In this early baptismal creed, new followers of Jesus would be invited to remember we are all in the image of God. And as they named these categories – Greek and Jew, slave and free, male and female, the significance of these categories isn’t eliminated. But the idea that any of them could make us higher or lower is eliminated. All of us are worthy of survival, of celebration, of love, of access to everything that helps us flourish. 

There’s even a shot against the idea that there could be better or worse cultures in this list. Greek and Jew refers to the two dominant cultures within the first century house churches, as these people of different cultural and religious heritage are invited to figure out how to be in community together, and how to look at one another and say – there I behold the image of God.

But there’s this more obscure pairing too – barbarian and Scythian. Barbarians are what Romans called outsiders to their Empire that they feared or resented or looked down upon. But Scythians were also a people outside the empire, slavic and Persian folks with roots in modern day Iran. A good chunk of Scythians, however, were assimilated into the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire, and became prosperous within it. They were kind of like some first century version of a model minority – people the empire considered other, different for their cultural heritage, but whose assimilation and participation in the Empire, the dominant culture praised. 

And the early faith says: knock it off with this rank-ordering of cultures, with trying to stereotype and pit people against each other. 

Who we are matters. 

But none of us get to claim status, privilege, inheritance higher or lower than any others. And none of us get to degrade or demean the status, privilege, or inheritance of people we don’t naturally belong to or like or understand. 

This is what it means that the Way of Jesus is anti-racist. It says a loud, interruptive NO to anything that would rank order humanity as more or less worthy. It calls us to operationalize this truth in our lives and in our societies. 

Let me share a word on that for this church and the other communities we’re part of. And then a word on this for our personal faith and living.

For our communities. 

We all remember that in 2020, more of America was finally starting to come around to the Black Lives Matter movement. Covid shutdowns had slowed us all down, and more white Americans started paying attention for a minute to violence against Black people and other people of color in America. 

A ton of companies and communities started creating divisions of equity, diversity, and inclusion and making all kinds of pledges to fund racial justice, or to change hiring patterns in their company, or to better attend to the rights and safety and cultures and flourishing of people and communities of color. 

A lot of promises. Three years later, we’re learning, a lot of those pledges and promises have disappeared. Funding’s been cut, positions have gone unfilled or people of color asked to make these changes happen have had to walk away because their work was so unsupported or resisted. This has happened to people in this church in their professional lives. Yeah. Parts of our country have said that telling the truth about racism in America is a shame or a crime. And parts of our country have just lost interest. Yeah, it’s messed up. 

Into this climate, the Way of Jesus, the faith of the universal human bearing of the image of God says our universal mattering, our universal access to the conditions of flourishing, our universal equality at God’s table and at every table is sacred. 

Interrupting the racist heritage of Christian religion and interrupting the racist habits of American life remains central to Reservoir’s vision for Beloved Community. Our staff still commit to measurable goals for this in our ministry responsibilities. Our teaching and spiritual formation continues to draw upon the theological and spiritual resources of communities of color. Our attention to representation throughout this community in our leadership continues. We’re committed to an experience of beloved community that really feels like that to everyone in our church. I hope that if this is your church or if you’d like it to be, you’ll help to make this so. 

Friends, I also encourage you to stop and ask how honoring the image of God in you and honoring the image of God in others can be a more central part of your spiritual and relational and professional journey. 

White friends, for some of us, continuing to just admit that we may not have been raised to do this well is a start. Everytime America has any kind of hope or progress on becoming more of a Beloved Community, white people seem to interrupt it with waves of denial and defensiveness, over and over again. 

And if we’re honest, there’s a little bit of that inside a lot of us. For me to become a better friend and neighbor to the people of color in my life in my 20s, I had to interrupt the habits of thinking my culture was normal or that people of my race deserved everything we had. It took finding the places in my life where I could learn, where I could be under the leadership of people of color. And this continues.

It wasn’t until my early 40s that I noticed that 90% of the books I’d ever read, and 90% of the theology and Christian thinking I’d ever confronted came from white people and that had shaped my imagination and thinking and faith in ways that needed correcting. The temptation when you realize stuff like this is to deny it – this can’t be so. Or to be defensive – it’s not my fault. But we all know that denial and defensiveness have never been paths to human growth or a better world. And let’s be real, shame isn’t either. Fellow white friends, no one needs more white shame or white guilt. That’s not a path to anybody growing or getting better either.

What we need, what the world needs, is truth-telling about ourselves. Being humble enough to notice where we need to grow. Listening to the truths of the people of color you know and trust. Or if you don’t have those people in your life, listening to the people you can meet on the internet and in books and who speak up at your church. Getting curious, and then showing up. Image of God-honoring antiracism isn’t about having some right set of progressive ideas in your head, it’s about not doing harm. And it’s about showing up for the rights, dignity, and welfare of people and communities of color. Telling the truth, staying humble, listening, showing up – good stuff comes from this. 

I want to say too, for many of the people of color in our community, many of us have accumulated all these layers of hurt and anger over the course of a lifetime in white-centered spaces in a white-centered country and culture. 

Some of us find that for a season, we just need to be around less whiteness. We need media and food and circles of friendship and community that center and affirm our bearing of the image of God. We talk about this in my marriage for instance. A few years ago Grace started getting into Asian drama shows more. After decades of watching people of her race and culture assigned bit parts, being made to live out stupid stereotypes and white fantasies in Western media, she found this so refreshing.

To the extent that she decided that at least for a while, maybe for good, she was mostly done with white entertainment. It took me a while to get this, let alone respect it. Because as much as I love her, I don’t have her life experience. I appreciate it now. If you’re a person of color and you want a little or a lot less whiteness in your life, that’s normal. No one should be offended by that. Do what you’ve got to do. 

Sad for me to say as a pastor, I’ve known people of color who have needed to spend less time around Reservoir for a season because it’s been better for them to be part of a church community – or simply social communities – that centers their race and culture more prominently. Sad for me, because you hate to see anyone go, but if anyone here needs that, you can do this with God’s blessing and for whatever it’s worth, with my respect and blessing too.

One way we try to make space at Reservoir for this need while people stay here, though, is by valuing and respecting the need for people who aren’t centered in the life of society to have affinity spaces where we are. This is why we have some spaces in the church, for instance, for men or women of color or for LGBTQ affinity. We all need spaces in our lives where our bearing of the image of God is honored and celebrated. This is part of anti-racist work in the way of Jesus too.

There are so many anti-racist, affirming the image of God, stories to celebrate in this community.

  • I celebrate the town meeting members in the suburbs, using your voice for more affordable housing and more hospitable experience for people who have been marginalized in your communities.
  • I celebrate our Somerville residents who are working to have elected bodies and public spaces better reflect Somerville’s multiracial and immigrant past, present, and future.
  • I celebrate those of you who are volunteering in relationship with incarcerated individuals, getting proximate to the crazy racial injustice of our prisons.
  • I celebrate those of you who in your professional lives are changing news coverage, or changing hiring patterns, or changing leadership cultures so that our companies and our region works better for communities of color, not just white people.

Some of you all are reckoning with your industry’s favoring and preference of the culture and flourishing of white people. You’re helping make Greater Boston’s present and future less racist. Way to get it! So many ways to live out the anti-racist, image of God affirming Way of Jesus. 

If you’re looking for your way, start asking. You’re in a good place for that. The answers will find you. 

Where do you need to better know that you are the image of God?

Where do you need to better know this for someone else?

I am the image of God. You are the image of God. They are the image of God. We are the image of God. Different shades and colors, different ways and styles, but no more, no less, no exceptions.