God the Father by Ambrogio Bevilacqua, 1481 – 1512. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Images of Divinity

“Image of God” is a theological term that translates from the Latin phrase Imago Dei. In my faith tradition, we believe that we were created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 reads: “God created humanity in Gods own image, in the divine image God created them.” When interpreting this passage, so many people of faith have approached the task literally, and also inverted it to suggest that God looks like us and reflects our own physical image. Out of this line of thought, God has come to look like the race-dominant traits of the Western world. This is the point where image can, with ease, become idolatry and the idol can easily serve a kind of supremacy. In Christian preaching, we have long encouraged members not to create God in our own likeness. We have cautioned people about the moral and ethical dangers of imagining God in such a way that God always holds the same preferences and biases that we do, but race is an area that has been isolated from this general caution.

Some of the great pieces of visual art in the Western world were commissioned by and created for the Church. Paintings, frescoes, and sculptures have filled religious spaces for centuries. These pieces of art help us imagine aspects of the faith: scenes from biblical literature, moments from Christian history, depictions of the human condition, and depictions of God. These images matter. How we view God matters. And more specifically how we view God related to race can make a dramatic difference in how we relate to people of other races.

Before we go any further I think it would be helpful for you to know a little about who I am and the point of view from which I write. I am a pastor of a church. Further, I am a Black pastor of a predominately white Protestant church. I love my church. We have diverse views on many matters including those I write about in this article, but we are a people learning to see in one another something more than our world has told us that we should. Before I move on to what we hope to see, we examine what the world has shaped us to see.

Image and Race
I grew up with images of God all around the churches that I belonged to, which in the formative years of middle school and high school were mostly white churches. Religious art filled the spaces just as it does in many churches and resembled the grand frescoes of the Sistine Chapel or some other great religious edifice in the West. God was always male, God was always old, and God was always white. Jesus was born in the Middle East. In every piece of religious art Jesus ought to look like a Middle Eastern man, but in most of the pieces of art that I saw growing up, Jesus was always white and often had blue eyes and straight hair. Jesus is often described in these kinds of pictures as having fair skin. It’s interesting that we use this word “fair” in two different ways in the English language. One way describes a kind of moral attribute of honesty and equanimity, and the other way describes a physical attribute, which is actually closer to the original use of the word. Fair comes from an Old English usage that means beautiful. My understanding is that the word began to shift meaning during the 1500s with literary works like Shakespeare’s sonnets that coupled beauty with complexion. This connection between beauty and complexion became even more important in the latter part of the 1500s to distinguish between the complexion of Europeans and Africans, the lighter complexion assigned more beauty and the darker complexion less so or determined as uglier. It was only later that the word “fair” also began to be used to describe justice, honesty, and equanimity. It is interesting that a word we use to describe justice and equality is derived from the presumed unblemished and beautiful nature of white skin. If this is so, the moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, but justice in our society may be more like a moral arc that always returns to the ground it has been built upon—the ground of whiteness.

The interdenominational church that I attended during a good part of college had some degree of multiculturalism in its membership and a slightly more diverse pastoral staff than I had witnessed in the past, but, when depicted, God was still white. Seemingly, everywhere I went images of the two persons of the Trinity that are most often depicted, God the Father and God the Son (Jesus), were white. Even in some of the African American churches I have visited over time there are stained glass windows or portraits of a white Jesus hanging in sanctuaries and in Sunday school classrooms in the fellowship halls. It is as if white Western Christians have convinced whole swaths of the world that God is white, that whiteness is the closest likeness to divinity. The color line is one that is not only upheld by whites who deem themselves superior, but it is also reinforced in our worship of a god that is believed to be white and male.

So think about it for a moment: If you are a young Black person growing up struggling to believe in your own self-worth because of the persistent messaging, in both subtle and overt ways, about the superiority of white beauty, intelligence, and ability, and you also live with the belief that the God you worship is white, then you may just have a steep hill to climb, unless you also jettison the faith that has been so commingled with whiteness. It is clear that people who heartily support beliefs and systems that subjugate people of color are called white supremacists. It is also true that white supremacy has created a context of unquestioned norms that people who would never call themselves white supremacists nevertheless still take for granted. Religious art is one of these norms. For instance, if you were going to visit a white mainline Protestant church to perform an audit of all of their depictions of divinity that are exclusively white, and then ask whether the exclusively white depictions of divinity suggest that the church has unwittingly participated in a system of white supremacy, I imagine both the clergy and the lay members of that church would be scandalized and perhaps enraged at the accusation.

At the beginning of the split with the Roman Catholic Church that Protestants call the Reformation, those who were protesting Roman Catholic norms began to break icons because they felt that any depictions of religious figures might be breaking the second commandment that says you shouldn’t make images of anything on earth, in the sky, or in the sea and bow down to them because that would be idolatry. The breaking of icons is where we derive the English term iconoclast from. Despite Protestants’ iconoclastic past, the prohibition around religious images did not last long and so these churches very often have paintings and other depictions of Jesus hanging on walls of Sunday school classes and in other halls and rooms within churches. To a lesser degree, there are also sometimes depictions of angels, Jesus’ disciples, or other religious figures from the Old and New Testaments that are part of paintings and stained glass windows that adorn Protestant churches. In most of the Western Protestant religious artwork, depictions of religious figures most often feature people or angels with white skin. The so-called superiority of whiteness that has overtaken religious art is so ubiquitous that even in a multicultural country of immigrants like the United States, God is still believed by so many to be a white male.

The charitable read that we could give this is to say that every culture imagines God as a reflection of the people who live in that culture. This is true for many, and is perhaps most natural. But this supremacy around whiteness has done two things that demonstrate a difference. First, it managed to convince many peoples of color in societies shaped by colonialism that God is, in fact, white. So these persons of color have rejected the natural impulse to view the divine as a mirror to themselves in some way and have instead adopted the thinking of the colonizer. Secondly, those who are the direct descendants of colonizers also struggle to view God as anything other than white when presented with a depiction of God that is not white. Years ago when I taught a class to youth at the majority-white church I was serving, during a discussion about Jesus I would show different depictions of Jesus from countries around the world. I would ask the students how they felt when viewing these different depictions. I would ask them which ones resonated with them the most and which ones they struggled with the most. I would also ask what they thought it might be like to worship in a church where all the depictions of Jesus looked racially different from them. As you might imagine, many of the students struggled with these questions. It was the first time for many of them to ever think about Jesus as being non-white. I concluded with a depiction of Jesus as a Middle Eastern man because this was the region in which Jesus was born and some struggled even then. Whiteness taught these students how to view even God.

I have been fortunate to belong to African American churches that did have depictions of Jesus that were Black or some shade of Brown. I recall the first time I remember seeing a picture of a Black Jesus hanging on the wall of a church. I stood there for a while taking it all in. I remember smiling, and breathing in more deeply. I was in college at the time and wondered why I’d not seen more pictures of Jesus like that in my then twenty years of life. We never had depictions of Jesus in our home growing up. Perhaps this was because my parents wrestled with depictions of a white Jesus. Since then, the only depictions that I have purchased of Jesus have been Black and Brown skinned. I do believe that all churches in the United States of America, including mine, should make more efforts to depict Jesus in ways that more fully reflect either historical accuracy or the fullness of God’s created peoples in all their colorful diversity. A pastor of mine growing up, “Doc” Jones, used to say, “behind the face of every person is the face of God, and how you treat every person is how you treat God.”

Mirrors and Ministry
Renowned biblical scholar, theologian, and bishop of the church, N. T. Wright, has suggested that what Genesis means when it says that we are created in God’s image is that we are, in turn, to be image bearers of God in the world. We are to be mirrors of God’s image in the world, ones who reflect something of God’s character to the rest of creation. At times, N. T. Wright has used the image of an angled mirror that is positioned between two rooms so that if you’re in one room you can see a glimpse of what is in the other and vice versa. He says that humans are to reflect the image of God’s love, care, and grace to one another and all of God’s creation, and in turn, we reflect God’s creation back to God in the way that we offer prayer, praise, and worship.

I love N. T. Wright’s vision of image bearing. Rather than God’s image being something about our physical nature, it is about humanity reflecting God’s concern, love, and justice to the world. None of us reflects this image of God perfectly into the world, but I hope that we will do so as fully as we can. I, too, am an imperfect mirror, but I hope that something of my life and ministry reflects God’s love and concern for the world.

One such mirroring moment happened a couple years ago when, after a worship service, a couple with a young daughter, who usually sit in our balcony, made their way down to say hello to me. They waited for a while so that the crowd could diminish a little bit and I’d have more time to talk with them. The mother said to me that this young girl, who must’ve been four years old or so at the time, wanted to come and see God up close. It took me a moment but then I realized that this young girl was talking about me. As a reminder, I am serving a predominantly white congregation and so this young white girl was looking at her Black pastor who speaks words about God each week and thought this is what God must look like. I certainly didn’t want this young girl to be confused and think that I am indeed God, but I hoped that she did see something of God’s love and care reflected in my words and witness to the congregation. I also believe that it is powerful that she is growing up believing that divinity comes in many shades. This young girl sees men and women, Black and white sharing God’s message with her on a regular basis and I hope that she grows up knowing that divinity comes in many colors.

Kinship: Restoring the Image
The best way that we can reflect the image of God to one another is through relationship. People make a great error when they believe that theology is primarily about learning dogma or from books written about God. The Bible is a book and certainly we can learn about God there, but I would suggest that even what a Christian gleans from the Bible is enlivened when read in a community of faith. I believe this is because Christianity is a relational religion. It is a relational religion because we believe that we were created by a relational God.

When I say that God is a relational God I am referring to what Christians call the Trinity. The Trinity is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Christians called us the three in one God—same God, but different persons. How does it work? We believe it’s a mystery—you don’t have to be able to exhaustively describe something (though there are many volumes of books on the Trinity). So we were created by a divine relationship for relationship. Humans are relational beings and this is, in part, why the COVID-19 pandemic has been so challenging—it has disrupted so many of our relational ties. The social construction of whiteness is anti-Trinitarian. A Trinitarian view of God in creation is relational, diverse, and beautiful. From the perspective of Christian theology and teaching, the creation of races as a polarity between a Blackness that some believed to be inferior and a whiteness that some believed to be superior is contrary to God’s relational intention of creation. The social construction of race is, therefore anti-Christian.

Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries says, “No kinship, no justice. No kinship, no peace.” Kinship is, I believe, the vision to which all Christian communities must move if they are to be God’s image bearers in the world. Kinship requires a dismantling of racism and its origins. Kinship also requires us to think about who we see God’s image reflected in. The vision of kinship to which we aspire is restorative because it both helps us to see the divine reflected in other human beings that look differently than we do and it helps us think differently about how we see God.

It has been said that racism dehumanizes both the one who is on the receiving end of racial discrimination as well as the one who discriminates. Racism separates a racial aggressor from their own humanity because a person cannot be fully human when they behave, speak, and think in ways that place whole groups of human beings in lower positions than themselves, which then gives the racial aggressor permission to treat them poorly. Racism is dehumanizing for everyone who is part of the racial system. Kinship is re-humanizing because it restores bonds of mutual care and affection.

Father Gregory Boyle at Homeboy Industries also said that connection and kinship is what actually heals people. I believe that in order to walk into a new future we must catch a glimpse of that new future—we must be able to imagine the picture. When I want to offer an example of an antiracist institution, I always lift up Homeboy Industries, which is thoroughly antiracist without having to talk about antiracism all the time. How do they achieve this? They focus on connection and kinship. Kinship, mutuality, tenderness, the cherishing of relationship—all of these are hallmarks of a healthy community. We have allowed the stories we have created for our world to separate us from one another. The stories we tell about ourselves have shaped what we believe about one another and, in turn, what is divine.

In this generation of citizens within the United States of America, I hope and pray that we paint a new picture. I hope that we can see in one another glimpses of the image of God. I hope that we will cherish and protect the image that we see. I hope that we will work hard to heal the old wounds created by racism. We must work assuming that nearly everything around us needs work because racism is pervasive in our society. Yet, for people of faith, love is also pervasive, grace is also pervasive, hope is always pervasive. The Christian story is one in which God is actively at work in every generation to restore the Imago Dei in all creation. Today, I hope that some of that image continues to be restored in you. Whoever you are, know that God looks at you and sees art. May you look on others with the eyes of God.