My first year of seminary, a friend and I decided to move to an apartment in Aurora, a suburb just outside of Denver. I can remember quite clearly the first time we visited. The apartment complex was littered with cockroaches, reeked of ethnic food and rarely washed bodies, and everywhere we turned there was a different language being shouted. The concrete courtyard boasted two trees full of birds, a chaotic collection of children’s bikes, and ragged, barefoot children who were the most resilient beautiful creatures I had seen in a long time. I remember looking at the cockroaches in our would-be-apartment and shrugging at my roommate, they were smaller than what I was used to as a missionary kid in Latin America and Southern California; how bad could it be? And so we headed to life surrounded by neighbours from at least six different countries; nearly all of them refugees of some sort.
The complex, however, was just two blocks from a road called Colfax, a place notorious for prostitution, drugs, violence— all the worst things a city harbours. When we started telling folks about this transition, I was startled by their responses. Many in the faith community we both belonged to vehemently disagreed with our choice to move “out there.” We were vulnerable, they argued. Two, young, single women living on their own, in a place off Colfax? They would try to persuade us, “no, you don’t want to live with those people.” It simply wasn’t safe or wise. We didn’t listen. We moved in, we made friends with the community of refugees, we tutored kids, we ate in their homes, we advocated for them, typed up resumes, drove them to school, and contrary to what people had predicted, we never felt unsafe.
Looking back, a common thread runs through much of the advice we received from people. It was fear, fear of the unknown. It was easy to put that “side” of town out on the edge, to hold it at arm’s length and never engage it or the people who dwell there. In treating the folks who lived there as those people, as a faceless mass, they were effectively dehumanized, stripped of almost anything beyond a stereotype of a danger to be feared. This is what happens in conversations about race, war, enemies, anything where one side must triumph over the other.
When a person or group is dehumanized, they become little more than an object. In our case, the people we lived among were an object to feared. There was a palpable sense of racism that came out as “I don’t dislike you, but I fear you.” Such fear forces distance between differing peoples, and sometimes end in resentment or distrust, born of failure to overcome fear. When a person or group of people is only an object, they become the “other.” Seeing another human being as this nameless, faceless entity, relieves us of the responsibility to engage them as human beings with dignity, value, worth. We forget that those children and adults have hopes and dreams; that they may even be afraid of us in the same we are afraid of them (whoever “us” may actually be).
This is what is happening across the world the past few weeks. The militants of ISIS (or ISIL) refuse to accord their victims dignity and respect as humans. In Ferguson, we’ve forgotten that despite skin colour, those are really human beings on either side, trapped in systems so ingrained they are like oxygen in the air, and we don’t even see them. In Israel and Palestine, each side is the enemy, a nameless force that simply must be overcome. But that enemy is made up of individuals. Persons who are brothers, sisters, parents, wives, husbands. They have dreams, for themselves, for their families. They have hope that things will change tomorrow, and they have fear that things will always be the same. They cry salty tears, and their blood runs red just like ours.
Recognizing a common humanity is important, but there is more to those other the other side than even that. Genesis 1 & 2 describe the creation and significance of humankind by saying that each individual person is created in the image of God. It is this which gives each of humanity unique dignity and value. It is not the things we accomplish, our athletic or intellectual prowess, not our skin colour, our education, religion, or nationality. It is simply that we have all been created by a God who values life, shaped into bearing his image, and endowed with worth because he declares it over us – in the creation, and by coming to save us in the person of Jesus.
Even after sin, evil and death have entered the world, God still sees humanity in his image. In Genesis 9, God declares human life is so important that taking life from any human being “will require a reckoning.” This value is once again linked with the imago dei when God says that, “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made humankind in his own image.” (Gen. 9.6) Human life has inherent value and worth, and is incredibly important to God.
When we look at any group or individual and we categorize them in any way that ignores the image of God, we have failed to see them as God does. And when we fail to regard their humanity – as beautiful and broken as our own – we are enabled to treat them as mere objects, and in turn are given the ability to mar the image of God in ourselves. Because to be in the image of a Creator means to nurture life, not destroy it.
The problems facing us across the globe today are complex and multifaceted. But perhaps one starting point for reconciliation and hope would be to acknowledge our common dignity and value, grounded not in ourselves, but in the one who shapes us and has declared us to be his image-bearers. It may not solve everything, but it would cause us to stop and consider our actions more keenly. This is not a nameless entity that we fear or attack, it is another human being who was created in the image and likeness of the Creator, Sustainer, and Saviour of all life.