Imago Dei

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

This verse from Genesis reminds us that all humans, every one of us, form one family. There are no races or sub-species. There are families, tribes, and nations, and there may be much enmity between them, but we all bear in our person the creator’s stamp. Every single one of us has intrinsic dignity and worth because we are created in the image of God.

Before the pandemic, I was on a business trip to Frankfurt. I had decided that on this trip I would visit Buchenwald, it being the closest concentration camp to Frankfurt. It is located just outside of Weimar, which had been the pre-war capital of Germany (think Weimar republic).

It was a moving trip to say the least, but with busyness followed by the pandemic, I really had not had any time to put my reflections in writing. But when I received an email from my step-dad, who shared with me an email he had received from a fellow world-traveling couple whom he and my mom met when they were in Vietnam, my trip to Buchenwald came back to me with force.

The email describes the author’s encounter with Stolpersteines, or ‘Stumbling Stones’, which she encountered while walking around Düsseldorf.

Stolpersteines, which is German for stumbling blocks, were created by an artist named Gunter Demnig, in 1996. They commemorate (for those of you who haven’t yet asked google to translate the words in the picture above) Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. There are thousands of them, all over Germany, and many other countries in Europe.If you can document where a Jewish person lived, and that they died in the Holocaust, you can have a Stolpersteine installed in front of the building they were taken from. Sometimes, walking down the street, you see one, or a pair, or sometimes you see ten in front of one building, eight in front of the next, a dozen on the corner. The numbers can be overwhelming.

Lisa Rosen, 2020

Reading Ms. Rosen’s email reminded me of my trip to Buchenwald and of what happens when we forget that every human being bears the mark of the creator.

It is one thing to read about the holocaust, but it is another thing to encounter the physical evidence. My visit to Buchenwald made what was a horrifying, but somewhat distant truth, into something immediate and visceral.

As I walked where people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed, the reality of it sunk in deep. It hit me: someone first had to imagine Buchenwald. It originated in someone’s mind before it became a physical reality. Someone had to design it. Someone had to write up a proposal to get it built. Approvals had to be obtained, money allocated, budgets drawn up. It would have then gone out to bid. Bids would have been received (“Pick our company: our plan is better….”). A vendor would have been selected. Then they would have hired workers to build it. They would have hired electricians and carpenters, stone masons and plumbers. Then, once built, people had to take up positions to make it all work: guards, office workers, etc.

Then the people came. Moms and Dads. Kids and teenagers. The aged and infirm along with infants. There would also have been dissidents, and perhaps a few people who had actually done something wrong, but none who deserved what was in store for them.

They arrived here by train at this rail siding:

From here, they walked about a half mile to the entrance to the camp and passed through the gate. The sign on the gate says something to the effect of “to each one his due”. Implying that they deserved to be there.

Buchenwald Main Gate – This was the only way in or out, for the living at least

Upon entering, they would have continued to the depot, where they would have turned in all their belongings in exchange for a prison uniform.

It was a cold, blustery day when I visited, and it snowed as well. I was wearing a very warm down jacket and I had gloves on, and a scarf and a hat, and still I was cold and I thought how miserable it must have been for people to arrive in winter, provided with nothing more than a thin cotton prison uniform for warmth.

Buchenwald was not a death camp, but many people were murdered there. When they opened, they did not have a crematorium, but the town of Weimar let them use theirs until the camp could build one of their own.

There is a lot one could say about Weimar…It had been the pre-war capital of Germany, and it was an exceptionally patriotic region. The Hitler Youth Summer Camp was just outside of Weimar. And it was in Weimar that they decided to build Buchenwald, one of the first concentration camps, originally for the scores of criminals newly minted by the Reich’s laws outlawing other political parties, but eventually for anyone they wanted to get rid of.

There was a law on the books in Germany at the time stating that you had to have permission from the family of the deceased if you wanted to cremate a body, but that formality was dispensed with by the town of Weimar’s crematorium, and so they took in bodies from Buchenwald until Buchenwald built their own.

Here is the one they built. I guess I must have forgotten to take pictures inside, but it had seven ovens, and in the basement, there were hooks on the walls on which they used to hang people to be tortured. There was an elevator to take the bodies up from the basement to the room with ovens.

The barracks people lived in are all gone, but the foundations are still there. In various places there are piles of stones, plaques, and monuments to the people who perished there.

The camp was completely surrounded with barbed wire. You’ve seen the pictures before, but it was another thing entirely to see it up close and think — ‘it could have been me in there’. This could have been the view outside of my window.

How does a society get to the point where ordinary people can participate in such horrors? It would be a mistake to think that the German people were somehow worse than the rest of us.

In the early 20th century, ethnocentrism was assumed by most, especially by whatever group ruled in a particular place (it was not confined to Europe and America). Racism was acceptable, even expected in polite society. And it was supported by doctors and scientists of the day as a scientifically based, logical and respectable ideology. “The Final Solution” was to the Nazis, nothing more than the logical extension of ideas that were well established in the minds of both the leaders and the people of every nation, including our own.

German society, under Nazism, stamped the heel of its boot on people created in the image of God. They forgot the Imago Dei. But they found philosophical support in the United States and its treatment of the Native Americans and African Americans. At the Nuremberg war trials, defense lawyers argued from US case law. And there was a pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939.

We have our own legacy of stamping the boot on the Imago Dei.

This wickedness continues today, and so it is essential for each one of us to recognize the Imago Dei in every human being, to stand opposed to injustice whenever it rears its ugly head.

He has told you, O man, what is good

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justice, to love kindness,

And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

As Christians who recognize the Imago Dei in every single human being, we must strive for justice. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone. Because the injustice we tolerate towards any person or group makes a lie of our claim to be in submission to Christ. And let us not delude ourselves: the sword we unleash on others may easily be turned back on us. We must strive for justice for everyone, because that is what pleases God.

But I think often, when we try to right the wrongs of the past, we end up doing the same thing we are opposing. If the problem is that we dehumanize others, stripping them of their essential humanity, denying the existential brotherhood we share with them, are we really making things better when we label people with terms which do the same?

To call someone a racist is to classify them as an objectively evil person, espousing and acting from a philosophy which claims racial superiority for a people group, and an explicit inferiority to some or all other people groups.

But racists are made in the Image of God too. If we deny the Imago Dei in anyone, we reject it in ourselves as well.

But consider this: all of us, regardless of our ethnicity, naturally tend towards a tribalistic way of thinking, even if intellectually we would reject the logical trajectory of such thinking. We are constantly putting people into either the ‘us’ or ‘them’ category. We have a natural tendency to pre-judge those we deem ‘outside’ our group. And while Tribalism may be endemic to the human heart, tribalism is not a good thing, and we would do well to broaden the category of ‘us’ as much as possible.

We should be quick to recognize what we share with other people, and thereby build bridges, rather than finding our identity in the categories which would separate us, insofar as that is possible. This was I think the failure of the German people: when the Nazis fanned the flames of tribalism, rather than remembering that we are all created in the image of God, rather than focusing on what they shared with their friends and neighbors, the German people accepted the segregation, and moved in their own minds from regarding Jews as “different” to “other” to “dangerous” to “enemy”. They forgot that the communists, the homosexuals, the deformed, the infirm, the dissidents, the Christians, and the Jews were all their co-image-bearers.

While wandering around in Utrecht in The Netherlands,, I came upon a monument to the holocaust. And on this monument was a plaque which moved me to tears as I read it because of the phrase “members of our community”. This monument was not dedicated to “the Jews who lived among us”, it was dedicated to the Jewish “members of our community”. The people of Utrecht did not see the Jews living among them as “other”, they saw them as “members of our community.” Christian or not, they beheld the Imago Dei in their fellow man.

When our children were small, and we were learning how to parent, one very powerful lesson we learned was, when a child did something wrong, we were not to label the child, but the behavior: “that was a lie” instead of “you are a liar”. “That was an unkind thing to do to your sister” not “you are unkind”. Because if we label the person, we are saying “this is a description of you”. It tears down the person, and places them in the category of “other”. But if instead we label the behavior, we are saying “you are one of US, and that is not something WE do.”

I think we need to do the same for all such dehumanizing acts and attitudes. We should say “That is a racist thing to say” rather than “you are a racist”. We should say “That sort of speech denigrates women” rather than “you are a sexist.” This gives the person room to grow, and it acknowledges our existential union. And perhaps just as importantly, it reminds us to treat every person as having worth and dignity, even those whose beliefs or behavior we find abhorrent.

If we don’t make this distinction between “person” and “act”, if we give in to the natural human impulse to identify people as “other”, then we open the door in our own heart to participate in the atrocities committed against Native Americans, African Americans, or European Jews. Referring to another person with a dehumanizing epithet is obviously not the same as killing them, but the heart behind it may be the same. And the fact that the label is apropos is no safeguard. Left unchecked, it can lead to the same outcome, only with a new target.

The election is over here in the US. One candidate won, and another lost. But during the campaign it seemed that all I heard from the two major parties was dehumanizing rhetoric. We have to start walking this back. Because in the end, if we cannot live together with our differences, we will tear down our home with our own hands.

We have to recognize that people on “the other side” do not wake up in the morning rubbing their hands together and chortling to themselves “let’s see what EVIL I can do today.” Yes, we do evil all the time, because we are all deeply infected with sin. But we are not all as bad as we could be all the time. Most of us do the same things every day: we get dressed, brush our teeth, struggle to meet our obligations, and try to do what we can for ourselves and the world around us. We may differ on what sort of better world we are working for, and we may follow different paths to get there, and those differences may be huge. But we are all made in the image of God. And each person has worth, and dignity. And to treat anyone as less is an offense to the creator.

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

Matthew 5:22

My appeal is primarily to Christians: if Jesus is The Lord, and He is, even to speak unkindly about another person or group of people made in the image of God is a sin and we must not do it. Ever. But as my appeal is based primarily on Genesis, I think if you are a Jew or a Muslim, you will accept my argument as well. So to you who worship the God of Abraham, Iaasic and Jacob, I say that we are to be quick to see in other people the Imago Dei, and slow to cast someone in the ‘other’ category. You and I, and everyone else in the world, has intrinsic worth because we are made in the image of God. And even if we are very different, we must find ways to live with each other.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Love your neighbor, or we’ll all end up dead.

About dbfiore

I was born a wretched sinner, utterly lost and without hope. But by the grace of God, I am a redeemed member of God's holy family, and I will live forever with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to the everlasting glory of the father.
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