Editor’s note: The following article is the second of four excerpts from Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.”
If we are asked to close our eyes and imagine what God looks like, we often visualize the Almighty as being from a particular culture or ethnicity. Sometimes this mental image of God corresponds to our own race and culture. For some, visualizing God as from their culture and ethnicity strengthens their ability to relate to God in the vertical dimension through prayer. But an exclusive image of the Divine weakens the possibility of experiencing God in the horizontal dimension through one’s relationships with others. A monocultural image of God develops from a faulty understanding of the biblical teaching that humans are created in the image of God. A theological reversal occurs that reasons, If I am created in the image of God, then God must look like me. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, some have tried to create God in their own image.
This reversal becomes even more problematic when the group that is in power creates God in its own cultural and ethnic image and then imposes that image of God on others. It could be argued that the United States was founded on the premise that God is a white male. When the United States Constitution was written with the words “We the people,” the “we” referred to white men. Only white men could vote; no women or people of color were included in that “we.” When the idea that God is male and white was accepted, women and people of color were not only left out but were treated with contempt because they were not created in the image of God. Degrading and harassing women and dehumanizing and humiliating people of color were considered permissible because God was perceived as being a white male. Women and people who were not “white” functioned in society in a role that relegated them to a less-than-human status.
The genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans were based on the contention that Native Americans and Africans were not really human in the fullest sense of the word. Enslaved Africans were even designated as three-fifths of a human being in the United States Constitution. Someone who was not fully human could be brutalized without engendering guilt. Society gave whites permission to torture, rape and kill people of color because, according to the Constitution, they were only three-fifths human. They were not created in the image of the white male God. While the more blatant forms of expression have been reduced, this thought process can be found in the deeper realms of our consciousness. The image of a white male God still shapes attitudes and inhibits one’s ability to interact with people who appear different from us. A distorted image of God not only hurts the person who is being marginalized by the image, it also affects the person who benefits from the image. Feeling “superior” or “chosen” because of one’s whiteness or maleness causes a spiritual and psychological isolation from the rest of the family of God.
One way to address this concern about the whiteness of the image of God is to accept the perspective of Albert Cleage, who in the 1970s said in his book “The Black Messiah,” “If God created man in his own image, then we must look at man to see what God looks like. There are black men, there are yellow men, there are red men and there are a few, a mighty few, white men in the world. If God created man in his own image, then God must be some combination of this black, red, yellow and white. … In America, one drop of black blood makes you a black. So by American law, God is black.”
Cleage’s statement, perhaps shocking to some, moves us in the right direction. If all of humanity is created in the image of God, then God’s image includes all ethnicities, races and cultures, both genders, and so on. If we were to ask what color or what culture God is, our answer must be that God is multicolored or multicultural. God’s signature, the rainbow, symbolizes the biblical teaching that God’s image embraces all of humanity.
Rev. Dr. Curtiss Paul DeYoung is professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University and the author of six books on the topic of reconciliation and multiculturalism.
Excerpted from “Jesus Christ: Culturally Human, Inclusively Divine” in Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s “Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity” (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 2009), 50-52. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.