“The people in this town need Jesus and if they want him, they know where to find him.”
These bitter words echoed through my mind as I sat in a quarterly business meeting at the Baptist church that I had been a member of for most of my youth. This statement was a response to the idea of our church making an intentional effort to help meet the needs that we had previously identified through a community-wide survey.
What I thought would be a chance to present various opportunities for community engagement and Christian service quickly turned into a time for church leadership to effectively cut down any motivation for service-oriented outreach.
While I believed (and still do) that we all need the presence of Jesus in our lives, I could not have disagreed more with their line of thinking.
I began to perceive that my church had what I considered to be an escapist theology — a common style of belief that says, “This world is going to hell in a handbasket, and our duty as Christians is to stay within the four walls of our sanctuary and worship until Jesus returns. In other words, the sanctuary is our temporary escape from the terrors outside of here; people are allowed to come in and join us, but we won’t help anyone outside.”
My theology has shifted since that meeting; it has been deconstructed and reconstructed. At this stage in my Christian life, not only do I still recognize the faulty belief that I encountered in that business meeting, but I also recognize the sense of saviorism that was present in my own belief.
The foundation of my belief was the idea that others were lost, depraved individuals that were completely without God — as if the image of God in humanity was completely lost when sin entered the picture.
What seemed to naturally follow was the notion that there were dire needs in my community (spiritual not the least among them). If we were not willing to engage with them and solve or fix those issues, then we were failing in our Christian duties.
This was very much aligned with the beliefs of my home church, except I wanted to go out and engage in this work, whereas the elders took a more passive approach.
The things we believe about our neighbors and the ways through which we engage with and relate to them are signifiers of what we believe about the image of God.
If humans as created beings are made in the imago Dei (image of God), then our neighbors are not “others” but are fellow image-bearers. The “us-them” distinction suddenly dissipates, leaving behind a sense of primeval interconnectedness; something like the harmonious shalom that has always been divinely intended.
Therefore, our job is not to view others as needing our saving works but rather to participate in the divine redemption of all things. This entails our understanding that Christ himself is the one who does the saving and the redeeming!
Our duty is to walk with our neighbors in their journey of remembering who they were created to be. It is in this practice of walking alongside that we rediscover our purpose to live with others in shalom.
Make no mistake, there are high stakes for every party involved. If there are neighbors that you are unwilling to accompany throughout the course of life, then there are parts of the image of God that you are unwilling to see.
In our finitude, we will never fully know God. Aside from reading about God in Scripture, it is impossible to know God any better than you currently do until you know and love your neighbor. Outside of Scripture, one of the best ways to learn about, know, and love God is one neighbor at a time.
Namaste helps sum up the practicality of the image of God. This traditional Indian word has a varied definition depending on who is using it, but it is typically used as a greeting or salutation.
However, it has also been interpreted to mean “the light in me recognizes and honors the light in you.” This light is understood to be a sign of the divine. Accordingly, some have defined namaste using the word “divine” instead of “light.”
Thus, namaste can be an expressively useful reminder to recognize the divine spark within our neighbors. Christians can appreciate this sentiment because of our beliefs about every person being made in the image of God.
In a parallel fashion, the image of God within us can recognize the image of God within others. Whatever is good, true, and holy within us is the image of God. Whatever is good, true, and holy within others is the image of God.
Reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus himself, the concept of namaste teaches us to recognize and honor the good, the true, and the holy that abides within ourselves and our neighbors.
Between the concepts of namaste and of imago Dei, there is much to be considered when it comes to our neighbors. Recognizing the divine image and heritage of all people is certainly no easy task — it is easier spoken of than attempted.
However, my hope and prayer is that we will be a people committed to walking alongside our neighbors through this life as we all journey into the full remembrance of who we are.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to email@example.com.
An intern at the Center for Church and Community Impact (C3I) at Baylor University, Powell is pursuing a Master of Social Work from the Diana Garland School of Social Work and a Master of Divinity from Truett Seminary.