Take Me to Church 1/19/20: In the Image of God

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MLK Jr. at Westminster Abbey.  Photo by Nadiastrid on Wikimedia Commons.

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s easy to forget that King began his public career as a preacher, given everything that came afterwards, and ironic to imagine that he preached from the same Bible that was used to justify slavery and segregation.  King showed up how and why he did because of his faith, not despite it, and I think the quotation above offers a glimpse at King’s image of God, as, in the photo here, he both points towards the world beyond us and opens his hand to the world before us.

What is power, and what is love?  Believing God to be limitless in both is an example of the cataphatic theology Micah mentioned in his sermon yesterday.  It’s not enough, he said, to know either what God is (cataphatic theology) or what God is not (apaphatic theology); these are in conversation with each other.  Maybe the same can be said of all of us, that none of us is the grand sum of what we are or the differences of what we are not.

I stayed after the service for Mystery School, Judson’s loose riff on Bible study, in which we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  What’s going to stay with me from that discussion is the notion of deserving, or lack thereof, in that text: the older son cannot deserve the celebration the father gave his younger son any more than the younger son can deserve to get his inheritance back.  Neither can either son deserve more punishment than they’ve already given themselves.  The father, presumably wiser than his sons, knows both of these things.  It’s a parable about forgiveness, certainly, but also about a healthy questioning of our notions of deserving, which grace is always waiting to lovingly dismantle if we allow it.

King took that concept and crafted political and economic policy around it, one of so many reasons we continue to celebrate his legacy.  And while we fight for the large-scale change he imagined, we can also do his work in small ways, on ourselves and among the people we see every day.  I’m constantly challenged to reevaluate my notions of deservingness: who deserves help?  Everyone.  Who deserves the shame I bring on myself and the judgment I bring on others?  No one.  The wisest refuse black-and-white definitions of who has earned anything, as Jesus did, as he invited us to do in that parable and in so many other ways.

We are all reflected in the image of God.  There are easy and toothless versions of what that means, like “colorblindness” and its relatives; there are more pernicious variations of blindness and ignorance that would leave each to their respective fates.  We can do more by seeking the cataphatic and apaphatic images of God in each other, and by being both to the rest of the world.