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Baked ham or turkey is a traditional favorite on the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables of most American homes. And many of us enjoy an occasional steak or Sunday pot roast. For thousands of years, humanity as a whole has feasted on fish or fowl or various animals. Until the rise of the animal rights movement in recent years, no one has questioned the legitimacy of killing these creatures for food.
Yet, in most cultures, from the dawn of time murder of another human being has been a punishable crime. Why is this? Why do we distinguish between the killing of a bird or animal and the deliberate killing of another human being? The answer is to be found in Genesis 9:1–6. In that passage, God makes a distinction between the animals, birds, and fish on the one hand and human beings on the other. The creatures were given by God as food for mankind. That’s why we kill them without any sense of guilt. This is one of God’s provisions for us.
However, it is a different story with mankind. In Genesis 9:6, God expressly says: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (emphasis added). It’s okay to kill a creature for food, but it’s not okay to murder another human being. Why? Because God created man — both male and female — in His own image (Gen. 9:6 and 1:27).
So far, this is all review for most Tabletalk readers. But we often overlook another important scriptural text — the basis of our treatment of one another on the fact that we are created in the likeness of God. James 3:9 says, “With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” In distinction from all other creatures, mankind has a special relationship to God. And despite the fact that this image of God was seriously defaced as the result of Adam’s sin, it still exists as evidenced by the fact that both Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9 refer to mankind after the fall.
So there are two harmful actions toward other people that are forbidden, based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. And considering the context, it is no exegetical leap to conclude that James has in mind not only an imprecation or strong denunciation but also any type of harsh or unkind speech intended to hurt or humiliate another person.
This is sobering. Not only am I not to murder another person because he is created in the image of God, but I’m also not to curse him or humiliate him for the same reason. And yet those of us who wouldn’t think of murder will all too often let harsh and hurtful words roll off our tongues with hardly a second thought. When we do this, we sin because we have violated the image of God in the other person.
From these two prohibitions against murder and harsh language, we can derive a broad scriptural principle that applies to all interpersonal relationships. We are to treat other people with dignity and respect based on the fact that they are created in the image of God. In fact, Scripture seems to suggest that God regards our treatment of fellow human beings as treatment of Him. For example, Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” And Jesus said that our works at the last day will be based, to some extent, on this principle. “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:40).
We usually associate the word integrity with such traits as honesty and moral rectitude. But integrity also includes the way we view and treat other people. Most of us have known people who are honest and upright in their moral behavior but who are proud and harsh in their attitudes and treatment of others. And yet every person, regardless of gender or ethnic origin or economic or social status is to be treated with dignity and respect, because he or she was created in the image of God. To fail in this area is to compromise our integrity.
This has all kinds of implications. As I’ve already suggested, our speech to or about other people is to be governed by this principle of treating others with dignity and respect. Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Corrupting speech is any speech that tends to tear down another person — either the one we are speaking to or the one we are speaking about. This is one area of relationships where we, who try to be circumspect in other areas of life, can grievously fail. It is so easy to speak disparagingly of others with hardly a second thought or qualm of conscience, and yet that person is created in the image of God.
Or consider the homeless. On a winter’s evening one can go into the downtown library in the city where I live and see a number of homeless men there finding refuge from the cold. It is so easy to be bothered by their presence. They all need a shave, a shower, and clean clothes, and they seem to intrude on the nice, middle-class atmosphere one usually associates with a library. And yet all of these men are created in the image of God and thus deserve the dignity and respect we usually reserve for people like ourselves.
However, we need to do more than show dignity and respect. In the days of Isaiah, God severely rebuked Israel for their indifference to the plight of the needy. God’s words were: “Is not this the fast that I choose…‘to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him’” (Isa. 58:6–7). This brief article is not the place to develop what that might look like for each of us today. Suffice it to say that every believer ought to be involved in some ministry to the needy, whether it is a direct “hands-on” ministry or generous support of ministries involved in such work. And while we may be inclined to respond generously to the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa, let us not forget the needy in our hometowns.
Protection of life is another application of the truth that every individual is created in the image of God. In this area we naturally think first of protection of the unborn. While our legal system greatly hampers our efforts to protect them, there are positive actions we can take. One is to support personally and financially the pregnancy centers which minister to women with unwanted pregnancies. Another is to support those who are working to change the legal climate, either through legislation or court decisions.
Since the disastrous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision more than thirty years ago, the protection of the unborn has become a major part of the growing political and cultural divide in our country. In the heat of the rhetoric over this issue, it is easy to lose sight of the basis of our “pro-life” convictions — namely, each of those unborn babies is created in the image of God. Protection of the unborn then is much more than a political issue to be fought over at the ballot box or in the courtroom. It is a battle that also needs to be fought at the throne of grace through prayer.
At the other end of the age spectrum is the increasing threat of euthanasia and assisted suicide of the elderly and seriously disabled. In addition, there is the large number of elderly who languish in nursing homes with little or no attention from their families. Many of them have greatly impaired mental faculties, which make it difficult to relate to them. But all these folks need to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of how difficult that may be at times.
There are well over six billion people populating our world today. Through our communications technology, we have become virtual neighbors to most of them. So, how do we respond when we read in our newspapers or see on our television reports of devastating earthquakes or typhoons that have killed or left homeless hundreds of thousands of people? Is it merely more news about our troubled planet? Or do we see each of those people as being created in the image of God, and, because of that, worthy of dignity and respect and of our compassion and aid?
None of us lives on a social island. We interact every day with people, either directly or indirectly. Whatever the circumstances and nature of that interaction, let us seek to treat all people with dignity and respect, recognizing that every human being has been created in the image of God. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”