Repairing the Imago Dei

— By Aaron Farnham —

It’s the middle of the winter just a few years ago. The cabin fever is getting to the students at Cedar Shoals. Fights in the hallways are on the rise. We all need a break, badly. Without a hint of facetiousness a White man says, “I think the best solution would be to lock them all in the gym and burn it down.” Before the word “down” was out of his mouth a Black man retorted, “Did you just f*ckin’ say that?!” … The White man didn’t see the Imago Dei in the Black and Brown students at Cedar Shoals; the majority of the student body. The Black man was heated, and I should have matched that heat. That heat was righteous anger.

Reparations is a term that would make most of my family become heated, at best. Countless Crown Royal whiskeys were taken back and stogies puffed in frantic pile-on, during Thanksgiving Day “discussions” about “welfare queens” and “the Blacks.” These comments were offered in protest to bits and pieces of what could be offered in a complete reparations package. While I never heard threats of physical attacks from my kin, they were likely only a few whiskeys away from being part of the raucous conversations. The heat in room was an unrighteous anger. My family was heated with an unrighteous anger.

Whereas my family “accepted” the minimum compensation received by the Seneca Nation of Indians I grew up near because of the economic benefit from being able to purchase discounted gas on the reservation, anything that could have a positive impact on the African American population of the United States was dramatically opposed. While both the Native American and Black communities were openly derided, for my family, there was a clear and unstated distinction made between Senecas and Black people. To be clear, Seneca-owned gas stations don’t pay taxes on gas. In New York state in the late 90s the tax was 40¢ a gallon, but the price of gas on the reservation was 10¢, maybe 12¢, less than off the reservation. A car with a 16 gallon gas tank would mean a $1.60 savings on a tank. Maybe $3.20 a month per vehicle in financial benefit to my parents was enough to elevate the status of Native Americans head and shoulders above African Americans. My parents’ and my community’s failure to realize the economic benefit extended to the entire nation, for centuries of robbed labor, remains clear for a lot of reasons. But the power of calculating an actual, monetary benefit, even as small as $3.20 a month back in the ’90s, still has a hold on folks I talk to when I visit home. I have family that doesn’t recognize the Imago Dei in anyone who isn’t white.  

I find myself reflecting on these memories. Groups have distinctions; have I learned to make appropriate distinctions? Have I shed the lens of the inappropriate distinctions that steeped my life? Have I learned to be righteously angry about inappropriate distinctions made about these people, God’s creation? That White man, who identifies as faithful to Jesus Christ, and my family, all professing Christians (but Northern, so not that uber Christianity you might know down here) couldn’t be bothered to see the image of God in “those” people, especially Black people. In front of them, would I be strong enough to show them appropriate righteous anger in response to their rejection of the Imago Dei

Theologically, one of the biggest battles facing a movement for reparations for American descendants of slavery will be confronting White Supremacist Christianity’s refusal to see the Imago Dei in anyone that isn’t white. Miguel de la Torre defines White Supremacist Christianity as a fusion and confusion that equates salvation with white supremacy within Evangelicalism in this article, which was later expanded into Burying White Privilege. Broadening the view of the Imago Dei to include all human beings among so-called Christians in the United States will mean actively working against poor theology fortified by white supremacy, two pillars of our nation, outside ourselves and within ourselves.  


Holy Spirit, so long as it is within your will, please allow us to feel, understand, accept and work through the discomfort of where we have come from as we work for a better ending for human beings our ancestors and the systems they created, and we sustain, consistently worked and continue to work against. May our feelings not get in the way of progess on this project that would be bigger than a jubilee. Amen.