Throughout history, human beings have been willing to sacrifice the lives of human beings, made in the image of God, for the sake of a flag, an emblem, a symbol, a piece of earth, a form of ideology, even a familiar way of doing things. Since human beings are created in the image of God, the tablets of the law given to Moses forbid any graven image.
Societies and institutions, and the sinful human heart, habitually regress to treating human beings as units rather than holy temples. People are categorised according to race, gender, sex, physical health and ability, social pedigree, and treated accordingly, rather than honoured as human beings, holy temples of God’s image (albeit now defaced by sin). Persons designed for greatness, goodness, creativity and beauty are demeaned as slaves, dishonoured as unclean or undesirable, diminished and limited by rules (spoken or unspoken) of behaviour that have more to do with reinforcing the structures of hierarchy than liberating and celebrating the God-given gifting, potential and diversity of real human beings.
Jesus restores the significance of the two tablets of the law, when he answers the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.” And he incarnates that law of love in his person, frequenting outcasts and “undesirables”, treating them with respect and honour and appreciation. (“You did not give me a kiss or wash my feet, but this woman has not stopped kissing my feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.”) He refrains from judging or condemning an adulteress, and chooses instead to show up the disingenuous power structures that enslaved her, and sends her off free, empowered to live well. God’s reign brings wholeness and full humanity in place of the empires that tend towards degrading and dehumanising people. Jesus’ proclamation of the full humanity of those around him brought healing to many of them, and struck fear in the hearts of those whose security was in the structures of inclusion and exclusion as they stood.
The denial of due process and a fair trial, the imposition of summary execution on trumped up charges in the interest of political expediency, the torture, nakedness and beating, designed to humiliate and strike fear in the populace, were the logical outworkings of the dehumanising structures so threatened by Jesus. A true human being, who bore fully the image of God and therefore honoured his fellow-humans, saw beyond their limitations and set them free.
Northern Ireland is stuck. The Church is stuck. We should be giving the lead on equality, on peacebuilding and on reconciliation. Instead we seem to have become wedded to the constraints of our institutions and so as disciples of Jesus Christ, to see first the human being and their God-given potential. Blinded by labels of gender or political or national affiliation, we have been unable to give the farsighted leadership that sees what is possible. We have believed the labels and inhibited progress. Criminals who break the cycle of repeat offending have one single factor in common: every single one had at least one person who believed, and made it possible for them to believe, that they were worth more than a life of crime.
The Gospel starts with this faith – in the goodness of God, which gives hope to a floundering political process in the face of exhausted cynicism. Faith in the faithfulness of God, and in God’s power to release us to be what God designed us to be. Not blind faith, naïve to the sickness of the stunted human soul, but living faith, confident that the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead can surely give life to the powers of sickness and death eating the souls of human beings.
Martin Luther King had a dream. Something to do with the content of character rather than the colour of skin… What can people of Christian faith imagine and dream for the wellbeing of Northern Ireland, that the world cannot dream without us?
Rev. Cheryl Meban is Chaplain at University of Ulster, Belfast and Jordanstown campuses, convenor of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Board of Mission Overseas, and long time supporter of ECONI and Contemporary Christianity.