Martin Luther King had a famous dream. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What’s the reality we live with 56 years later? We’re not judged by the content of our character. We’re judged by the color of our skin, the size of our wallets, even the political party we associate with. And where is character to be found in those things?
And why does character matter, really? I mean, it doesn’t gain us status or recognition with the world. It grants us no titles. It promises no money. It doesn’t even provide us with more friends. What is the reward of good character? And why does that matter in a society that seems to value, above all else, such notions as tolerance and reproductive rights on one side, and guns and free market on the other?
The answer to good character is found in what Christians call “The Image of God.” The concept of good character is an ancient one, and we even see that in words like “virtue”: among the Greeks “arete” and among the Romans “virtus.” The aspects of virtue included things like courage, justice, temperance, and prudence. Perhaps even more foreign to our modern sensibilities, “manliness” was central to this notion. Aristotle believed virtue was simply an excellence at being human: virtue was its own reward leading to the greatest human happiness. Centuries later, the most influential Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas borrow from Aristotle, but they insist that true virtue is bound to our love of God. The Image of God (that’s you and me, friend!) flourishes most when we love our God and our neighbor. And yes, our neighbor happens to be the abortion-rights activist. Our neighbor is also the helpless, the poor, and in our cultural context, the unborn: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.“ (Proverbs 31:8-9)
What’s all this have to do with human diversity? Just this: our human condition as individual human beings, and even our variety of culture, is and always has been a very good thing. Martin Luther King was right: the color of our skin is secondary to our virtue, or lack of it. And our human condition, our every culture, has deeply rooted problems. It’s not that humanity as God created us is bad. But neither is culture bad as God originally created it: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it,” God says to the Patriarchs again and again. Why? In part, it seems, because God loves diversity. God loves the rainbow of our human cultural expressions. God is most glorified in our cultures when our cultures, in their various and wonderful ways, glorify Him. It takes the form of ancient hymns and organ music. It takes the form of rap music. It takes the form of Australian digeridoos and African Djembe drums.
But there’s a very real danger in this diversity as well. Much like human individuals, cultures also turn bad in the ways they turn from God. As C.S. Lewis once said, “There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” No son or daughter of Adam is exempt. And no culture is either. We find it from the materialism in the West to the mysticism of the East. We find it in Democratic Republics and Monarchies. We find it from Capitalism to Communism. And yes, we find evil in the power-plays and politics of American Conservatism and Liberalism: each of us has turned aside from God. And while our systems can sometimes express the wonderful Image of God through right justice and proper care for the poor, those same systems can also exemplify the apathy and deep-seated hatred in each of us toward our God and our neighbor.
So, friends, let’s embrace MLK’s dream that the content of our character might become the skin that people see first. Let us recognize the sin that clings to us closely (Heb. 12:1), sometimes so closely we’re blind to its cultural manifestations among ourselves. God’s gospel speaks equally to skin color and to reproductive rights; it speaks equally to racism and infanticide. Is it possible we’ve not allowed the gospel into some of our own blind spots? While we point our own judicial finger, we must recognize God’s justice will one day roll down like a river. And God help us. So we pray for justice with a bit of fear and trepidation, knowing that God shows no favoritism to our apathy.
The Gospel speaks to all of our individual and cultural sins: the varieties of human culture, skin tone, ethnicity, and music are beautiful. And they’re made more beautiful when we see those varieties turn from their apathy and sin to the one God and Father of all.