By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon on Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.—Genesis 1:26-27
My spirituality is saturated in the biblical claim that I bear the image of God, that we all bear the royal image of God. Hebrew scribes wrote and edited the book of Genesis after they were captured and exiled to Babylon, an empire that placed “images”—or statues—of their king in public places to remind people who is supreme. Citizens were supposed to bow whenever they passed by. The Hebrew scribes subverted this human hierarchy of value by crafting their own creation story. The scribes stamped every human Being with the royal image of a God of love and compassion who designed a world without a human hierarchy of value. We are all royalty, born to bow in reverence to each other.
When I read the Gospels through the lens of this radical royalty, Jesus jumps off the page, pitching the idea of a reign of God that belongs to peasant people who have been incessantly lied to and deceived by the propaganda of priests and politicians devoted to what the Romans called “the paterfamilias,” the imperial caste system, their version of the human hierarchy of value, with Caesar at the top and children at the very bottom, just below the women, the working poor, the sharecroppers and slaves, the chronically sick and injured.
Jesus said that unless you find full solidarity with the sharecroppers and slaves, and make room to receive the children, you will remain clueless that you too bear the royal image of divine love and compassion. Jesus proclaims that the children and the servants and the women and the lepers bear the same royal image as Caesars and celebrities. We make sense of these ancient stories by connecting the dots and telling the truth about our present situation. American society today is still ordered by what Isabel Wilkerson calls a caste system. At the top of our human hierarchy of value, there is a powerful elite, a wealthy 1% that controls the economic and political landscape. At the bottom, in the basement, we find Black people, Native folk, undocumented workers, the unhoused, imprisoned and perpetually disadvantaged.
Make no mistake: this is not doormat discipleship. Jesus did not beckon his followers to grovel on the ground, but to raise up those who the culture buries in the basement. But we can only get in touch with our humanity by prioritizing those at the bottom, by embodying the African principle of Ubuntu: I am because we are. We walk upright on this earth, not because we’ve earned it, but because we have inherited it, from the womb to the tomb. Our royalty not something we are entitled to, but something we are empowered by, something bestowed upon us by a higher Power, by One who designed the world as Dr. King described: as an inescapable network of mutuality. We riff off each other with a regal sense of reverence, awe and wonder. We possess a posture of presence, playfulness and appreciation.
When we reflect God’s glory to the rest of the world, we shine with a humility that hums on mutuality. We share in the success of others, not by diminishing ourselves or deferring out of a codependent obligation to others. We are devoted to looking out for the interests of others—but this does not mean that we just shut up and serve. In fact, our royalty empowers us to assert ourselves even more into the equation—to listen and learn from those at the bottom, but also to connect the dots and tell the truth to the top no matter what it costs us financially or socially.
Our royalty requires that we issue decrees that protect and serve everyone, no matter what they look like, who they love, where they are from or how they worship. In relationship, radical royalty recognizes when others do not have love to give, when others are languishing in win-lose logic, when others cannot get past their own pain. When others treat us terribly, we are not supposed to take it. In fact, honoring the image of God in ourselves means that we must put up a boundary to the bullshit.
In the biblical tradition, folks like Hagar, Miriam, Moses, Jeremiah, John and Jesus reclaim their royal image in the wilderness—away from centers of power and established institutions that are built on leadership models honed by a human hierarchy of value, by what theologian Willie Jennings calls “the pedagogy of the plantation.” It is a form of leadership that cultivates the skill and will to possess, control and master everything—and to use other humans and other species of life as tools to perpetuate power, popularity and wealth. In the wilderness, we take our cues from those in the cracks and corners of empire, from the perspective of dark-skinned spiritual geniuses who have retained their own royal image in the face of racist hatred and oppression for the past 500 years on this continent. As WEB Dubois once wrote, “We who are dark can see America in ways that white America cannot.”
Radical royalty is the opposite of racism. We are deserving—and so is everyone else. So we call out the lie that life is a zero-sum game, that saying “Black lives matter” means that white lives do not. There is more than enough divine love to dish out. This is not the prosperity gospel. Conditions of wealth and privilege—conditions of poverty and “being on welfare”—are not the results of hard work and faith in God, or the lack thereof.
Those reclaiming their royal image wake up to the fact that the devastating economic outcomes at the bottom are designed by those at the top. They are justified by myths, lies and propaganda sponsored by powerful elites—and popular brands of Christianity that counterfeit the subversive message of Hebrew scribes in order to sustain the Babylonian hierarchy. These pastors equate “faith” with the “freedom” to do whatever one wants—no matter how it affects anyone else. They highlight the next verse in Genesis, where God tells the newly formed humans to “subdue” the earth and have “dominion.” But here’s the rub: Hebrew scribes took this language from the royal Babylonian lexicon too and put it in the mouth of the God of love and liberation to empower image-bearing humans to satisfy their need, not their greed.
At creation, humans are commissioned to take food from plants and trees. Not from animals or other humans. If we are truly “images” of the divine, then dominion does not mean doing whatever we want. Our royalty is radically mutual. It is about bowing to each other and building a world together where everyone has enough. No matter what. In fact, when we read on, the prophets and Jesus tell us that real “dominion” requires redistribution—so that there will be enough for everyone.
May we carry this word into our week and make it a reality. Amen.
Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. In 2022, Tommy will be preaching a seven-minute sermon every other Sunday. Sermons will be posted to Easy Yolk.