Have you ever engaged in the happy, lazy pastime known as “people watching?” This is a game in which you sit on a bench and observe all the interesting people walking past you. Ocean City, Maryland, a few hours from where I live, is a prime “people watching” spot. The Ocean City boardwalk is known for being a bit seedy, so it’s an ideal location to see some pretty hilarious sights. The characters strolling up and down the boardwalk run the gamut from funny to freaky to drunk to crazy. While walking the boardwalk one night, I was once approached by a gaggle of clearly-intoxicated mothers in their forties who inquired drunkenly as to whether or not I had attended college (I had). Why they felt the need to question me on my academic credentials, I don’t know. But it was pretty funny.
One of the prime reasons that people watching is so enjoyable is because of the sense of smug superiority that it fosters. It’s easy to feel better about your life when you spend half an hour silently mocking all the weirdos walking past you. But while it may feel good to build yourself up in this way, such pride is actually an executioner, anesthetizing your soul to weighty and glorious realities while gently strangling you with the noose of your own imagined significance. Mocking other people is a fun way to spend the afternoon, but also a great way to kill yourself slowly.
One of the weighty and glorious realities that pride regularly desensitizes me to is the true identity of those around me. I am so hell-bent on hoarding praise that I will trample anyone or anything to get the glory that I so desperately thirst for. My heart’s cavernous longing for my lost image-bearing crown blinds me to the image-bearing glory intrinsic in other people. This deep soul sickness is not easily cured, because it stems from the broken cultural mandate short-circuiting in my sin-ravaged heart.
The antidote to pride’s poison, as we have seen, is the story of king and country. Seeing my need for rescue and inability to rescue myself transfers my admiration from myself to my savior, King Jesus. And knowing the glory for which I am destined is a balm for my heart’s wound of lost dominion.
But there’s another way that the story of king and country works to undermine pride: by showing me not just my glory, but the glory of everyone around me, too. My own worth lies not in what I do but what I am: a human being made in the image of God, a regent and representative of the divine on earth. But that is not a privilege that I bear alone. Every other human being I have ever met is also made in the image of God, endowed by the Creator with royal dignity and value. The Fall has stripped us of our position of authority, but not the value inherent in our image-bearing. We are exiles, but we are still royalty.
This applies just as much to your non-Christian neighbor as it does to a person in the pews. In Christ, the defacement of God’s image is being removed, and our destiny is to reign with him in the new creation. But even those who have wholeheartedly rejected God’s King still bear the divine stamp on their souls. This makes their rebellion all the more tragic, but it doesn’t make them any less valuable as persons made in God’s image. C.S. Lewis writes,
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor… It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people.”
Every person you have ever mocked while “people watching” will one day either shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father or devolve into an everlasting nightmare. You have never mocked an ordinary person, for there are no ordinary people. The image of God is engraved on every human life, endowing them with innate, inalienable value. Thus, any crime against humanity—whether it be murder, violence, or simply smug “people watching”—is an affront to their royal dignity and rebellion against the God whose reign is represented in their humanity. It is kings and queens whom you sneer at and gossip about and discriminate against.
This puts all our sins against one another in a sobering light. In Genesis 9, in the aftermath of the flood, God makes clear that humanity’s royal heritage, while twisted, is still intact. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Killing a human being is a heinous and unrivaled crime, God decrees, because it is an assault against royal image-bearers. All murder is regicide.
But lest you excuse yourself and pat yourself on the back for not killing anyone today, remember Jesus’ words, in which he expanded the prohibition against regicide to include all heart-level anger directed at any fellow image-bearer. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). Rebellion against God doesn’t just come through bullets and knives aimed at his image-bearers. Words of hatred are an act of war against his kingdom, too.
There are areas in which the church has understood the value of image-bearing humanity and shines as a testimony to the world. The fight to protect unborn children is a prime example, and for decades, evangelicals have borne courageous witness to the sanctity of human life. This is a sanctity based not on perceived usefulness but inherent value, not on what a person can do but on what they are. The church defends the life of the unborn because within the veins of fetuses flows the royal blood of divine regents. This battle is waged on multiple fronts, from the political arena where laws to protect the innocent are legislated, to the social sphere where unwanted babies are adopted and pregnant mothers are cared for, to the spiritual realm where God’s people regularly pray against the forces of darkness who hate both God and his image imprinted on infants.
There are other areas, however, where we fall woefully short in our pro-life consistency. All too often, we evangelicals are shamefully double-minded when it comes to the sanctity of life. We are quick to defend the unborn, but slow to speak in defense of others who are also voiceless and oppressed. We enthusiastically rally to support politicians who claim pro-life credentials, while simultaneously championing policies aimed at diminishing the dignity of other categories of image-bearers. We view those across the dividing lines of race and politics with suspicion, mistrust, and fear, forgetting that human value is not based on zip code, skin color, or voting history, but on the divine pronouncements made in the garden and at Golgotha. It is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life, as we divide off into our comfortable enclaves of like-minded, like-skinned believers. Our untroubled tribalism cuts off any hope for dialogue with those different than us, and our lack of dialogue fuels a lack of compassion. We are disturbingly untroubled by deep-seated personal and institutional discrimination, sky-high incarceration rates, child hunger, and poverty, probably because they afflict those who seem different from us. This is unacceptable in a kingdom made up of a reconstituted humanity of every nation, tribe, and tongue. Discrimination of any kind, anywhere, is the defacing of the image of God and an assault against the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ himself. To only side with those who are like us, against those of a different skin color or language or nationality or economic status, is an act of treason against the God-Man’s kingdom. When we mock the poor, or shun immigrants, or fear a different race, or demonize those with different views than ours, we are taking up the abortionist’s knife and implicating ourselves in the same crime, making a mockery of our supposed pro-life stance.
True pro-life values begin with the image of God, and the reinstatement of regality that Jesus has accomplished. Jesus’ kingdom is all about the restoration of humanity, a great reversal upending all injustice and sorrow. In his kingdom, humanity is raised back to the honor for which it was created: the homeless are welcomed in, the poor are raised from the ashes, enemies are reconciled, and captives are set free. This year of Jubilee, begun in Nazareth, continues today in the kingdom’s mission of reconciliation and restoration.
In the kingdom of the great reversal, the human project is rebuilt by kingdom citizens treating others as the royalty that they really are. The so-called “golden rule,” at its heart, is simply this reality governing our interactions with everyone we meet. We “pay honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7) because everyone is owed royal treatment by virtue of their humanity. We honor the image of God in others by thinking and speaking well of them, caring for them, building bridges to them, and extending mercy to them. In a word, by loving them. At the end of the day, that’s what this kingdom is all about.