The Imago on the Margins

A key contributor to the problem of homelessness has been and continues to be institutionalized poverty and elitist sentiments in the minds of homeowners. As it pertains to poverty, one can see, through historical and sociological studies, that planned structures have allowed for the further subjugation of people in poverty. Mark Rank, Hong-Sik Yoon, and Thomas Hirschl highlight several factors as responsible for structural poverty: insufficient jobs capable of supporting families, a lack of social safety nets capable of pulling families out of poverty, and the fact that the majority of Americans are susceptible to homelessness at some point in their lives, due to economic recession and the fact that many Americans dip below the poverty line each year. This has compounded by policy changes since 1980s, which have removed or weakened social safety nets such as the closing of many mental institutions, and the preference of house ownership in during tax season, leading to heavier burdens placed on those living in rental housing. Mary Jacobs also notes that, through interviews with people residing temporarily in homeless shelters, many have internalized a sense of inferiority, especially among people of color. This means that those who have been, currently are, or may likely become homeless are less likely to view their prospectives with positivity.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, on an average night in January, approximately 550,000 Americans were experiencing homelessness (whether on the streets, in a shelter, or in transitional housing), accounting for about 0.5% of the American population. Of this number, 32% were individuals or families without shelter, and the remaining 68% were individuals or families in some form of shelter; 22% of these people were children. Most people experiencing homelessness are minorities: while 48% are white, 39% are African American and the remaining 13% Native American, Asian, or multiracial. Homelessness is also a very serious problem among veterans — 12% of all homeless people are vets, and 91% of them are men (and of that number, 97% are single men). All of this demonstrates that homelessness is a prevalent problem in America, in dire need of social and theological reflection and action.

Jesus once told his disciples whilst in Jerusalem that they did not choose him, but that they had been chosen by Jesus instead. Indeed, the incarnation itself ought to be viewed as a revelatory and electing act. God has chosen to fully disclose Godself through Jesus, allowing for humankind to approach and see the true God in a new light. What God has done in Jesus is a redefinition as well as a fulfillment of the divine identity as can be known by created beings. The Son of God emptied himself, placing his divine nature aside, and descended to the fallen human realm to bring them into newness of life. The cross of Christ is most rightly seen as an act of solidarity on God’s part with humanity. If one is to follow these theses through to their completion, one will see that they comprise truly revolutionary ideas with regard to both human and divine identities. It also has serious implications for those who are relegated to the margins of society as a message of hope and freedom. Here, we will see in what way these truths regarding the identity of Jesus can bring to bear on our study of the Imago and modern American homelessness.

We can start by exploring how the incarnation of Jesus redefines the Imago Dei through his identification with those thought to be the lowest of the low by the world (Barth and Moltmann will be helpful here). Probing the Scriptures will demonstrate that the dignity of all humanity, regardless of race, gender, and social standing, is in keeping with Jesus’ redefining message and existence. But what is more than this, we will show that such a view of humankind means that those who identify as Christians are called to identify with those whom God has called and created in God’s image despite any and every preconceived notion. Such a calling placed on the lives of Christians — whether privileged or oppressed — involves standing in solidarity with and working to alleviate the suffering of their homeless sisters and brothers.

Two biblical passages help us in seeing how God Godself chooses to identify with the marginalized. The first is set in the context of a first century person telling Jesus that they are willing to follow him to the ends of the earth. Jesus, in the tradition common to both Matthew and Luke, famously responds that the Son of Man “has nowhere to place his head.” This demonstrates that, despite all of the royalty and honor that is appropriate for Jesus, the Lord nevertheless was one who wandered itinerantly, preaching the coming Kingdom of God. The other text we will focus on here is an Early Church hymn, found in the second chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul tells us that the first Christians believed that, in the incarnation, Jesus had set aside something which was central to his being: exalted equality with the divine. Instead, Jesus did something radically unexpected — he chose to obey God in such a way that it required him to take the form of a slave and led to his death on the cross. Christians have wrestled with this text, and many have concluded that there is something of the utmost importance here, something which reveals a key insight into the nature and character of God. Barth and Moltmann are such example and we will now examine them, with the hopes of finding some new way of answering our research question.

Barth believed that Jesus, the revealed Word of God, posed a new challenge to humanity and human ideas regarding God, especially when those made to be Christians had the Holy Spirit poured out on them. One of these challenges includes the call to love God and serve one’s neighbor. This service includes the giving of alms, offering needed forms of assistance, and, especially, the proclamation of the Gospel. This is because the Word of God calls us to engage in the ministry of the Word: “our humanity is placed in the service of the Word of God,” and is aided in so doing by the Holy Spirit as humanity is incapable of such a task unassisted. This is because of the relationship of creation by and the covenant with the triune God which Barth saw; he believed humanity was caught in the world but also caught up in God. Although humanity is incapable of achieving salvation and receiving revelation on their own, they nevertheless are creatures and children of God, and are to be loved and dignified as such. Thus, his view of the Imago was intimately tied in with the commission to exercise God’s dominion in the world. From this, we can learn that the Imago Dei is most rightly understood as an identity possessed by the other; it challenges the Christian to act in love towards and proclaim the Gospel of redemption, reconciliation, and hope to one’s neighbor.

Moltmann agreed with Barth in believing that Jesus was the fullest self-disclosure of God, but went beyond Barth’s work in a number of ways. Of interest for our study are his thoughts on the nature, character, and mission of Jesus in light of the cross. We will look at his seminal The Crucified God in order to supplement what we observed in Barth’s view of revelation, and the challenge Jesus presents. Since God is love, and love was thought by Moltmann to be inherently self-sacrificial, Jesus’ death on the cross was a giving of himself in love, and at the same time an act of solidarity on God’s part with the suffering through God’s own suffering. Indeed, Moltmann says that “God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in that consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope,” and it is in this that “God is revealed in the cross of Christ who was abandoned by God” so that God could become intelligible to people. Thus, it is out of love that God suffers for humanity, and in this way gives them dignity while calling believers to love, resistance, and, ultimately, liberation. What, then, can we learn from such a view of the image of God on the cross? We may conclude that Moltmann teaches us we, as bearers of the Imago Dei, must embrace the example and image of Jesus, and stand in solidarity with all of humanity, especially those who suffer the most.

Barth and Moltmann provide us with a new and exciting way to think about the challenge modern American homelessness poses to the Imago Dei. There are many living in abject poverty, people who have no place to lay their heads, and who have been emptied from their homes and rightful possession of dignity. This, we may conclude, resonates with the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus, in that he too lived and died in such a way which could be called lowly by the world. If the New Testament, Barth, and Moltmann are correct in teaching that Christians must pursue the image and example of Christ with the utmost tenacity, then we Christians have no choice but to identify with our homeless sisters and brothers. This is, at the very core, a recognition of Jesus’ coming to redeem the world, as Jesus goes against the grain of our preconceived notions of dignity. We are to follow his lead and recognize God’s election of and identifying with the homeless, and to pursue adequate living conditions worthy of being called a part of the inaugurated Kingdom of God for the homeless.