“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.” ~ “The Power and The Glory” by Graham Greene
I have often observed how hard it can be for people – and often particularly God’s people – to get past the sin and ugliness and abrasiveness of people to see the image bearing man or woman God created them to be. I think that “a failure of imagination” is probably just the right accounting of the problem. When I was growing up my mom used to look at someone who had fallen on the way of life and say, “there but for the grace of God go I.” I don’t know if it was a habit or if she really understood the truth of what she was saying, but it taught me a lot about how to look at people and myself. It taught me not to think too much of myself. Given a different set of circumstances, a different upbringing, a different natural temperament, I could very well have wound up in the same place as anyone else. Or at least be in grave danger of doing so.
It also taught me to actually consider how it was that other people wound up where they did. When I was in college, I did prison ministry at a juvi prison not far from my school. One of the biggest things that I learned from spending time with and talking with the guys there was that there are very few people who do evil things because they actually desire to bring evil into the world and the lives of those around them. There are some of those people and I met a few. But even among criminals, they are very much a minority. For the most part these kids (some of whom had done truly heinous things), did the only thing that made sense to them in the situation that they found themselves in. Now, this doesn’t mean that what they did was excusable or that they didn’t actually have other options. However, suffering from their own lack of imagination, they simply did not see them at the time. My point being that if I was willing to “visualized a man or woman carefully”, I would come to pity (I would say compassion is probably a better word than pity). I could see the truth of my mother’s old, “there but for the grace of God go I.” And at that point, hate or even contempt becomes a very hard thing to hold onto.
As an adult I have been surprised to discover that my mother’s habit of looking at the fallen or failing with “there but for the grace of God go I” seems not to be a common one. Instead, it seems that in many homes, particularly Christian ones, the fallen and failing are morality tales to be used as demonstrations of what happens when one rejects God’s ways. They are reduced to warnings defined by their failures and misteps. But in doing so, we presumptuously remove “image of God” from how we see them. And we have no right to try and remove or ignore something which God himself planted on another human being.
It also sets out a clear delineation between us and them. The fallen person is not like me. I will not be like him so long as I don’t do what he did. And I would never do what he did. And we are never challenged to imagine ourselves in another’s place. And lacking imagination, true pity and compassion never comes. Hate is easy and love is hard. In which case, all of our righteousness, all of our works, and right answers and words and moral living mean nothing. So the first becomes last in the eyes of God. But if we can bring ourselves low to imagine how we could wind up in the place of another, then we can love. And it is only when we can love the image of God (ie another person), that we can actually approach the Living God in love. But it all starts with a little imagination – “there but for the grace of God go I.”