Does religion divide people? Is it race, socioeconomic status or politics that separates us? Is our world and are the churches that inhabit that world hopelessly divided by things that we are helpless to control?
As a Jew trained by the prominent Jewish teacher Gamaliel, Paul had learned that what divided people was religion. Jews had the Law and were therefore superior. Gentiles did not have the Law and were therefore inferior. According to Jewish thinking, God’s gift of the Law separated them from others, making them superior.
A Jewish man might therefore pray, “Blessed am I, Lord, that I was not born like these pagans but rather among your chosen people who have the Law.” Or as Jesus portrays the common prayer of a Jewish leader, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I worship properly and I give a tenth of my income. Thank you, God.”
But as he reveals in Romans, Paul finally comes to a different realization. We don’t fully know what changed Paul. Did he figure this out when the bright light blinded him on the Damascus road? Did he spend seven years in the Arabian desert coming to this conclusion? Or was his heart softened by the sorrowful realization of how much he had fought against the followers of the Way?
Here’s what Paul discovered: Sin divides us. Not our birth certificates. Not our ethnicity. Not even the Law. It’s sin that divides people from one another and from God—the sins of arrogance, laziness, anger, idolatry, etc. They all build barriers that keep us apart.
This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Blood doesn’t divide us. Flesh doesn’t separate us. Sin wrecks relationships and tears the world to pieces.
Think back with me to the story of creation. Why do we have the stories of Genesis 1-2? These aren’t scientific records of how God orchestrated the details of the universe. Instead, they explain to us what’s in the heart of God and what the role of humanity in God’s glorious creation is supposed to be.
One of the most important lessons from creation is that humans are made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image! In other words, the image of God is deeply implanted into each and every person. Stop and consider that for a moment. You are made in God’s image! Say it to yourself, “I am made in God’s image.” But now look around and say about those near you, “They are made in God’s image.” Each and every person has the image of God within them. How can something made in God’s image be bad or evil.
One of the things you learn when you’re married to a child development expert (as I am) is that you shouldn’t call kids bad or good. It’s common to hear even from Santa Claus, “Have you been a good girl?” Or a frustrated parent will say, “Why are you being such a bad boy?” The truth is that kids aren’t bad. They do bad things and make bad choices, but they aren’t bad.
The same is true of people. Can you really say that a human being made in the image of God is bad? Does God make bad things? This is what the creation story teaches us: When done with creation, God said, “It is good. It is very good.” Would you want to argue that God makes bad things?
Now it’s true that there are some people who do some awful things. And this is what guides Paul’s conclusion. The awful things they do that divide people are the result of sin.
But even people who genuinely do good things tend to become smug and self-righteous. This is another kind of sin that creeps in and divides people. The truth is that we are all made in the image of God. But by the same token we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our actions don’t match the image that is inside us. And this divides us from each other and from God.
Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa. In 1968 she had the crazy idea of letting her kids participate in an experiment. “Blue-eyed kids,” she announced, “are stupid and will be second-class members of this class. Brown-eyed kids are the best.” So for the next two days she watched with astonishment as previously bright leaders who had blue eyes suddenly became timid and insecure, making unusual mistakes on their assignments. Meanwhile, brown-eyed kids found an amazing degree of confidence. Some previously quiet kids came out of their shells and began to assert themselves, feeling more confident in their roles and in their skills.
Then Mrs. Elliott switched the experiment. Blue-eyed kids were now bright while brown-eyed kids had their rights taken away. It was an astounding test that met with widespread derision—especially there in Riceville—as she began to draw acclaim and curiosity around the country. She even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Elliott asked the kids to write about what they learned. One student, Debbie Hughes, said things that typify the other responses. “The people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five extra minutes of recess.” When the experiment switched, she wrote, “I felt like quitting school . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”
This clearly illustrates Paul’s great discovery in Romans. The things that divide us are artificially produced by the power of sin. They are either of our own creation or of a power beyond our control. That’s what Paul says in Romans: “You were slaves to sin.” Sin takes people hostage and through this savagery destroys what is good in all of us.
Think about it for a second. If we all stood in the presence of God, stripped of our sin and aware of being made in God’s image, wouldn’t we get along swimmingly? This is why Jesus came—to undo the damaging divide of sin. Jesus refused to separate people the way his compatriots did. Knowing this, Paul writes in Rom 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The glory of God as revealed in creation is visible when we tear down the divisions and welcome one another as fellow human beings made in God’s image.
So here’s my challenge for you based upon Paul’s massive discovery. What have you allowed to divide you from your neighbors? What obstacle have you empowered to stand as a divider between you and others who—like you—are made in God’s image? And what are you going to do about it? Sin is the divider-in-chief. Let’s stop feeding it.