Parallel images of barbaric atrocities committed by extremists and of health workers risking and giving their lives in the effort to control the Ebola pandemic raise the penetrating question of who we are and who we have become as a human family.
On a lesser scale, the prevalence of anger and disrespect in the face of cooperative efforts to find solutions to other pressing problems raises the same question.
Those of us who are conditioned by a life-work of seeking connections between ancient texts and modern life naturally wonder if there might be clues for understanding in the deep roots of the human race.
The Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2 portrays humanity’s basic vulnerability as a lack of willingness to be a creature and a desire to know as the creator knows.
To see as God sees, to know as God knows, and to claim the prerogatives of such knowledge is presented as the supreme violation of the creator-creature relationship.
We might wonder if ancient expressions of religious zeal that presume certainty about God’s will and are willing to use any means to impose it might have been the backdrop of this ancient narrative of the origins of humankind’s inhumanity to itself.
If we were creating a narrative today to illustrate the core problem of the extremism that is producing the cruelty that is our daily fare, it would be fitting to frame it as claiming divine authority for one’s own or one’s group’s ideology. “We see as God sees; we know as God knows. Therefore, our will is God’s will.”
By contrast, a companion account in Genesis 1 offers another narrative that tempers the portrait of humanity’s tendency to breach the creator-creature relationship.
Human persons are said to be created in the image of God, unique among all the creatures in this regard.
There is abundant commentary on what this “image” might mean. One helpful suggestion is that it might refer to the quality of empathy—the ability to see through the eyes of another, and to understand what the world might look like when seen from the vantage point of another’s experience and perspective.
Understanding the uniqueness of humanity in terms of this capacity to see through the eyes of the other suggests that the possibility of community across the many lines of human diversity is a choice that can be embraced.
It also implies and requires a turn from the tendency to claim to see as God sees to a willingness to see as others see.
Pick an issue: immigration, racism, income inequality, gender issues, health care—add your own issue to the list.
How much distress and conflict could be mitigated and how much healthy progress could be made if there were an abundance of this quality of being able to see as others see?
What if, in response to the influx of children fleeing the dangers of life in Central America, our collective consciousness could see through the eyes of parents trying desperately to protect their children rather than through eyes fearful that some of our tax dollars will be required to help people we don’t see as deserving?
What if, in response to the racially charged conflict accompanying tragic events that open wounds with deep roots on one side of the racial divide and are only superficially understood on the other side, there could be a concerted effort to understand from one side to the other.
It is helpful to remember that the heroes of the modern struggle for justice have shared a concern not only for the more direct victims of injustice but also for the less direct victims who perpetrate, but more often simply tolerate, systemic injustice that can easily be glossed over by signs of partial progress.
Being our “brother’s keeper” probably begins with a willingness to see through our brother’s (and sister’s) eyes and to embrace a different and broader perspective than our own vantage point alone can provide.
It’s an old book, but Genesis portrays the human dilemma clearly. We receive two invitations—one from a tempter who offers the power of a claim to divine prerogative and another from a creator who offers a community of covenant partnership that sees through others’ eyes as well as through our own.
History makes pretty clear the consequences of which invitation is accepted.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.