People on the Periphery
The marginalized. Who are they? Do you know any of them? They are the ones that society overlooks, at best, and sometimes mistreats. Sadly, unaware, we pass them every day, but how often do we take the time to see them, to get to know them?
What are their names? What are their stories?
But more importantly, why should I care?
An Encounter at the Gas Station
In the Fall of 2000, I started at Harding University Graduate School of Religion (now Harding School of Theology) in Memphis, TN. A year later, I joined Memphis Urban Ministry and began working at a small church plant in West Memphis, Arkansas. I had a heart for inner city ministry, and so this predominately African American church that was doing a lot of outreach to a few Section 8 housing areas was a perfect fit.
One evening after work, I stopped at a gas station before starting the 30-minute drive across Memphis to get back to the grad school. As I was going in to pay, I was met by an older African American man sitting on the sidewalk in front of the gas station. He asked me for some money.
I asked what he needed the money for and he told me he was hungry. I told him that I would go in and get him a hot dog. However, I later found out that they were sold out, so I went back out to ask him what else he would want instead.
He pondered that for a second and then said, “Actually it’s getting late, would you be able to take me home?” I said “Sure,” and then he told me he lived in Memphis.
We started driving in my 1995 Toyota Camry, heading for the I-55 bridge. As we were driving, we talked. He found out that I was a youth minister at a church in West Memphis and was going to school. He also told me a little about his life (tough, after 20 years, I don’t remember what he said). As conversation went on, I began to develop a soft spot for this man.
The other Memphis Urban Ministry workers always told me, “Nobody needs money; they need what the money can buy them, so take care of the need.” Nevertheless, this 23-year-old was new to the inner city and pretty naive, so I ended up giving the man $10.
The Surprise Passenger
Still engaged in conversation as we drove down Third Street, I noticed that the man waved at a white woman walking down the street by herself. The sky was getting dark enough that I had to turn on the headlights, but I could still see fairly well without them. She was average height for a woman, slightly emaciated with long, straight, dirty blonde hair that looked like it had not been washed for a number of days, tight jeans and carrying a purse with the straps over her shoulder and squeezing it securely under her left arm.
At the time, while his wave to her caught my attention, I didn’t think much about it. Naively, I thought to myself, “I guess he is just waving to someone he knows.” Little did I know, I suspect, that the $10 was already burning a hole in this man’s pocket and wanted to see what services the woman would provide for this modest amount of money.
Originally, the man had told me that he lived much further down the road, but now he was asking to be dropped off shortly after we saw the woman walking. I told him that I didn’t mind driving the extra distance, but he was politely insistent, so I pulled off to the side of the road. Nevertheless, our conversation was so good that we continued it for a few minutes after I pulled off.
As the man and I kept talking, that same woman we saw walking opened the rear passenger side door to my car and sat down in the back seat. Still clueless as to what was going on, I just thought, “Oh, she must be waiting for her friend to finish his conversation.” However, as the man was giving some verbal clues that he was ready to get out of the car, she wasn’t moving. He then opened the door and gave some more verbal clues that he was ready to go, but she still didn’t budge.
I thought this was all a little strange, but still didn’t think much about it until the man’s tone started to change, more agitated and slightly panicky. Then, with great concern, the man told the woman, “Please don’t do this to the pastor!”
Then it FINALLY dawned on me–this was a woman of prostitution (not a “prostitute”; I prefer to think of her as a woman in a bad situation, but that situation should not ultimately define her).
Once I realized what was going on, I started to get concerned as well. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said the first thing that came to my mind, which was probably not very sensitive. From the driver’s seat, I turned around to face her and put my hands up in a halting motion and said, “Uh… I don’t want any.” Dorky, yes, but I got my point across.
After that, we talked for a moment longer and then I asked if I could pray for them. They graciously accepted and we all bowed our heads to pray. Once the prayer was finished, they both got out of my car. I drove off, SO thankful that there were no police officers around to see that interaction. That would have been an awkward story to explain to the seminary administration!
A Series of Poor Choices or Simply Circumstances?
For some reason, I woke up this morning pondering this incident that happened nearly 20 years ago.
I wondered what was going through that woman’s mind. Was she nervous and confused as she sat in the back seat trying to size up the situation? Why was she walking the street in the first place? Did she have kids to feed? Had she been forced into that life by someone?
Then I wondered, would $10 really buy you anything with a woman of prostitution? What life events would have brought her to sell something so precious for $10!?
And the older black man, what was running through his mind? He could have taken care of his physical need by himself, so was there a deeper, unmet emotional need that would drive him to approach this woman? Like the untouchable leper, was his hunger for human connection so great that he would settle for the unloving embrace of this “woman of the night”? What life events would lead a man to humiliatingly beg for money or debase himself with this woman, a woman who only sees a loaf of bread when she looks at him?
Once again… why should I care?
Why Should Any Lives Matter?
In more recent history, I’ve been lamenting the events surrounding and sparked by the death of George Floyd, and pondering the surge in popularity that Black Lives Matter (BLM) has received in the wake of this tragedy. I believe these events are related to what we are discussing,
This truth statement, “black lives matter,” has become a lightning rod of tensions in recent years and especially now. Some recoil at the statement, saying all lives matter. Which makes BLM supporters all the more angry, not necessarily because they believe that “all lives matter” is a false statement, but because they feel that it discounts all of the pain and suffering that African Americans have experienced in our country’s history. (Note that supporting the truth statement “black lives matter” is very different from supporting the organization, Black Lives Matter. Before either supporting or denouncing BLM, check out their “What We Believe” page.)
Back to our question… why should I care? Why should any lives matter?
Created in the Image of God… So?
In the book of Genesis, we are told that, “…God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, ESV; see also Gen. 5:1-2). We were created in the image of God. The creation narrative does not say that any other part of creation was created in his image. Not the land. Not the birds. Not even your dog, Rover. Only people! (Ah, poor little Rover…)
…God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
This article is not intended as a deep dive into the theology of the image of God. For a more in depth look at these ideas, please check out John Piper’s article called, of all things… “The Image of God.”
According to the Genesis narrative, John Piper points out that there are 5 things that are unique to mankind:
- Man is the final creation
- Only man is stated as being in the image of God
- Only man is given dominion over all the earth
- Prior to the creation of man alone was there divine counsel
- Only man is explicitly stated as being created male and female
Yes. When God sent Noah out from that big ol’ boat, the ark, he gave a stern warning, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6, ESV, emphasis mine). Noah lived many years after Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, and in this time period God reiterates this understanding of our nature. Apparently, even after our fall into sin, we still bear the image of God in some way.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.Genesis 9:6, ESV
For God, an unjustified killing of another human is more heinous than killing your dog, Rover. No matter how much we love Rover, Rover will never bear the image of God, but people do. And so, God takes the shedding of a person’s blood as a personal affront.
In the New Testament, James even cautions us on the choice of words that come out of our mouths, because we are talking to God’s image bearers:
With [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God… My brothers, these things ought not to be so.James 3:9-10, ESV
The Least of These
I also believe that Jesus’ teachings about the final judgement in Matthew 25 allude to the seriousness of respecting God’s image bearers. In this judgement, God will divide all people into two categories, the “sheep” on his right and the “goats” on his left. The sheep will be allowed to enter God’s kingdom, but the goats will be cast “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, ESV).
What determined being placed either among the sheep or the goats? Did the sheep have to have sound, biblical teaching? Important, but nope. The right political affiliation? Nope, not even close. The determining factor? Did you take care of the marginalized… those too poor to afford clothes, in need of food or water, or the immigrant?
More important is how Jesus phrases the judgement. In the narrative, the goats respond, when did we see you and not do these things!? Jesus replies, “…as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45, ESV, emphasis mine). Once again, not taking care of “one of the least of these,” who bear the image of God, is taken as a personal affront to Jesus.
So the unjustified killing of someone—let’s call him Frank—is not just an offense against Frank, or even his entire people group; it is also an offense against God. This is true because Frank bears God’s image. Likewise, we should think twice before we speak a curse against Frank because… he is God’s image bearer. If Frank is naked, we’d better give him some clothes! If Frank is hungry or thirsty, get the poor guy a Happy Meal! (Well, never mind, we want to love on Frank, so let’s get something a little healthier from Chic-fil-a or Qdoba instead.)
And what if Frank’s name is really Ahmad or Kwame or Aamir and he’s an international student at a university near us? We should make him an adopted member of our family! Because… when we are taking care of Frank, we are really taking care of the One whose image Frank bears … God.
Why Should We Care?
So why does a woman selling herself in prostitution matter?
Because she bears the image of God.
Why should we take care of a homeless man digging for his supper out of a trash can?
Because he bears the image of God.
Why do black lives matter?
Because they bear the image of God.
Likewise, why do the lives of the police matter?
Because they, also, bear the image of God.
Regardless of the good or evil a person does, we all bear the image of God. As image bearers, we have worth and deserve some respect. So recognize God’s image in the marginalized and respect their lives, if for no other reason than not offending God.
What would the United States, or the world, look like if more people had this perspective?
Who are the people on the margin in your community? How can you show them some love? How can you practically recognize their worth and build up their dignity as image bearers of God? Let’s challenge each other to do the right thing. Please share your ideas in the comments.
Matthew Bogard is a Harding School of Theology graduate who earns a living in the IT field as a database administrator, but whose heart is in helping the church and expanding the kingdom of God. He and his wife of nearly 8 years, Zori Bogard, started out hoping to serve in overseas missions, but along the way, while attempting to grow a family, have shifted their focus to serving children in foster care.