Birthday Cake, America, and Imago Dei

By JIM NICHOLS

It was a child’s birthday party, and the excitement level was high. However, there was one clear problem. What was supposed to be a set of eight cupcakes had mistakenly been made into one cake which was going to have to be cut before serving. It was a beautiful cake, tempting the eyes of the children and having the effect of raising the general noise level of the party. The pressure was on the cake-cutter. What happens if the pieces are not the same size? Does the Birthday Child get the largest piece and the rest evenly distributed? Or unevenly distributed?

There is an economic and game theory referred to as “zero-sum.” The concept is straight forward. Applied to the cake-cutting, if one person receives a larger piece, this reduces the amount of cake for the others. One person’s gain and the resulting losses from the others, if added together, equal zero. There was only so much cake to start with. One immediately notes the logical potential introduction of selfishness into this story and every similar zero-sum scenario.

In the United States currently there is circulating a concept called “replacement theory.” It has been around for a long time but has now moved into the public mainstream. Several sources including a recent Time magazine report and data from the Public Religion Research Institute have reported that, though the respondents do not necessarily use that term, they agree with it.

About one-third of U.S. adults agree with the concept that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” The use of the word “invade” is strong, but the racist implications of the concept cannot be avoided. It suggests that there are native-born Americans (like I am) and our numbers are being diluted by individuals with different colored skin, interests, and cultural values. Furthermore, the argument goes, this replacement is being orchestrated by “elites” for electoral gains.

There are many sides from which that theory should be scorned and attacked, but the most obvious one is to examine it as followers of God. There is a link with zero-sum thinking here too and what I suggest as its fatal flaw for people trying to do God’s will. 

A strength of America is its diversity. It is simply an observation that, yes, Black, Asian, Latino, and Jewish communities seem to be increasing in visibility and influence. With zero-sum thinking, that should mean that those of us with white skin are losing visibility and influence; there is only so much to go around (like the cake above). That kind of thinking is not only wrong and selfish, but also ungodly. We should have nothing to do with that.

Early in Genesis a mysterious and wonderful event occurs as humans are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Exactly what that means can be pondered, but the clear implication is that each individual bears the mark of God’s creativity. This means equal worth, equal dignity, equal choices, even if the choices are not expressed. No hierarchy exists. The Great Replacement Theory has at its heart a clear hierarchy. Not only is it Unamerican, but it is also ungodly in the worst sense. Apparently, some politicians and Fox News do not get that.

One of the notable aspects of Jesus’ ministry is how he implemented the Imago Dei in his dealings with marginalized people. He had no problem in identifying who was our neighbor—it was everyone, no matter what their race or background. For us to raise suspicion about and feel threats from others is in direct contrast to the life he wants us to lead.

Paul picks up this theme in Galatians 3:28 when he notes in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. Hierarchies do not belong in the kingdom.

If parents are expecting a second child, they might wonder how they could love yet another person in the family. Following the birth, they know they can. This identifies the fatal flaw in zero-sum thinking with reference to God. Zero-sum does not work when love is involved. Respect, compassion, gentleness, caring, every aspect of love—every time love is called for, it is supplied from God. Adding it one place does not subtract it from somewhere else. Replacement theory does not work there.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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