In the Image
by Chris Ruth
Who Are You?
So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they created them.
The poem from Genesis 1 tells a story of God’s good creation. From the formless void, God creates night and day along with land, sea, sky, and all the living things that call this planet home. The final creation of God, so the story goes, is humanity. Made from the very stuff of God, human beings are to play a part as caretakers of this creation. All this, according to the writer, is “very good” in God’s eyes.
We might understand this poem as ancient Israel wrestling with its identity, those foundational questions that confront us all, like: Who are we?, Where do we come from?, and What should we want? Their answers to these questions were simple enough—We come from God, we are caretakers of the good creation, and we should protect and enjoy the fruit.
The poem of creativity and participation imagines you, me, and all living things as co-workers with God in the ongoing creation of the cosmos. Somehow, the writer contends, this ordering of things constitutes right relationship in God’s eyes. Mutuality and cooperation are central to becoming human.
Who are we really?
Because our ways of being in the world are grounded in how we understand ourselves—our potential and purpose—the realm of identity remains a site of constant struggle.
The forces that seek to dominate us employ the tactic of forming and re-forming our desires, self-understanding, and relationships. Capitalism, with particular zeal, squeezes and contorts our understanding of self and world until we are made in its image, living according to its purposes.
For a movement to emerge that rivals capital, workers and people of Christian faith must name the ways that we have been shaped in the image of capital. Only then can we step into new identities on the way to revolutionary possibility.
The Image of Capital
The Genesis poet and the system of capitalism offer conflicting images about the identity and purposes of human beings. One describes human beings as emerging from God, participating in creation, and thriving in relationship. The other, capitalism, contends that human beings are creatures made to pursue their satisfaction.
The majority of people spend their days or nights trapped at the office, kitchen, or warehouse in a relationship of exploitation that they will never question.
Then, at the end of their shift, folks come home only to collapse into the couch cushions, feeling too tired for the people they love. Little time and energy remain for the things that affirm people at their deepest levels, like: family, romance, sex, art, play, etc.
To cope with lives in captivity to capital, both at work and at home, folks seek to become human again. The search often leads to consumption, another type of captivity to the capitalist class.
“Consumerism!” cry religious elites and political rulers, “that’s the real problem with people!” Certainly the urge among working class folk to purchase satisfaction is a problem, but, as theologian Joerg Rieger points out, the problem doesn’t begin with the moral failure of those on the bottom of society:
The task of advertising is to produce desire and to connect it with the transcendent …
(No Rising Tide, 96).
The advertising and marketing arms of capitalist enterprises exist, then, not to simply pinpoint what “consumers” desire, but to form people down to their core. In this process of forming human beings, capitalism seeks to instill a sense of what is ultimate and what human beings should really long for. Workers and unemployed persons need not ponder what is worthy of their desire; Capitalism, as it chisels away at their edges, will tell them.
Corporations, employers, and the very system of capitalism make claims upon us as workers and human beings—both at the job site and at home. The system seeks to tell us who we are. Unfortunately, most of us believe what capitalism says about us.
So you want a Revolution?
Why don’t workers and poor folk question the system of capitalism and fight for more life-giving alternatives? In part, it’s because they have been successfully formed in the image of capital.
So, if we’re committed to overcoming the system of capitalism and pursuing more life-affirming possibilities, who must we become?
A temptation we may face as people of faith is that of returning to an old identity from another age. Biblical images of self may offer insights into what the reconstituted identity may look like, but there is no return to a past understanding of ourselves. Such a task would merely lead to mimicry. As much as we might appreciate the language and imagery of the Genesis poet, there is no going back to an identity before capitalism to set us free from capitalism. Instead, we must forge new identities conceived in antagonistic relationship to the system of capitalism itself, taking into account both the unjust order of labor and the more subtle ways capital re-creates us in its image.
In this pursuit perhaps the working-class Christian does indeed bear the likeness of God in new ways. The tradition in which we participate, drawing upon ancient Israel, the prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth, teach that the very God of the cosmos is intent upon justice. For us, revolutionary Christians, there is not a shred of justice when people exist as prey for the capitalists and their appetite for profit. As long as the world is shaped in the image of capital from the halls of power to the lives of individuals, there is no justice.
The work of forging and living into revolutionary identities may not sound like the exciting process of revolution. It might not look like heroically standing toe-to-toe with the police or shutting down production lines (though that’s coming). Nevertheless, the self-work of understanding the ways capitalism infiltrates our thinking and doing is essential as we seek to smash it entirely. In order to achieve and support a revolutionary movement, we’ve got to become new creatures.
Self-examination, being honest with ourselves about our failures and limitations, can be excruciating and exhausting. Without it, though, we continue to reproduce the very system we oppose. Capitalism succeeds when it controls everything from systems of production all the way down to the particular identities of people.
We must admit that capitalism has had a tight hold upon us…but maybe not for much longer.
Questions for Reflection:
Who are you? (no really, think about it)
Who are you to your boss?
What might revolutionary Christians believe about themselves?
How has capitalism embedded itself in your mind and heart?