The idea that all humans are “created equal” would have struck most peoples of the ancient world as ludicrous, since humans are obviously not equal in wealth, rank or natural abilities. Aristotle merely summarized conventional wisdom when he asserted that some are fitted to serve as slaves while others are born with the natural capacity and authority to rule. As sociologist and historian Rodney Stark notes, the institution of slavery was universal for most of human history.
The idea of human equality, however, received a foothold in Western thought from the Hebrew idea that every human is created in the image of God (Imago Dei) and so possesses inherent dignity and worth. This understanding was reinforced by the specifically Christian doctrine that God entered human history as a man, died for the sins of all humanity, and that in Christ “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free.”
Imago Dei Becoming a Reality in History
These ideas worked in the face of hatred, greed, and hypocrisy to gradually improve the rights of medieval European peasants, and to undergird the abolition movements of England, Europe, and the United States. The idea also can have an important role in helping the poor and oppressed of today’s world to achieve liberty and flourish.
When our poverty-fighting ideas are founded up the fact that all people are made in the image of God and are therefore, created equal, we realize that we must abandon paternalism and embrace partnership. We further realize that poverty does not exist due to people’s incapacity. Instead, our focus shifts to the fact that people are poor because they are excluded from circles of exchange, living without the rule of law, cannot get title to their property, and cannot access justice in the courts.
Stewards in the Image of God
The biblical account of humans made in the image of God also undergirds the idea of humans as stewards of the rest of creation. It’s been argued that the West is the first civilization in history to extend the rights of private property to a substantial percentage of its members, in part because of this idea that humans are made in the image of God and given stewardship responsibility by God.
This view of the human person suggests that such people are meant to have a stewardship responsibility over what has come into their possession by honest means, a responsibility that should be honored and encouraged by the state rather than violated. This view of the human person also emphasizes the creative capacity of humans, since they are understood to be made in the image of the Creator.
Implications for Poverty
Materialist anthropologies have tended to lapse into fixed-pie or zero-sum-game thinking when it comes to questions of wealth and poverty. In this view, people are reduced to mouths to feed with ever-decreasing amounts of resources. Alternatively, the Judeo-Christian understanding of humans sees people as sub-creators that have the ability to innovate and take resources and make them stretch further than could ever have been done in the past. When we rightly see all people as Imago Dei, the battle against poverty gets brighter.