Imago Dei and Implications for Poverty


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.


1 reply
  1. David Barber
    David Barber says:

    This article, calling as it does for Imago Dei and the principle of human equality to ‘have an important role in helping the poor and oppressed of today’s world to achieve liberty and flourish’, is extremely important. It is important because it gives us an entirely different perspective on the dreadful failure that has been the West’s aid efforts in Africa, and one that I feel might be fundamental to understanding that failure (I’m relating my reply to Africa because that is my main concern, but it may well apply to the whole developing world).

    One reason why the aid community as a whole, the official agencies in particular (the UN, World Bank, IMF etc) and Western governments, are not succeeding is because they have not ‘abandoned paternalism and embraced partnership’ as the author of the above article requests them to do. And the reason they have not is because they quite obviously feel that Africans are not equal in human terms. Although they would strenuously deny this, they show it in the way they talk with other Westerners about Africans. And they show it even more by the paternalistic way in which they deal with Africans, routinely making decisions for Africans instead of helping them to make their own decisions (i.e., not ‘embracing partnership’).

    The effect, well known and publicised by PovertyCure and many African and Western commentators, has been to make Africans dependent upon them, and that in turn has undermined and emasculated the ability of Africans to help themselves. In this way, Western aid is often not helping to eradicate poverty, it is actually helping to keep it going. This is one reason why Westerners – including PovertyCure – are increasingly opposing Western aid, at least in its present form (incidentally, it is also why many progressive Africans oppose Western aid, but they rarely get taken notice of in the West).

    This attitude pervades Western society. In media discussions, we have probably all seen White Westerners, many of whom have little or no experience of Africa, cutting across or being dismissive of the views of Black Africans in order to impose their own ideas, instead of listening carefully and taking on board what Africans have to say. Or the way in which White UK celebrities (and perhaps USA ones as well? Being British, I wouldn’t know) ignore the legitimate concerns of progressive Africans to their attitude to fund-raising, and carry on doing what progressive Africans keep asking them not to do – obviously because they think they know better than progressive Africans what needs to be done in Africa. As Howard Buffett, son of Warren Buffett and a major philanthropist in his own right, puts so well: ‘You [the Western aid community] need to be able to let go of some of the power. I can’t possibly understand the context of what we’re doing like the people who are out there [i.e., Africans]……The idea that we have it all figured out, that our solutions are the right solutions……that makes us hypocritical.’

    When you look in this light at the actions of the official Western aid agencies and Western governments (for the sake of convenience, I call them ‘the Aid Cadre’ in my book), it becomes obvious that the Aid Cadre has never applied the principle of human equality to its aid effort. To explain that, we first need to clarify exactly what ‘human equality’ means. Of course, it can mean many things, but in terms of our discussion about poverty, it must mean that Africans are equal in terms of living standards with Westerners, because anything else clearly means Africans and Westerners are not equal.

    Had it been the intention of the Aid Cadre to apply the principle of human equality to its aid to Africa, right from the end of colonialism, it would have been focusing on how to bring Africans up to Western living standards – in other words, how to close the income gap between Africans and Westerners. But it didn’t. Despite all its rhetoric about creating a ‘fair’ society or getting rid of ‘inequalities’, its whole focus has been on eradicating what it calls ‘extreme’ poverty, or getting Africans above what was US$1.25 a day in its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but is now $1.90 a day in its Sustainable Development Goals or SGDs. Leaving aside that any aid organisation that sets such pathetically low targets as $1.25 or $1.90 a day should not even be in business, this will never close the income gap between Africans and Westerners, and will certainly never make Africans and Westerners equal in terms of their standard of living.

    The failure to focus on closing the income gap between Africans and Westerners has been catastrophic. How many people know that the gap in incomes has widened by 300% since 1960? We now have a situation where, according to the World Bank, 91% of Africans earn less than US$1,825 a year, and 43% less than $694 a year. Compare this with the average income in OECD countries of $34,466 a year. So the typical Westerner will earn between 19 times and a staggering 50 times the typical African. Even if you make Africa’s comparison with the UK/USA average minimum wage, the lowest-paid Westerners still earn between 15 and 41 times more than 91% of Africans from any class. Where is the human equality here?

    If we turn this on its head, we can immediately see how badly off-track the Aid Cadre has been. What if, right from the end of colonialism, roughly half a century ago, the Aid Cadre’s efforts had been dictated entirely by Imago Dei or creating human equality, i.e., it had focused all its efforts on helping African nations to build business-bases that would lead to Africans having equality of living standards with Westerners? Do you think that by now we would be seeing an entirely different Africa?

    But that’s not all. The revenue that African nations would have received in business and personal income taxes from this business-base would, after half a century, have given them the financial resources to deal with all the other faces of poverty (the main ones being slums, education, disease control and healthcare, clean water & sanitation, malnutrition & food insecurity, the use of ‘naked flame’ fuels for light, heat & cooking, and child labour). This would have greatly reduced the need for Western aid – or perhaps entirely dispensed with it by now.

    The point to stress is that the present reliance on aid can never hope to solve any of these faces of poverty – never mind all of them – whereas sufficient revenue from ‘Western-quality’ business-bases will deal with all of them in a relatively short period of time.

    There is a perceived flaw in this argument: the decision-makers of Western aid clearly believe that, to misquote the author of the above article: ‘Poverty exists due to people’s incapacity’, in other words, that Africans are not capable of creating such a high-level business-base. I completely explode this myth in my book. Anyway, Africans themselves believe they can. Just read the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and its accompanying First Ten-Year Implementation Plan which lays out exactly how it will do it (by the way, something that will please PovertyCure is that the Agenda 2063 plans to cut foreign aid by 75% by 2023).

    The AU is the voice of Africa, speaking, as it does, for all African governments. Its Agenda 2063 is therefore very important because it lays out the official plan for what Africa wants to achieve for itself. However, the Aid Cadre is ignoring this and insisting on following its own 2030 Agenda and SDGs for Africa. Surely, it can only be doing this if it believes Africans are inferior, and are therefore unable to put together a better plan for Africa than the Western Aid Cadre can.

    If, instead of trying to impose its Agenda 2030 and SDGs on Africa (which cannot succeed), the Aid Cadre puts its full weight behind the AU’s 2063 (which can), Africa will be transformed at a speed that will rival that of China and Japan.

    In terms of our discussion, one very important difference between the AU’s 2063 Agenda and the West’s 2030 Agenda is that the former is aiming to achieve human equality: ‘African countries will be amongst the best performers in global quality of life measures’ which of course means standards of living. However, if we follow the West’s 2030 Agenda and its SDGs, it will take decades longer to achieve human equality – if, in fact, it is ever achieved.

    As the author of the above article says: ‘When we rightly see all people as Imago Dei, the battle against poverty gets brighter.’ Africa is doing that in its Agenda 2063. The Aid Cadre by its very actions continues not to promote that where Africa is concerned.


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