Reverence, the Image of God, and Politics
“revere all, love the brotherhood, fear God, revere the king.”
(1 Peter 2:17)
Reverence is a term that we hardly ever apply to life anymore, especially not toward others and even more especially not toward the king (or president and governors…). Reverence denotes placing a high value on someone’s head. For example, if someone shows you a priceless book, perhaps an original manuscript of Milton’s Paradise Lost that contains Milton’s own handwriting and notes, you would treat it with far more deference than you would a paperback science fiction novel. The reason that you treat it with reverence is because of the inherent value of the item.
Yet what Peter is telling us first in this verse is that other humans ought to be treated with reverence. Why? Because they are created by God and your attitude toward them is part of the way you witness Jesus Christ to them. It may be that it is your reverence toward your neighbor that guides him to salvation.
This has a great deal of ramifications in our lives today. First, it means that we must take other’s needs very seriously, even when they may seem silly or insignificant to us. For example, we might think it silly to wear gloves while handling a book. Yet, if that book is ancient, the oils on our hands can damage the manuscript. We might not understand the ways and reasons that our neighbor does what he or she does, but we need to treat those ways with dignity and respect.
This is very much the idea the Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians where he is talking about food ways and stumbling blocks. If what you are doing would cause your brother to stumble, cease doing it. You cease not for your own sake, but for the sake of the other person’s faith. This is what it means to revere a person.
And if you take seriously the idea of revering a person simply on the basis of their being a human being, which God has made in His image, that puts abortion in a different perspective. No longer can you justify abortion on the basis of a mother’s “rights to her body,” but you must deny abortion out of reverence toward that little child. It puts euthanasia in a different light as well. It puts the care of the homeless, the disabled, the homebound, the elderly in nursing homes, and the nameless people you pass on the bus, at the grocery store, etc…, all of these people, in a different light. Each of these not only should be treated with dignity because they bear the image of God, but you who understand these things, now have an obligation to respect and to preserve their dignity. Indeed, you may even be given the opportunity to show someone that they do have dignity for the first time in their life. You may have the opportunity to restore that person’s sense of dignity after they have had it stripped violently from them. The Imago Dei brings a dignity to humans that has nothing to do with what they have produced or accomplished—it has nothing to do with their wealth or their bloodline—it has everything to do with whose image they bear.
Peter frames this verse with a second call to reverence. Not only must we show reverence toward all people, but we must show reverence toward our political leaders. It is easy to revere those politicians that we support, but what about those with whom we disagree? We tend to be quick to criticize and make personal attacks against those running for or within public office, but is that right? Was Peter only referring to those benevolent political leaders? The Caesar of Peter’s day was Nero. Nero went out of his way to execute Christians through horrible means. Nero would later take Peter’s life as well. This is hardly what I would call a beneficial leader. In fact, thinking of some of the worst leaders we have had, most pale in comparison to Nero.
Encapsulated within the bookends of reverence is a love for the brethren and a fear of God. This is the heart of the Christian life. But Peter reminds us that the flesh of the Christian life, that which the world can see and by which the world evaluates us and the God which we serve, is the reverence by which we deal with the world. This is the means by which we publicly live out our faith in the face of a watching world. Does not James say the same thing about pure and undefiled religion (James 1:27)?