Martin Luther King Jr. who our country honors today as a hero of liberty and equality, was also a Christian pastor and visionary. As such it is possible to see in his writings Christian theology which resonates well with Orthodox thinking. King, for example, wrote:
“The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God… We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.”
While Martin Luther King embraced the idea of each human being created in the image of God, his Protestant thinking caused him to downplay the full implication of the image in each of us. Thus he allows each human to have “fellowship” with God but not “substantial unity.” His concern is more with civil equality among humans than it is with the full theological implications of every human, regardless of skin color, being created in the image of God.
For its part, Orthodoxy continues the tradition heralded in early Christianity that marveled at the full implication of each human being having the image of God imprinted on us when we are called into being by God. St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD), a 4th century bishop and theologian wrote:
“‘The measure of what is accessible to you is in you, for thus your Maker from the start endowed your essential nature with such good. God has imprinted upon your structure replicas of the good things in his own nature, as though stamping wax with the shape of a design.’
Nonna Verna Harrison explains what St. Gregory meant:
In ancient times, people signed documents by putting hot wax on the paper and pressing into the wax a seal carved with their unique design. The wax then bore the seal’s imprint and showed that the document was theirs. Gregory uses this example to illustrate the meaning of the divine image. God is like the seal, and our human nature is like the wax that shows forth the same design as God, but on a smaller scale.
Notice that the wax receives the imprint by direct contact with the seal, and the copy receives its likeness to the model by direct contact with it. So God is present within his image, making it to be an image of Godself.” (Nonna Verna Harrison, GOD’S MANY SPLENDORED IMAGE, pp 31-32)
Each human being is created in God’s image and likeness – this is considered to be a factual truth by Orthodoxy, not dependent on one’s personal beliefs. Each human life from the time of conception bears this image and is thus considered sacred and worthy of honor. The sanctity of human life is given by each human being touched directly by the Creator God who imprints His image on us. This fact is not dependent on race, religion, gender, nationality, or for that matter on personal righteousness, sinfulness or sexual orientation.
Even before a human being takes his or her first breath, before his or her first thought or experience, that human has been touched by God who imprints His image on that person.
Today, as we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, who defended every human being as bearing the image of God, we can consider the full implication of this theology, not only for race relationships, but for all human relationships, including the sanctity of humans conceived in the womb but who have not yet been born into this world.
Martin Luther King Jr upheld the United States Declaration of Independence in fighting for the dignity of every human being. We see in his words a re-affirmation of the famous words penned by Thomas Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
From an Orthodox point of view these words apply to every human called into being by God, including those conceived but yet to be born. Life is gifted to each human being by God, not by the declaration of any government, nation or court.