The Politics of Imago Dei: An Interview with Jerry Streets ‘75 M.Div.

Frederick J. (Jerry) Streets ’75 M.Div. has been associated with Yale for nearly 50 years, first as a YDS student, later as University Chaplain and Senior Pastor of the Church of Christ in Yale (1992-2007), and since 1987 as an adjunct professor at YDS. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Ottawa (Kansas) University and has master and doctorate degrees in social work from Yeshiva University in New York. He is currently senior pastor of historic Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ in New Haven. In 2008 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He has made several trips to Bosnia as a senior consultant with the Harvard University Program in Refugee Trauma.

As a teenager in Chicago, he campaigned for his pastor in a Congressional race. As a YDS student, he was elected alderman in New Haven. In 2016 he ran for state legislature in his Stratford CT district. His writings encompass the fields of social work and religion. He is editor of Preaching in the New Millennium (Yale, 2005), a book of Battell Chapel sermons commemorating Yale’s tercentennial. The following remarks are excerpts from a recent interview with Reflections.

On the neglected doctrine of solidarity under God …

Imago Dei is a core belief of many world religions and expressed explicitly in Christianity: the conviction that we are a reflection of the divine. We image our Creator. We are God’s children, God’s agents on earth. In our humanity we are all equal. No one should be undervalued, marginalized, or rendered invisible.

Yet this is difficult for religious people both to internalize and practice as a matter of religious belief. Many other elements of our cultures compete with the Imago Dei concept. The desire to protect group customs and group identity receives priority over the religious proclamation of our mutual brotherhood and sisterhood. Then religion functions to reinforce our tribal sense of self. Subtly, sometimes overtly, usually unconsciously, religious institutions become a means of preserving our divisions rather than affirming our common humanity.

The challenge of church leadership is to find a balance between the prophetic and pastoral models of ministryhelp people live with the tensions between personal piety and civic engagement.

We have to be aware of the ways aggression and brutality are built into our society. We have to confront the biases of our historical narrative that try to define who we were, who we are, and who we are to become as a people and nation. The great power of faith is that it calls us to a wider sense of ourselves as belonging to one another, a vision of a more equitable way of living among one another. No other institutions in modern society inspire that kind of moral imagination.

Regarding “spiritual, not religious” …

The values framework of Imago Deithe prophetic ministry of justice, the assertion of our common humanitymotivated the social gospel movement of the early 20th century and later the civil rights movement. I believe it further articulated itself in the women’s movement, the human rights movement, and in the movement to secure LGBTQ rights and dignity. I see it at work in Black Lives Matter. Not that “Imago Dei” is an explicit part of these platforms. But I think the values of Imago Dei are at stake whenever we fight against the evils of racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, materialism, and militarism.

The potential for politics to corrupt religious sentiments and institutions has been with us since antiquity. Faith communities should admit this constant threat and temptation of power. We must ask ourselves, Why are so many people identifying themselves as “spiritual, not religious”? Clearly they don’t want their own religiosity to be identified with politics. In the public perception today, Christianity is seen as too narrow, a keeper of the status quo, a “keeper of the relics”just another political action committee.

But the ramifications of Imago Dei extend in many directions. It calls for radical change in the theological frameworks that keep the status quo going inside and outside the institutional church.

Standing in the gap …

The example of my pastor in Chicago running for Congress opened my eyes when I was a teenager: I saw politics as a legitimate way to live out faith and have impact on public life. I learned the workings of policy formation. Policy shapes communities. It dictates how the money is spent, how programs are fundedand how programs die if they lose funding.

Later, when I was a YDS student and doing my internship at Dixwell church, the pastor Dr. Ed Edmonds and deacon John Daniels, who later became the first Black Mayor of New Haven, sat me down and said I should run for the city Board of Alders, which I won and served on while I was a divinity student.

Much more recently, in 2016, I was the Democratic nominee for the state legislature from my district in Stratford. I lost to the Republican incumbent but I don’t regret taking up the challenge. It was an effort to stand in the gap.

One need not run for elected office in order to apply your values to civic life. It’s human to feel overwhelmed and to think you have no impact. But that’s a delusion. We have to attack problems in small ways. Look into your heart and figure out how to find a voice against policies that hurt people.

On the future of faith and the future of democracy …

We hear a lot now about personal agency and empowerment, but let’s also be reminded we are creations of God. We are not God. But we have a co-creating capacity. We are co-creators capable of changing the world. That’s what reformers dopeople such as Dorothy Day, Walter Rauschenbusch, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Marian Wright Edelman. We need not be doormats for those oppressive issues that walk all over us. Heschel said he aspired to be “maladjusted,” a refusal to fit in with a status quo narrative that defines any of us as less than human.

I like what Vincent Harding wrote in his book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis, 1996, revised 2008): “ … Our vision must be set toward creating and legitimating a new kind of government, one which will call forth our own best self-governing gifts as persons and communities, one which will surely break the unholy, traditional governmental alliances with militarism, racism, sexism, and economic imperialism, one which will move us insistently beyond the nationalism of our immaturity toward the recognition of our true global kinship.” (p. 76)

Always there’s a relationship between our quality of life, the political system, and the control and distribution of good and services. This has to be a part of the broader thinking of clergy leadership. So I think a task of future leaders of the church will be to promote basic civic education among church membersencouraging conversations about how to become active citizens and shape the aims of local, state, and national government. It is essential that we learn the relationship between policy formations, funding, and enactment if we are going to promote social change.  

On staying open to revelation …

The church’s future depends on being open to the Spirit’s own revelation. Theologies of the social gospel movement a century ago were followed by theologies of liberation and womanist theological frameworks, which are now followed by theological critiques of the meaning and function of whiteness and power. The challenge of church leadership is to find a balance between the prophetic and pastoral models of ministryhelp people live with the tensions between personal piety and civic engagement while also creating new forms of worship and other ways of being in community as a church. It’s the old mandate of loving God, self, and neighbor.

At the core of Imago Dei theology is the responsibility to love in ways that make us immune to fear, hatred, and deception, as Howard Thurman wrote. In Jesus and the Disinherited, he says there’s no other way to establish a deep sense of security and well-being but to accept the power of the spirit of God. Summarizing Jesus, Thurman writes, “You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. … Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”