Why proximity changes how we love others

The imago Dei and sticking by people in messy situations

June 25, 2020

I met Sarah* when she was seven months pregnant. She was homeless, young, and naive, and her intellectual disabilities were obvious, but so was her affection for the tiny baby girl in her belly, the one she and her on-again, off-again boyfriend were determined to keep. 

The circumstances made it obvious to most that she could not raise a baby on her own. She had no stable place to live, no family support, and no way of knowing what would be required of her. But for a young woman who had nothing else, there in the safety of her womb grew the only evidence she had that she was worth something; she believed her hopes of keeping her boyfriend and her dignity depended on keeping her baby.  

“Well, we will help you,” was all I knew to say, but I had no idea what it would mean.

Just under two years after I met her, this young homeless woman, Sarah, would have a new title: my daughter’s birth mother. 

Getting closer to the story

It’s easy to look at situations like Sarah’s, and the hundreds—maybe thousands—of other examples just like hers in my own hometown alone and dismiss them. 

She won’t hold down a job, she’d rather live off the system

Child Protective Services just needs to intervene and take that baby. 

You can’t help people who won’t help themselves.

I’ve heard each one of those statements over the last two years, from Christians and non-Christians alike. In the most frustrating moments, I’ve been tempted to believe them myself. But there is something that makes it nearly impossible to dismiss another human being with sweeping generalizations: proximity. Get near the broken and you can no longer ignore the reason she is broken.

Sarah’s story began more than a generation back, when poverty and addiction crept into her family line. By the time she was born, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and siblings had all been affected by the cyclical hopelessness of drugs and desperation. Sarah was taken from her own family as a near-starving toddler—herself an innocent victim of the CPS just needs to take the baby mentality. Authorities did take her, but with a shortage of suitable homes to send her to, the situation changed but did not improve. She was eventually placed with family, and her exploitation and abuse began before she entered second grade. Her primary perpetrator, a family member, was put in jail, but not before forever changing the narrative of Sarah’s life. At eight years old, Sarah had formed no safe attachments, experienced starvation, and had been repeatedly raped. The damage of eight years of trauma on her young brain was done.    

By the time I met Sarah, she had been living “the street life” for five years—sometimes sleeping on an acquaintance’s couch and sometimes under a bridge. She had an eighth grade education and a slew of diagnosed disabilities and mental illness. She used her body the way people who were supposed to protect her showed her how to use it much of her childhood: as a credit card to purchase affection, shelter, or food.

Everything was against her. And none of it was her fault. 

We know from numerous studies that childhood trauma has damaging effects on the brain’s development. Science tells us that trauma leads to “dysregulation of the amygdala, ventral affective processing, and reward circuits,” all big words with a simple explanation: trauma changes everything. In small doses and with safe people to process, virtually all human beings can cope with trauma. But repeated, violent, and ignored abuse in a child is not something she can cope with, and it changes brain chemistry for a lifetime. What that looks like for Sarah today is an inability to discern safe from unsafe people, little capacity to comprehend consequences, and crippling anxiety and depression.

But trauma does not change the image of God woven into Sarah. 

The imago Dei

As frustrating and trying as it can be to love and serve and stay consistent for someone who does not understand—nor can she return—any of those things; who makes the same poor decisions again and again; seeing Sarah as a woman created in the image of God demands from us the kind of love we cannot manufacture on our own. It’s steadfast and unconditional, with no guarantees about when or if it will ever produce any fruit. It isn’t allowed to dismiss her with trite sentiments like she won’t hold down a job because it understands and has genuine compassion for the fact that she can’t. 

When we told Sarah that we would help her, we had no idea it would be through foster care and adoption. We had three young children at home, one with significant special needs. Our plate felt full. But when CPS came to take her baby, she called and asked us for help. 

Every night when we put this sweet girl down for bed, we thank God she did.

As it became clear after several months that Sarah would not be able to safely take care of her baby, she signed her parental rights over to us, asking only one question as she did: “Will my baby know who I am?” 

Through tears I told Sarah, “Yes, of course she will. You’re always going to be her mom, too, Sarah.” 

Like many sentiments, this is harder to live out than it was to say. There are missed visits and pushed boundaries. There’s the very real concern that Sarah’s life is not a safe one to expose her daughter to, but also the knowledge that seeing her daughter is so good for Sarah’s heart. We do not know how to walk out an open adoption perfectly. We only know a perfect Savior who welcomes every chance we ask him to help us (James 1:5). 

We cannot fix what Sarah’s past took from her, and we are not naive about how difficult it is for a brain and a heart as damaged as hers to heal, and then change. We believe with all our heart that if God can raise the dead, then there is nothing too big for Him to redeem. But if we are honest, we don’t know what redemption looks like for Sarah. 

I don’t know if we can expect a miracle—which is what it would take for her—this side of heaven. The damage is irreparable, bearing the tangible scars of so much sin. But, as followers of Christ, we don’t sit in what we do not know and let it excuse our inaction. Sarah needs a miracle, and we cannot do that for her. But she also needs clothes, sometimes food, coffee cards, help filling out government paperwork, and supernatural patience to do it all again when they are lost or stolen or neglected. And those are things we can do

Sarah, and everyone created with the imago Dei—which is everyone—need people to get close to them, and people who believe in miracles, but who tangibly love them while they wait for one.  

*names have been changed for privacy

Katie Blackburn

Katie Blackburn is a wife, mother of five, writer, and a teacher. She is saved by grace, and sustained by cold brew coffee and quiet, early mornings at her kitchen table. You can find more of her words on faith, motherhood, special needs, and other lessons God is teaching her at katiemblackburn.com, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24