“When institutions are broken, three characteristic patterns of failed image bearing almost always occur together. The first is the broken image of the poor. The ‘poor’ in a broken institution are those whose roles are so constricted by the institution’s rules that they are unable to exercise their creative and cultivating power. This loss of power is always multidimensional and, in the worst situations, total…
The second failure of image bearing is the exaggerated image of those we might call the ‘overlords,’ a name that captures both what they do–‘lord it over’ others, exploiting the poor in the quest for idolatrous godlikeness–and what they are. Overlords are overly lordly, distorted by their hoarding and misuse of power into an inflated caricature of the true lordship originally granted to image bearers and exemplified by history’s one true Image Bearer. And their power is overly dedicated to their own lordship, not to comprehensive flourishing but private benefit that comes at the expense of the image-bearing capacity of the poor.
But wherever overlords reign, you will almost always find another failure of image bearing, characteristic of neither overlords nor the poor: the neglected image of the powerful but passive. We might coin a name for these neglectful image bearers and call them the ‘underlords.’ They do not lack power–sometimes they may have a great deal–and they do not use it conspicuously in the service of their own self-aggrandizement. Rather, they simply, passively fail to play the role that they are meant to play; they are unfaithful not by abusing their power but by not using it at all. They are like a slothful referee in soccer, who can spoil a game by neglecting his duties to rein in the unfair power-grabbing of ‘overlords’ on the field who seek to win by mere strength or stealth. It is not the referee’s calls that matter, and it is not that the referee seeks excessive glory or victories for himself. It is the calls he does not make that make all the difference.
Most failures of image bearing have vastly greater consequences than a game won or lost. The scandalous truths about the Roman Catholic Church that burst into the open in the 2000s were not just about ‘overlord’ priests idolatrously abusing young people, robbing them of their image bearing dignity while playing a hideously exploitative parody of the God they were sworn to serve. There was also the role of ‘underlords’ in the church hierarchy who passively enabled the abuse by inaction or inadequate action…They were certainly greater in number than the abusers. But they failed to use their power to curb idolatry and to protect the vulnerable. The outrage was not just what some did, but what many others did not do.