All due respect: Honoring others

August 1, 2011
Image by David Evers, licensed under Creative Commons.

For the forthcoming book Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict (edited by Kelly Clark), I contributed an eassy on respect. In my view the Christian faith urges equal and universal respect, and it was not hard to find support in Christian classical texts for that view, which is now generally accepted.

A surprisingly little known segment of a verse in 1 Peter, an epistle dealing more thoroughly than any other biblical text with Christian relations to non-Christians, contains an explicit command to respect all people. It says simply and straightforwardly: "Honor everyone" (2:17). I summarized the position in a post on my Facebook wall: "1 Peter says: 'Honor everyone.' 'Honor'—not merely 'don't demean' or 'tolerate,' but honor. And 'everyone'—not only 'those in our political camp' or 'with our moral persuasions,' but everyone."

"Everyone" includes even egregious wrongdoers. I posted the comment just after Jared Lee Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords at point-blank range, killed six people and wounded 14. The reaction of my Facebook friends was immediate. One of them wanted to know whether I really meant what I wrote. "Does this also mean honor the shooter?" "Yes, honor the shooter as well," I responded without flinching. "We should honor all folks whom God loves and for whom Christ died, and who, whatever else they are, are neighbors we are commanded to love as we love ourselves." The reach of God's love is the scope of our respect. As the first is universal, the second must be as well. Similarly, since God loves all equally, we should respect all equally.

But how does it make sense to respect egregious wrongdoers without condoning wrongdoing? For centuries, Christian theologians have distinguished between persons and their deeds, or between person and work (as Martin Luther liked to put it). You should respect the person always; you should respect the work when it merits respect (and you should condemn and even despise the work when that is what the work merits). Immanuel Kant, one of the main progenitors of the modern notions of dignity and respect, gave the idea a secularized version: you should respect all equally because they are capable of rational choices; you should respect only those of their choices which merit respect. Put differently, I can simply claim respect for myself as a person, but I must earn respect for what I do.

With regard to egregious wrongdoing, we respect the wrongdoer but despise the wrongdoing. Does the same distinction between person and work hold true with regard to deep and defining convictions of others we consider untruthful? Do we simply say: we should respect all persons; we should respect only truthful convictions and not respect untruthful ones? I don't think it is that simple. When we disrespect people's deeply held convictions, they often feel disrespected themselves. While they distance themselves from their wrongdoings (at least internally), they often identify strongly with their deep convictions. Failure to respect these convictions feels to them like a failure to respect them as persons. Many energetically religious people think that way.

Is it possible to respect not merely people whose convictions we reject but, in some cases, these very mistaken convictions themselves? In some cases, yes, but cases in which respect for mistaken convictions of others would be inappropriate are obvious. Had Loughner had an elaborate philosophy justifying his shooting rampage, we would hardly want to respect it. Should we treat an overarching interpretation of life with which we fundamentally disagree—including major religions—in the same way?

We can be more generous without being any less truthful, and we should be. Some readers of the Christian Century will know that my Christian convictions run deep and that at the same time I am a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche. Arguably, there are very few thinkers more anti-Christian than Nietzsche. He concluded his intellectual autobiography, Ecce Homo, with the challenge: "Have I been understood?—Dionysus against the Crucified." His philosophy is as far from the way of Jesus Christ as Dionysus, the god of libidinal revelry, is from the Crucified, the God of sacrificial love. And yet I respect not just Nietzsche as a person (with all his warts) but his philosophy as well. Moreover, I do so while completely disagreeing with him. Why do I respect his philosophy? His thinking is imaginative and stringent, his writing rhetorically powerful; some of his insights are deep, and his overall position is seductively compelling—so compelling that when I have doubts about the Christian faith, I am tempted to become a Nietzschean!

Might we not be able to show a similar kind of respect to world religions other than our own? After all, Christians are not likely to disagree with any of them more than they disagree with Nietzsche, and these religions have oriented the lives of millions of people through the centuries. I see no reason why, for instance, a Christian might not fully and unqualifiedly affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as true but still respect the nontrinitarian monotheism of Jews and Muslims. A Christian would then respect both them as persons and their most basic religious conviction. And just because we respect them and their views, we will argue with them about those views.

Notice the obvious: this is not a proposal for respect for world religions on the dubious ground that "all religions are at the bottom all the same." It is a proposal for respect while insisting that 1) religions make truth claims and that 2) their truth claims are often incompatible. 


Honor everyone

My understanding of Peter's time is that the bottom line of honor is due hospitality. Hospitality doesn't necessarily indicate that one is in agreement with the guest, but that one views the guest as a human being worthy of the basic elements of life: food, rest, peace, and help with the journey.

If one includes the journey as a spiritual metaphor, then one can locate companionship as far as one can see the good of the other's direction. When the two ways become divergent a discussion of what lies ahead of each direction can ensue. The rightness of the conviction will then become evident on the grounds of the harm or good it may bring. If it leads to potential ill, the one carrying that conviction then has the responsiblity to deal with it as one should.

All this requires a mindset of respect for the life of everyone, a sense that the other is no less intellectually capable or morally fallable than oneself. A predetermined belief that one's own conviction is superior and thus needs no reflection sets one up for one's own downfall. For our doctrinal convictions are often acquired through rote understanding and can have little impact on our lives--that is, one can have a conviction for the truth in the wrong spirit and attitude and the doctrine of love will just be a poetic recital.

Listening for the truth that leads to life is always our true purpose. This can come from many directions. When we truly hear the truth that directs our psyche we embody the life-giving truth and live with an authenticity that speaks to people of all beliefs, often from what is not said in conversation, as well. Hospitality rightly served opens up a space between us in which God can speak to each of us to our good. This undercuts all of our belief in doctrine for belief's sake.



Honor everyone

Thank you for your reflection. I think it is a powerful word in these times where there is such divergence in our culture about politics and religion and where at times we have seen our disageements become ugly and vile and more often than not we end up demonizing the other. Calling us to honor everyone may help us to remember that we all belong to God and are loved by him. In the remembering of that we may restore humanity, respect and civility to our public conversations.

All Due Respect

After reading the article I am scratching my head trying to understand what I just read in a way that allows me to put it into practice.

I understand the premise broadly as it was articulated above but I have trouble applying it in day to day living. It is a tremendous challenge to apply the notion of "The reach of God's love is the scope of our respect". While this phrase is beautiful and I feel as if I should get something meaningful from it I am left unable to convert this into daily practice because I don't know how. I am not completely bereft but I do struggle with this.

Inevitably situations will process to a win/lose conclusion.

I can honor the other, honor their position, but when it comes down to whose way is the chosen way I become competitive and think in terms of win/lose. Then the degree to which I am willing to go to win becomes a test of my respect, especially when I think I am right and let's be honest here. Who doesn't think their way is the right way?

There are frequently others who rely on me to represent their interests in conflicts. To have the person on the other side of the table feel respected when my goal is to win my point is as big a challenge as I can think of. I am truly not sure it is always possible. Either that or I am even less evolved than I think.

This whole notion of respectful behavior needs to be seriously revived in America. We should be offering courses and seminars on just what constitutes respectful behavior and model its practice. We have plenty of counter examples and very few (I honestly can't think of one, maybe President Obama) role models for its regular practice. We have forgotten how.