A couple of weeks ago, when I was asked to write this column, I figured that it was appearing close enough to the election that it would interesting to reflect on what is happening there from the perspective of faith. I gave my assurance that I would write something faith-based and not become political or endorse a particular candidate. Then things began to go off the rails: an embarrassing and troubling (to say the least) video; a debate that included one candidate threatening the other with criminal prosecution; another round of leaked emails; gobs of pundits all trying to explain why the sins of the other candidate are so much worse than the sins of their own.
I would love to ignore the campaign race and give another fun column about sea glass or snakes in the church basement or the joy of silence (though the joy of silence might be especially apt at this time). Instead, I feel called to write a column about the meaning of respect, a virtue that we as a nation seem to have lost and that communities of faith might help foster.
I believe that the call to respect begins in the creation story of Genesis 1 where human beings are formed in the image of God. This symbolic idea has had many interpretations over the years. For some it has meant that we look like God and God looks like us, which has led to some shameful theologies of gender and race, especially when people are certain that God looks like an old, white guy. For others, this has to do with divine planning, that human beings are made according to the image or blueprint of the divine mind, though this leaves male nipples as an open question.
Personally, I have found a story later in Genesis to be helpful. In Genesis 33, when the feuding brothers Jacob and Esau are reunited, Jacob says to Esau, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favor.” When someone loves us; when someone accepts us; when someone respects us, we see the face of God. Although not completely analogous, this as an idea similar to the Hindi greeting , ”Namaste” which is sometimes rendered, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
The baseline of respect is found in seeing the image of God in each person. This baseline is irrespective of gender or race, faith or lack thereof, political affiliation or history. I am a white, male, liberal, Christian pastor in a relatively liberal denomination. I think that climate change is real. I think that the earth is billions of years old. I believe that the Genesis story I referenced is a very helpful but symbolic story. I also think that biblical literalism is a dead end, offering short term benefits but a long term loss to faith. Some of you reading this now think that I am great. Some of you reading this now think that I am a heretic. Some of you think that I am irrelevant (but you have probably already skipped this column for another section of the paper.)
It is not necessary that you agree with me or I agree with you. We can still respect and value one another. We can still hold that baseline level of respect acknowledging one another in our common humanity. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or Green or conscientious objector to the whole process, you still breathe like I do. You still get hungry like me. You are aging like me. You probably have some mornings when you wish you could stay in bed. You get the occasional headache and upset stomach. You have probably lost your keys or some other important object that you were just holding five minutes ago. You probably have had the experience of forgetting someone’s name and were embarrassed because it felt so disrespectful to the person in question as well as exposing your own mental fallibility.
We share so much in common, the everyday experiences that are the fodder of great comedians. Why must we work so hard to ignore it? When we lose that baseline of respect, we begin to treat others as less than human; fools to be tricked; pawns to be manipulated; playthings to be grabbed; commodities to be exploited; enemies to be destroyed.
So look at the people with whom you disagree; who make you absolutely livid. Take a deep breath and recognize that these are people with hopes and dreams and fears, just like you. They are people who want to feel safe and at peace, just like you. They are people who want to be accepted and respected, just like you. The conclusions of how we get there may be different, but the impulses are often the same. May you find the face of God in the faces of those with whom you disagree and may they find the face of God in you.