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R.E.S.P.E.C.T: let me count the ways.

During last year's Continuing Education week at Presbyterian College, Montreal, Dr. Clyde Ervine spoke on the subject of "respect." It is a topic very much in the air, whether it is people complaining about the general lack of respect in society (especially on the part of young people and amongst parliamentarians) or particular groups demanding "respect" rather than mere "tolerance" in our multicultural society. That was the burden of an address to last year's General Assembly by a Hindu guest. He demanded blanket respect for Hinduism as a religious tradition and criticized Christian missionary efforts, which, he claimed were evidence of "disrespect." "We want acceptance," Pandit Roopnauth Sharma said, "and we want respect for our religion and our way of life. If you respect us, then do not attempt to convert us to what you believe in, because that is the highest form of disrespect, when you tell me what I believe in is not good and only what you believe in is the best."

But this charge alone is enough to alert us to the fact that "respect" is not a simple matter. There are different kinds of respect.

There is the fundamental respect which is due to people simply because they are human beings created in the image of God. From this conviction comes the notion of "human rights" to which all people--regardless of any other quality about them (their race, creed, sexual orientation, etc.). We are not to treat other human beings with contempt and this sort of fundamental respect is rightly demanded of others. People who happen to be Hindus are to be treated with exactly the same respect as Muslim, Christians, Buddhists, Aboriginal peoples, men or women. The political argument about abortion turns not on the general acceptance of this principle but disagreement over a matter of fact. At what point does a fetus become a human being, an individual endowed with "inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?"

The tragic history of residential schools certainly includes a lack of "recognition respect." We can all probably think of personal examples that make this charge ring true.

One of the stories that went round our family concerned my great aunt Margaret. Apparently, women in a Presbyterian church in Sarnia, Ont., were sending boxes of old clothes to native kids in the early years of' the last century. Before packing them off, these thrifty ladies cut all the buttons off them--presumably to save them for their own button boxes. This was too much for Aunt Margaret, and the reason she always gave for declining any further church involvement.

The heart of the charge against the residential school system is that it damaged Aboriginal children's sense of self and identity because they learned to internalize a picture of their own inferiority as human beings. Recognition and respect are vital human needs. The residential school system undermined these needs, obliterating the self-esteem and sense of self worth of thousands of native children.

This sort of basic "recognition respect" is different from what we can call "appraisal respect." We respect certain people's abilities as musicians or hockey players. This sort of respect discriminates between the talented and the not-so-talented, those whose accomplishments in a certain field deserve respect and those who can claim no such talents or accomplishments. We are not all Wayne Gretzkys or Sidney Crosbys. We can also speak of "positional respect" which is the respect we show to our parents, for example. Even if they don't necessarily deserve to win the "Parent of the Year Award," we are commanded "to honour your father and your mother." Similarly, we respect the Queen, the police officer, the President or the Prime Minister simply by virtue of their office, regardless of his or her personal qualities.

Much confusion in our society arises from a failure to clearly distinguish between these different forms of respect. We can respect persons of Hindu conviction or native peoples in the first sense (recognition respect) without conferring either appraisal or positional respect. The first is rightly demanded of us. So, in some situations, is the third. In the Armed Forces you must respect the authority of your commanding officer, whatever you might think about their qualities as a soldier.

That leaves us with "appraisal respect," which cannot be reasonably demanded in the way that the pandit asked of those who attended the 2013 General Assembly. Appraisal respect implies sufficient study of a subject to have made an informed opinion or judgment about it. In order for us to respect someone's abilities as a musician, we have to know something about music. But if we know nothing about the Hindu faith, for example, then it is incoherent to demand of us appraisal respect for it. Appraisal respect involves discriminating judgment about quality or worth. Does it make sense to give everyone the same mark at school or in a skating competition regardless of their performance? Most of us would agree that it doesn't. There are standards against which performance must be evaluated. Some claims are true; others are false.

So where does this leave us? We need to study other faiths and other religions if we are to come to some sort of accurate judgment about them. Usually our verdict will be nuanced. For example: "There are several features of your faith we find good or impressive, but we are not so sure about the desirability of a caste system, since it violates our sense of fundamental respect and human rights." There is room now to have an open and respectful conversation about each other's faith. It may well be that a Hindu has questions about our faith.

As Christians we are summoned to help build a common culture of respect. We can begin in our own congregation by treating people with the respect they deserve, within a broader society that is becoming increasingly, and sometimes obnoxiously, disrespectful. This is one way in which we can witness to our conviction that we are all worthy of respect because we have been created and are loved by God. This doesn't mean that we won't make judgments about other people or, indeed, other religious faiths. I can't respect your opinion that the world is fiat, for example. The withholding of appraisal respect is not necessarily a form of oppression that needs to be denounced. (The present pressure for all in society to confer approval and approbation on same-sex marriage is one example of this demand.) But we will judge others as we hope to be judged ourselves: with charity, with the benefit of the doubt and as those for whom Christ also died. The "ministry of reconciliation" and the need to break down estranging walls of division are at the heart of Paul's gospel. Who knows quite what new and exciting religious and cultural configurations will arise in the world into which we are moving? It is an exciting prospect.

Rev. Dr. Barry Mack is minister at St. Andrew's, Saint-Lambert, Que.
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Title Annotation:OPINION
Author:Mack, Barry
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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