Love Does Not Equal Respect

Love Does Not Equal Respect May 3, 2013

“You can respect someone’s opinion while still disagreeing with them.”
When’s the last time you heard that statement? Probably just the other day, right? I know, it’s contagious, like all shallow memes. Well, time to put this one in its place.
First of all, what does “respect” mean? Let’s get out a dictionary: “A feeling of appreciative, often deferential regard; esteem.” Or, “Willingness to show consideration or appreciation.” Does that seem fair? Yes?

Good. Now that we’ve established what respect means, let’s discuss the implications of this meme. Let’s also consider the contexts where we often see it used, because let’s face it, you’re probably not going to encounter it in a discussion about what people’s favorite color is, or whether you prefer dogs to cats. This is a meme created pretty much solely for the context of political debates. And sometimes, moral political debates. Sometimes, especially moral political debates.
And that’s where things go south. At warp speed.
This is a favorite meme of the “pox on both your houses crowd.” You know who I’m talking about—these are pastors, writers, bloggers, opinion-makers who like to stand on the sidelines of the public square, shaking their heads and clucking at the “nastiness” of the debate over [insert hot-button issue here]. “Both sides are just getting this wrong,” they cluck sadly. “Oh, the vitriol! Oh, the insensitivity! Oh dear, d-dearie dear! I’m sure if we could all just learn to be nice to each other, we wouldn’t have these nasty debates and everyone could live in peace and harmony.” Ah yes, peace and harmony… that dweam wiffin a dweam.
There’s a boatload of memes these opinion-makers like to use. I would be bored to tears if I tried to dig through them ALL and explain why they’re so shallow before throwing them back in the dustbin where they belong. But I felt like doing this one today. So, in a nutshell, here’s the problem: The problem is that these people seem to think love is equivalent to respect. They reason, “Well, we’re supposed to have compassion for all people and hope they would come to know Jesus. Therefore, we need to listen and have respect for their opinions, even if we disagree.”
Unfortunately, this does not follow. Let me make a quick analogy: You who have children—do you love your children? I should hope you’re crazy about them. Good, now—when your children attempt to do stupid, irrational things, or attempt to harm themselves in some way, or ask you permission for something you must, as a responsible parent, flatly deny… do you respect your children in that moment? I should hope not. If you felt a need to respect every idea your toddler had, how well would that work out for him? If you felt a need to respect every idea your rebellious teenager had, how well would that work out for him? Hint: not well.
This is my point: Some truths are very simple. Some paths plainly lead to destruction. Some ideas are plainly morally monstrous, irrational, or both, and as such do not deserve a place at the table of respectable conversation. But those who have drunk the wrong kind of kool-aid have been somewhat anesthetized to the danger in rhetoric used by the opposing side on certain issues. If you’re surrounded by people mouthing the “I think Democrats have the best ideas for actually preventing abortions” line long enough, you start to wonder if there’s something respectable about voting Democrat. If you’re surrounded by people mouthing the “Gay marriage is a complex issue” line long enough, you start to nod in agreement with them. If you’re surrounded by people intoning importantly that Saving the Planet is just as big a priority as anything else, if not more so, you start to furrow your own brow in worry over Saving the Planet. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, and you want to believe that the people you like must really have done their homework to reach the opinions they have. So you start to soften your own position to allow for “respect” of these positions even if a part of you still resists complete agreement.
Trouble is, when you have a position so convoluted that a person who holds it can vote for Obama and walk out convinced that he’s voted pro-life from womb to grave… there’s no longer any room for respecting that person as a rational thinker or a voter. (To give just one example. I could give other examples that don’t have anything to do with politics. For example, I could give examples of faux “scholarship” that I have nothing but contempt for as scholarship on academic grounds, even apart from their immorality.)
Now, here’s the thing: Perhaps one could respect such a person in some other area. I could name friends of mine whom I respect very much in areas like teaching, academic integrity, sportsmanship, even personal integrity. But there are other areas in which I absolutely don’t respect their opinions. For example, I could respect a professor as a brilliant mathematical mind but quietly note that that same professor holds utterly insane political views. Yet here’s the rub: This meme leaves no room for compartmentalizing our respect in that way. It insists that one must respect the person on those very issues where he’s displaying profound evil, ignorance or foolishness in his choices.
That’s stifling, foolish, and dangerous. It encourages constant timidity and second-guessing about even those things which should be absolutely crystal clear. Let’s face it, Christians wouldn’t say we need to “respect” someone as a moral thinker who thinks Hitler maybe had a point and the Jews really are trying to take over the world, so we should kill them. Neither should we “respect” as a moral thinker someone who supports other moral monstrosities/obscenities. Neither should we respect someone in that way who justifies supporting candidates in favor of said monstrosities/obscenities (like abortion, as just one example). That may be a hard pill to swallow when you’re close to someone who’s so badly informed, so shallow, and/or so misguided that he does exactly that. But it’s a hard pill of truth.
Can you still love them? Absolutely you can. But can you respect them? That is a separate question entirely. Just remember: Love does not equal respect.

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  • Michael A. Coughlin

    This is a good post with some good thinking. I remember a long time ago asking my daughter about respect. She admitted to having no idea what is means. I had to come up with a definition on the fly, and I did and I would still maintain it is one of the best working definitions I’ve ever heard.
    Respect: the act of acknowledging the real or honest status of a person or idea.
    The implications are obvious (I think). Respect from a child to a parent looks completely different than respect from a parent to the child. Respect from a boss to an employee will play out differently than respect from an employee to his boss. Insert any relationship here and you will see that there is not a common denominator.
    Respect doesn’t mean always listening to someone else’s view. Respect doesn’t mean always giving someone else a chance to share their opinion, although at times it may be respectful to do so.
    Having said that, I believe we can confuse how we respect or disrespect people and their opinions. I would maintain that a common denominator of all people is the fact they were created in the image of God and that all people deserve a measure of respect for that reason. That isn’t to say they all should be allowed to spew untruth in a public forum, or even private, but that there needs to be action on our part which belies that as Christians we actually believe this person was created by God. Sometimes in our efforts to do well what you proposed above we have crossed the line to disrespecting the personhood, rather than just the particular evil or idea.
    Not arguing, good post. Just adding to it.

  • Thanks Mike, appreciate the comment. I will say that I think it would take a LOT to truly dehumanize a person with our language. For example, even when I use a phrase like “So-and-so is a moral monster,” that’s just saying that so-and-so is a really wicked human being. It would be different to say “So-and-so isn’t really made in the image of God, so I think it’s fine to torture/kill him without due process.” But how many times do you really hear the latter? A lot of strong language is, to the contrary, taking the person’s humanity seriously enough to recognize the evil of the choices he’s made. I guess I could imagine someone who would say “You called Obama a moral monster! That’s dehumanizing!” But they would just be failing to understand the phrase.
    Part of the problem might come from the cheapening of the English language, or a failure to steep people in good literature anymore. But that’s another rant. 🙂

  • Michael A. Coughlin

    I agree. My point wasn’t that we are dehumanizing people with our language, but that someone who lacks maturity in Christ could read your post and think, for example, our president deserves no respect at all, when, in fact, I would argue that he is due a certain level of respect as a human; and, biblically speaking as God’s appointed leader of the United States right now he is owed respect based on his status or position. Ultimately, this is in the best interested of you and me to adhere to this, unless we start a new country, I suppose.
    I would look at Paul’s CLEAR exhibition of respect for authorities who clearly were moral monsters as an example. There is a sense in the little book of Jude as well that to disrespect authority or a dignitary is unwise.
    I realize arguments can be made that sometimes we must disobey government and that these people are really “dignified.” That isn’t my point. My point is that we can temper our respect for others and still actually be respectful without being a hater, modifying truth or violating biblical principles.
    English language cheapening may be a symptom of the problem which is really a godless culture wanting its ears tickled, even when listening to words from a Godly book.
    Thanks for replying.

  • Well, I would agree that the President deserves respect as a human, inasmuch as it would be wrong for him to be assassinated or something extreme like that. Personally, that’s about as far as I’m willing to go though.

  • Lydia

    Good post.
    About Paul and respect: It’s interesting: I don’t see the Apostle Paul as showing the kind of “respect for the office” that is sometimes attributed to him. I mean, sure, he doesn’t stand up and scream at Festus or something. But his appeal to Caesar isn’t some kind of, “I respect the office of Nero so much that I want to appeal to him.” it’s a calculated move. For one thing it gets Paul protective custody on the way to Rome. The Jews were wanting to waylay and kill him. For another, it gets him the opportunity to speak to important people about Jesus Christ. Paul certainly says to _pray_ for all those in authority, but again, I just don’t see this as somehow “saluting” the President or the Emperor or what-not.
    Here’s an example: If I were invited to the White House by this President, I’d probably refuse to go. I suppose some people would say that’s not “respecting the office of the President.” If it isn’t according to their definition, so be it. Similarly with those who say we must always refer to him as “President Obama” rather than simply by his last name. I mean, c’mon, that isn’t even prima facie disrespectful. Plenty of people who think the world of Ronald Reagan will refer to him by his last name only. But in general, I just don’t buy this idea that we have to sort of “tip our hats” to Obama simply because he’s President. We have to acknowledge the fact of his power, but we are free to deplore it. Let’s remember that George Washington (I believe it was) definitely rejected a title like “Your Majesty” for the President of the U.S. And rightly so.
    The thing is, the word “respect” really does have specific connotations. So just acknowledging that someone is made in the imago dei _doesn’t_ necessarily mean respecting that person as the term is usually used. It is a good thing to acknowledge the imago dei, and important, but “respect” has a different connotation–one of looking up to, for example.

  • Michael A. Coughlin

    Lydia – I appreciate your comments. As you stated, respect has some different connotations which is why I provided a working definition which my comments were based on. Please bear with my lengthy comment as I tend to prefer wordiness and clarity over brevity and obscurity.
    The example of whether to visit the president or not: I would not consider it disrespectful to turn down that invitation. I do not believe you are required to obey his wishes to be respectful of him. I know people who think respect means I must agree with them, or continue a discussion which I believe is at an impasse, or that I must only use language that doesn’t make them feel bad. There is little I can do which will allow those people to believe I am showing respect.
    The example of Paul you provided I do not think shows a lack of respect. Think about it, the opposite of respect would be disrespect. I do not think Paul disrespected anyone by his actions. I would say that Paul was respectful of the leadership and that in no way is that story an example of respect or disrespect.
    I would refer to Exodus 22:28 “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” as a sample of type of attitude we are encouraged to have in Scripture; you may say, yeah, but this was for Israel – God appointed several ungodly leaders of Israel yet never abolished this part of the book of Moses during the reigns of evil kings.
    And finally, in Acts 23:5 Paul does what I was referring to “And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT SPEAK EVIL OF A RULER OF YOUR PEOPLE.'””. Paul implements the scripture I referenced earlier. Paul explicitly shows that he wishes to [respect] acknowledge the status of the person in front of him.
    Now, if you want to discuss other variations of the word ‘respect,’ I think they miss the mark, but we can discuss how they apply and what biblical principles we should employ in order that we might show proper respect to all while not compromising having the mind of Christ.

  • Well, I think “cursing” probably meant something a lot more dire in that context than “being disrespectful” does now. But you definitely see prophets who are, let’s just say pretty harsh and damning towards those evil kings. I would say that the language they use doesn’t show much deference for the office.
    I’ve noticed the use of that Acts 23:5 passage before. Actually, I’ve argued that Paul is being ironic there, because at the time there were two high priests—one the Jews considered the true high priest, and one appointed by the Romans. Paul, as a Jew, would not have respected as a high priest the Roman-appointed office-holder (and we have reason to believe that’s the one he’s addressing). That quotation seems heavy with sarcasm to me. Like, “Oh, well excuse me for disrespecting the so-called ‘high priest.'” Others might read it differently, but I think the ironic interpretation is at least quite plausible.

  • Michael A. Coughlin

    You may be right!

  • Lydia

    No, no, I didn’t mean that Paul showed disrespect. (Though funnily enough I’d forgotten that story where he says, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall.” So I appreciate the reminder of that whole incident. :-)) I was just saying that I’m unconvinced that Paul would disagree with me. 🙂 That is to say, I’m unconvinced that he specifically *shows* respect in any special sense to wicked rulers. He just…deals with them as he must.
    My own inclination, Michael, is to think that your definition
    the act of acknowledging the real or honest status of a person or idea.
    is too broad. Think especially of the application to an idea. Suppose that someone suggests that it’s a good idea to commit genocide on some ethnic group. Acknowledging the real or honest status of that _idea_ involves greeting it with horror, righteous anger, and utter rejection. And of course no one would call that combination “respecting the idea.” But that would be the right response motivated by recognizing its real status.
    Or suppose (to grab an example YGG gave in the main post) that one were dealing with a screaming toddler. Certainly one would love him, cherish him, recognize the imago dei in him, try to do what was best for him. That is all implied by acknowledging his real and honest status. But I just think it would be a confusing use of the term to say that one would “respect” one’s screaming toddler.

  • Michael A. Coughlin

    I understand. I think that we need a better definition of respect to work from because I don’t think we are using it the same way, or we need another word to describe what I am trying to describe because I am not implying that respect EVER means approving evil – but I believe respect always implies a sense of a relationship between two. And it believe it has to do with proper measurement, more than the positive connotation a word like “esteem” brings with it.
    What I think happens is that people relate respect more to the ACTIONS that it produces than it being the root heart attitude and thought pattern behind actions.
    So to call someone names because they are handicapped is usually seen as disrespectful, right?. But then, when we call someone a liar, thief or sinner because we are proclaiming God’s Word – that act is seen similarly in its action – then attributed to the same root cause, lack of respect.
    But in reality – it isn’t disrespect, or lack of respect which causes that action – it is a love for the person and for Christ which compels us to tell them the truth. I agree, it is confusing and I’d like to hear more examples from you as you’ve made me think about it differently.

  • Lydia

    I actually like the word “love” for covering what I think you are getting at, especially as applied to persons. Hence, one is sometimes showing love (tough love) by calling out sin. And love is always clear-sighted. Love involves seeing things and people as they really are and responding to them appropriately given what they really are. So true love implies discernment. And discernment is also included in what I think you are trying to get at.
    I would be inclined to reserve “respect” for contexts where it is more or less synonymous with “esteem.”

  • Michael A. Coughlin

    Excellent. We are in total agreement about ideas; just differing in the definitions and connotations of a couple words. What a nice discussion!

  • I for one don’t like to be cryptic when it comes to answering straight questions, and as a word nut I’m very picky about definitions too. BTW, welcome to my readership. Nice to have another regular. 🙂

  • Darren

    What do you have against scholarships?

  • I think perhaps you’re thinking of a different meaning of “scholarship.” I wasn’t referring to financial endowments, I was referring to “the act of doing scholarly work.” Or, in some cases, post-modern dreck parading as “scholarly work.”

  • Darren

    Oh okay I was thinking like going to college lol.

  • 🙂