Inklings of Truth


Getting No Respect

By Audrey Stallsmith

During the recent election, everybody was talking about the values gap that supposedly divides our nation. But what really bothered me was the amount of venom and paranoia on both sides.

I realize I’m not old enough to start complaining about the lack of respect in modern society. That’s always been the prerogative of the senior generation, as has the general impression that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket!

Actually, surface civility remains common, at least in my rural section of the country. People still hold the door, say, "Please," "Thank you," and "Have a nice day." But, after the election, I have to conclude we could all do with a deeper sense of respect--not only for others, but for God and even ourselves.

In fact, I believe the deference needed can only spring from our reverence for God. And that, I’m afraid, has also suffered in recent years. Our increasingly casual attitude towards Deity seems to imply the Almighty is some sort of celestial chum who will forgive us because "It’s His job."

Much of this irreverence has resulted, I think, from the decrease of ritual in evangelical circles. Many of us Protestants dismissed rites as "dead," without realizing how much they help emphasize our smallness in the presence of a mighty God. They fill a need in us too.

As G. K. Chesterton writes in one of his columns, "All religion that is without. . .gesture, all Puritan or purely Intellectualist religion that rages at ritual, is raging at human nature." In A Preface to Paradise Lost C. S. Lewis adds, "The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite."

Our trend towards emphasizing practicality over beauty in our sanctuaries hasn’t helped either. Those soaring cathedrals may have been expensive and impossible to heat properly, granted, but their beauty did lift the soul towards its Maker. And, in the old days, a little discomfort was considered a good thing--since it kept people from nodding off during the sermon!

Back then, people wore their best to church too, no matter how much scrubbing and starching and pressing was involved. This may have been partly attributable to vanity, but it was also a sign of respect towards God. You don’t, after all, visit a king’s house in your work clothes.

But today, in some churches, people are asked to show up in bathing suits for "beach celebrations." In our zeal to attract more members, we are probably actually disappointing many newcomers. They don’t come to church because they need more diversion, after all. They can get that elsewhere.

Only reverence for the Father will provide us with the most important reason we should respect each other--the fact that we are all His children and made in his image. As Chesterton asserts in The Apostle and the Wild Duck, "There is not one of us that is not noble in origin, whatever we may be in essence." And Jesus stated quite flatly that what we have done to the least of our (or His) brothers, we have done to Him.

The Church has always stood up for the "least"--the unborn, the mentally handicapped, the physically helpless, etc.-- because, however negligible they may seem in the world’s eyes, we know God values their souls as much as He does our own.

We are also required to care about those who, on the other hand, seem to have gone beyond the pale. Pedophiles, serial killers, etc. Some of them may have hardened their consciences too much to ever repent. Many are even, I suspect, demon-possessed. But, although we should abhor their sin, we can’t rejoice over their descent into hell because they, too, are souls loved by God. If we are not allowed to hate even the worst sinners, how much less are we permitted to despise those whose "evil" is that they happen to disagree with us!

One reason we Christians frequently seem angry is, I think, that some of us still feel compelled to prove we are right. "When I confess God," Helmut Thielicke writes in Life Can Begin Again, "I am not standing in front of Him to defend Him--as if I could protect God! It’s just the other way around. To confess means simply to give the reins into God’s hands." By doing so, we let His Spirit flow through us. People discern, from our actions, what our Father must be like. If we are harsh and condemning, they assume He is too.

Finally, although we know we are supposed to treat God and others with respect, most of us still feel free to beat up on ourselves. We consider that a form of humility, but it is actually pride. Truly meek people don’t expect perfection from themselves, so they are less likely to flay themselves brutally when they err. After all, we also are children of God, so we must extend towards ourselves some of the same mercy we are required to show to others. "The despiser of men," Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out in Ethics, "despises what God has loved."

When we Christians exhibit a scornful attitude towards those on "the other side," we’re not likely to win any converts either. Sarcasm can be fun, but it just puts people’s backs up. It may be advisable for us to remember that about the only people Jesus addressed harshly were the religious ones who were out to prove themselves right at all costs. He attracted sinners because they could sense he cared about them when no one else did.

If we turn the whole values issue into just another political power play, we’re not offering the world anything more than that with which it is already far too familiar. If, on the other hand, we become what George MacDonald describes--in Life Essential: the Hope of the Gospel--as "those who never despise men and never seek their praises," we will, indeed, be "the freemen of the kingdom."