By David Hegg
In society, respect plays an essential role. At its foundation, respect means to act in alignment with certain societal rules, even when to do so is to go against how we feel. For example, respect for the law means obeying it even when we don’t want to. Respect for others means valuing them as fellow human travelers on the road even when we disagree with them. If we break it down, respect is one of the few fundamental foundation stones of an ordered, civil society.
And we’re losing it at an alarming rate.
Many of our national leaders recognize that acting disrespectful toward their opponents actually increases their popularity with their supporters. And, at the other end of the societal spectrum, children in the home and students in our schools often suffer no repercussions for blatantly disrespectful words and actions.
At the risk of great oversimplification, I’d like to offer three reasons we are losing all semblance of respect in our country, and our world.
First, we have undermined respect for truth. This happens when we shift the genesis of truth from outside us to inside us. That is, does truth reside outside of the human heart and mind, or is it formed and verified inside us through our own perceptions, desires and feelings?
History has always insisted on the former. Truth exists. Absolute truth exists, and it is our human task to recognize it, codify it and submit to it. Of course, this is where ethics come into play. Regardless of what you and I take as authoritative, be it the Bible, or natural law, or personal experience, we all know some things just are true, and how you feel about them doesn’t alter that.
But this has all changed. Now, truth is what each individual wants to believe. I can now decide what is true for me, and you must at least respect it, even if it means you have now disrespected the whole meaning of truth itself.
Second, our erosion in understanding the existence of absolute truth has fatally damaged our respect for authority. If I can make up my own truth, then I can override the truth that certain positions, such as parent, law enforcement officer, teacher, manager, senator, or even president rightly demand respect. I can justify acting disrespectfully, even unlawfully, and certainly discourteously, and still consider my actions ethical.
Lastly — and I say this knowing this column of 791 words cannot do justice to the issue before us — all this has caused us to lose respect for one another. Having jettisoned an objective standard for truth, and along with it, respect for positions of authority, we have conjured up a corrupt ethic that actually allows us to feel good about acting badly. We are no longer courteous, but cynical, critical, and often outrageous in our personal interactions. We’ve determined that disagreement with someone’s truth asserts that they are not only wrong, but so dangerous they need to be punished.
Two things make this even worse. First, too many of our leaders in politics, entertainment, athletics and religion are slashing their opponents to death with disrespectful, barbed-wire tongues. Second, the media, both professional and social, are making sure we see and hear about it while making sure we see it their way.
Years ago, while working in the banking world, I was privileged to work with an amazing boss who taught me so much about how the world works. I can remember him saying, “David, never come into my office with a complaint or problem unless you also have thought about how to solve it. Never bring a problem without offering a solution.”
Certainly, that applies here. So here goes. First, we have to agree that the fundamental truths of right and wrong, of interpersonal relationships, and most of all, personal identity, are not up for grabs to be altered by personal feelings or desire. Second, we must train our hearts and our children to respect authority and act with civility even when they don’t feel like it. Lastly, we must re-commit to loving our neighbor, to doing unto others as we would want them to do to us.
You all know I am a Christ-follower, and believe the Bible is the very words of God breathed out to human authors who were preserved from error in their writings. Yes, I’m one of those. But I also believe that what we believe should make us better people, better husbands and wives, better moms and dads, better neighbors and better citizens. Whatever your worldview, let’s agree that proper respect, courtesy, honesty and love for one another are essential if we’re to recover the ethical system that once made America the greatest country in the world.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.