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Respect Is Earned, Not Freely Given

Respect everyone.

That rule has never sat well with me. I think I have figured out why.

Treating others as you would like them to treat you is what we should do, but it is not respect. That is politeness.

white text on black background stating "got respect?"

The Death of Manners

Demanding respect or honor when you haven’t earned it is stealing valor. A war veteran may earn your respect because of a self-sacrificing act for the security of society. But a person who merely wears a uniform with ribbons or metals he or she didn’t earn deserves scorn.

We give respect to someone who has earned it, whether by action or by title. If the person holding the title has not earned our respect, we can at least respect the title itself. A ball player may be this year’s MVP, but if he has been convicted of rape, we respect his title but not him.

Even respecting someone’s right to do something—as in, “I respect your right to free speech”—means you respect the right itself, not necessarily the person or what he or she has to say.

I will be polite to you, but I will not respect you until you have earned it.

Counterfeit 100 dollar bill, dated 1974 but probably made later. Forgery of a 1974 United States Department of the Treasury issue 100 dollar bill, overstamped with "Contrefaçon" on both sides. On display at the British Museum, London. Two-thirds of the US currency is estimated to be in circulation outside the USA. This makes controlling counterfeiting even more difficult. The 100 dollar bill is the most tempting for counterfeiters because of its high valie. The US government has accused North Korea of producing counterfeit 100 dollar bills, known as "superdollars".

Twisting the Meaning of Respect

We have been misusing the word respect because our PC culture has all but stopped using the words “manners” or “politeness.” They associate those words with a bygone era filled with what they consider patriarchy, racism, and misogyny. To them, being polite is based on a set of rules that oppressed women and minorities.

The alternative is a diverse and inclusive society that holds all codes of conduct as equal, except for those that eradicate traditional values. This has created a vacuum for the concept of civility. Enter the new definition of the word “respect.”

A progressive ideology dictates we give respect automatically to everyone and to all cultures and to all religious beliefs. Why not? They are all equal.

No, they are not. If your religious belief is that you need to sacrifice infants (human beings) in a ritual to placate the fertility god, well then, no, I do not respect it. In fact, that belief has earned my scorn, and I will oppose it.

The same applies to social norms. Not all social norms are equal. There are behaviors and practices that bring death and not life. Even if enough people in a community support it so that it becomes a norm, it has not earned my respect. I will oppose it.

Pregnant Woman Stands on Subway While People Sit and Play with Phones
Source: WNYC New York Public Radio

Not Going Far Enough

If anything, progressive ideology does not go far enough. Giving respect freely is a counterfeit form of selfless love. As Christians, we are to go beyond politeness and sacrifice ourselves for others, even if they don’t deserve our respect. The Bible tells us to, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

Since we tend to value ourselves higher than others—that is our fallen nature—we must fight against it. The Greek word Paul uses here is ἡγούμενοι (hēgoumenoi), which means putting first in priority such as “the leading thought” in one’s mind. Think of other people first, not by putting them on a higher pedestal of unearned respect, but by lowering ourselves out of humility. We do not know everyone’s story. We should treat them with the same kind of love and grace that God has granted us.

So, even if someone’s philosophy, religion, morals, or actions are wrong, I am called to think of them higher than myself. But—and this is where we must make the distinction—I do not have to think their philosophy, religion, or way of life is better than mine. If I did, I would think and live the same as them.

Giving respect freely is a counterfeit form of selfless love.

Rice fields belonging to local hill tribes in Sapa, Viet Nam.
Rice fields belonging to local hill tribes in Sapa, Viet Nam.
Source: United Nations Photo

Humble Living

The Chinese church leader and teacher Watchman Nee told a story of a poor Christian rice farmer. His fields lay high on a mountain. Every day, he pumped water into his rice paddies and every morning, he returned to find an unbelieving neighbor who lived down the hill had opened the dikes surrounding the Christian’s field to let the water fill his own. For a while, the Christian ignored the injustice, but at last he became desperate. His own rice would die if this continued. His family prayed and came up with a solution.

The next day, the Christian farmer rose early in the morning and first filled his neighbor’s fields. Then he filled his own. Watchman Nee told how the neighbor subsequently became a Christian because the genuine demonstration of a Christian’s love for others overcame his unbelief.

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