Making Mutual Respect a Lifestyle

15 06 2011

by Stassi Cramm,
Council of Twelve Apostles

It was a hot afternoon in July 2008 as we arrived in Bandundu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). We had traveled all day, and Shannon, our 18-year old daughter, was not feeling well.

I wanted to cancel the HIV/AIDS prevention class Shannon was teaching, but she wanted to press on. Apostle Bunda Chibwe said it would be a large gathering because Community of Christ leaders invited all the churches in the village. He was right. Several hundred people gathered as the band played praise music.

The class went great. Shannon’s presentation was being translated from English into French and a local language. The subject matter of biological data and theological underpinnings made the process difficult and slow. The crowd attentively listened and took notes.

Many participants asked questions through the translators, and Shannon responded. It was amazing to watch as she and the people engaged one another.

In reflection, I realize I was witnessing the relationship principle of mutual respect (Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a) in action. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard professor, wrote a book, Respect: An Exploration (May 2000, Basic Books). Lightfoot explained:

Usually, respect is seen as involving some sort of debt due people because of their attained or inherent position, their age, gender, class, race, professional status, accomplishments, etc. Whether defined by rules of law or habits of culture, respect often implies required expressions of esteem approbation, or submission. By contrast, [Lightfoot] focuses on the way respect creates symmetry, empathy, and connection in all kinds of relationships, even those, such as teacher and student, doctor and patient, commonly seen as unequal (p. 9-10).

From her six case studies, Lightfoot identified six qualities that make a person respect-worthy: empowerment, healing, dialogue, curiosity, self-respect, and attention.

There was a mutual respect present in Shannon’s class that surprised me. She empowered the people by caring what they said and listening to their stories and struggles. She was curious about their questions and engaged people in genuine dialogue to learn more. She responded authentically with care and compassion, trying to help the people receive what they needed most.

Similarly, the people empowered Shannon through attentiveness and willingness to hear what she had to say.

Woven within this moment, everyone was both teacher and learner, and everyone wished to make the community safer. It was amazing, and it dawned on me this same experience was less likely to occur if Shannon were teaching in the USA.

Similarly, a young African woman probably would not have received the same respect if she had taught the class in DR Congo.

The extreme cultural differences allowed the traditional understanding of respect to be overcome. Age, gender, and education no longer were the determining factors for respect. Respect was born of the mutual nature of the experience as symmetry, empathy, and connection occurred.

Jesus’ message and relationships with all people challenged the traditional understanding of respect being a one-way action from subordinate to superior. Remember, Jesus challenged people to follow the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees but not their example of power, prestige, and expected respect based on position (Matthew 23:2–12). In contrast, Jesus typified mutual respect where, as Lightfoot defined, his relationships created “symmetry, empathy, and connection.”

Jesus met people in their everyday circumstances. He empowered them, brought healing, engaged in dialogue, expressed interest in their lives, helped them find self-respect, and paid attention to the real people.

This happened when he met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–11), when he ate a meal with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), when he healed the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5–13), and in many, many other encounters with people. All of Jesus’ relationships demonstrated the relationship principles we are called to express, including mutual respect.

How often have you heard someone commiserate that she or he wished another person would have more respect? As an example, I am sure you have heard some version of the following: The problem with our society is that youth no longer respect authority. This use of the word respect is not about mutual respect. It is about one-way respect.

Our challenge as faithful disciples is to move beyond this form of respect and develop mutual respect in all of our relationships.

The website defines the four corners of mutual respect as:

I respect myself.
I respect you.
You respect yourself.
You respect me.

In this model, mutual respect occurs when all four of these conditions are met. This model stresses that mutual respect begins when each of us learns to respect oneself and extends respect to others. We cannot make someone else respect us, but we can make it easier by leading a life of behaviors and attitudes that are respect-worthy.

Similarly, we can look for respect-worthy qualities in others as opposed to making them earn our respect.

One of the most-poignant moments in Shannon’s class happened when an older pastor from another denomination asked a question. He quoted several Hebrew scriptures and asked Shannon why her church would teach information that conflicted with these passages.

I held my breath, wondering what Shannon would say. I hoped Bunda would intervene. He was standing next to Shannon, serving as a translator. Bunda simply waited to translate Shannon’s words.

Shannon smiled and acknowledged the importance of the man’s question. Then she explained how Community of Christ interprets scripture through the example of Jesus Christ. She explained how we are called to recognize the worth of all persons and love both neighbors and enemies.

She explained that these principles are lived out by providing information to everyone so they can make informed decisions. The man listened with interest. His body language did not suggest he was convinced, but he seemed to be considering what he heard. He started to sit down and then stopped as he thought of another question.

He asked if Shannon felt disrespected by her parents because they taught her information a young girl should not need to know if she was living a respectable life. Shannon smiled as she explained that she felt respected by her parents, and similarly, she had great respect for her parents.

She said her parents respected her enough to trust she would make the right decisions in life if equipped with accurate information. She also said her parents taught her many lessons about life and helped her integrate her knowledge into responsible choices.

She said her parents’ respect for her made it easier for her to respect them. She ended by suggesting that if the people of this village truly loved and respected the younger generations, they would break the silence. She encouraged the older adults to teach the younger adults about the challenges within the village, such as HIV/AIDS, and how to make responsible choices.

In her response to the pastor, Shannon had defined the nature of mutual respect without even knowing she was expressing an idea that pushed against most cultural norms. As much as the world has changed since Jesus walked the Earth, facets to cultures and behavior have not changed much. We still get caught in expecting respect based on predetermined criteria of power and position.

In many relationships, developing mutual respect takes time and patience. This is true between spouses, co-workers, congregational participants, and in all of our relationships—especially with people we do not naturally like. We must be willing to listen and truly understand each other. We must be willing to set aside preconceived notions about each other and honestly learn about who a person is and who a person is becoming.

We must be willing to risk with one another by being transparent. We must be willing to let each other make mistakes without judging and attributing negative motives to the one making the mistake.

We must be generous with our love, acceptance, forgiveness, and grace. We must be willing to trust one another and cling to one another even amid conflict. We must be willing to confess that we can respect each other even when we do not agree.

God is calling us anew to embrace the principle of mutual respect in all of our relationships, just as Jesus taught. May we rise to the challenge and embrace mutual respect that “creates symmetry, empathy, and connection in all kinds of relationships” through the expression of empowerment, healing, dialogue, curiosity, self-respect, and attention.



2 responses

15 06 2011
Terry Flowers

Grace we receive (from God through Christ)…grace we extend. Thank you for sharing.

15 06 2011
William RAISER

Beautiful sharing. I also appreciate the observations that the situation would not have been as respectful or learning oriented 1) had it occurred in the US and 2) had the “teacher” been an African youth. I think we learn from this some areas that need additional work on both sides of the “pond”. I pray that we continue to respectfully share and to modify our behaviors in those areas that reduce opportunities for such sharing.

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