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On Faith: Respect is key to calming religious tensions

December 11, 2010|By Benjamin J. Hubbard

Hearing the word "respect," one might be reminded of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who never got any. But, in the real world, callous lack of respect contributes powerfully to inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence and death.

I recently received two e-mails that demonstrated how disrespect poisons relations between religions. An extremist Israeli rabbi described non-Jews as "donkeys" whose purpose is to serve Jews. A radical Islamic cleric in Syria characterized Jews as "pigs and monkeys." Then there is the fundamentalist preacher in Kansas who preaches that "God hates fags." These, of course, are flagrant examples of bigotry; but such contemptuous language has power, because these individuals have followers.

Disrespect and trash-talk have become far too common on the Internet, in some tragic cases leading to suicide by the youthful recipients of hate-filled missives. To paraphrase the proverb we learned as children, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my spirit.

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Respect-filled words also have power. Gandhi called India's outcaste members "harijan," God's people. As a result, outcastes now have constitutional protections in India, even though their situation is still far from ideal. Pope John Paul II described Jews as "our elder brothers in faith." Such statements, combined with his historic outreach to the Jewish people and first-ever visit by a pope to Rome's ancient synagogue, have immensely improved Catholic-Jewish relations. President George W. Bush, in a speech shortly after 9/11, stressed that Islam is not a religion that condones terror. The number of hate crimes against Muslims in the days following was relatively low.

"Respect" is derived from a Latin word meaning to look again — to take a second look — and that is precisely what is required for people to treat one another respectfully and with dignity. One might, for example, think that the teachings of another religion are flat-out wrong, but a next-door neighbor of that faith has proven herself to be a good and kind person. Consequently, one respects the person without necessarily approving of the creed.

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