RESPECT FOR OTHERS
Matthew 5:38-39; 43-46
For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.
The Marquetters were on Volmoed again last weekend! Marquetters is the name we give to the students who come each semester as part of the Marquette University Study Abroad Programme. The university is in the state of Wisconsin but the students come from all over the United States and from other universities as well. They are not theological students, but are majors in a wide range of subjects. Two groups of about twenty come each year, one in the first half and the other in the second. They live together in Observatory, attend various classes at the University of the Western Cape, and work in services projects in the townships. And they come to Volmoed for a weekend of retreat and reflection. Originally set up by Judy Mayotte, a good friend of Volmoed, it is a great programme. good to have them here, and a delight for me to share with them in what I call the "Marquette Conversation."
This means that they can ask any question they like to get the conversation going and to keep it rolling. Some questions are prompted by what they have read in my books on reconciliation and on being human, but the conversation develops in many directions: politics, history, spirituality, literature, sport, woodworking, the bible and bungee jumping! They also hike on Volmoed, have coffee at Anya's Mum, and visit the whales in Walker Bay. But they always return to the big questions of life, their dreams and hopes, and what it means to be a Christian in today's world. A leading question this past weekend was "What is fundamental to reconciliation?" Justice I replied but then added: respect for others is even as fundamental. If we do not respect others as human beings, we will treat them with contempt, regard them as an enemy, and if they threaten us we may kill them.
Respect for the other is respect for each as an individual human beings, an affirmation of their personal dignity; but it is also respect for their culture, ethnicity, language, beliefs, and gender. Disrespect for the other, on the other hand, leads to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, terrorism and witch hunts. We give the "other" derogatory and dehumanizing names and value their lives less than our own. It's OK for thousands of them to die, but if one of our own is killed we take revenge and massacre more. There can be no reconciliation, no justice, unless there is respect for the other, respect for life, both our own and theirs.
Of course, there is a problem. It is easy to lose respect for someone because of what he or she has done, or what their nation or religion or ideology is making them do. It is difficult to respect a rapist or a murderer, a corrupt official, tyrant, or a militant Jihadist who butchers his enemies. There is truth in saying that people have to earn our respect, just as we have to earn the respect of others. We cannot simply stand by when others are being slaughtered or oppressed, doing nothing "out of respect" for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Yet even in doing so there are moral boundaries and conventions that should guide our actions. Prisoners of war have to be treated humanely and civil prisons are meant to be run according to rules. The fact that these conventions are flouted does not mean that they are naive; it simply demonstrates the challenge we face in keeping society humane for our own as much as the sake of others. To dehumanize others soon leads to our own dehumanization. Making enemies keeps us under threat.
Traditionally and still today, murderers are given the death sentence. "An eye for an eye," as the ancient law in the Old Testament puts it. Why, then has there been a move away from the death penalty in Britain, South Africa and elsewhere? Is it not because we still acknowledge the humanity of murderers difficult as that may be at times. We may lock them away for long periods but we don't starve them, beat them, or behead them as was the case not so long ago even in England and now in Middle East. We find that abhorrent precisely because we respect life and the dignity of others. We have heard that it was said "an eye for an eye," but we have also heard Jesus tells us otherwise. Not retaliation and vengeance but finding alternative ways to break the cycle of violence. Jesus' teaching is not naive romanticism, nor is it the easy way, after all it cost him his life, but in the end it is the only way to break that cycle. Without mutual respect for each other as human beings, or love for your enemies as Jesus puts it, there is no basis to resolve conflict. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators like many others consistently refuse to sit at the same table to resolve their problems. They know that the moment they have to look each other in the face, they will have to acknowledge the other as human beings and not just the enemy. We know that from our own South African experience.
Shortly after my conversation with the Marquetters, I watched a programme on BBC television in which the renowned Jewish musician, Daniel Barenboim was interviewed about his famous orchestra which he founded together with Edward Said, the Palestinian author and scholar. The orchestra is mainly made up of musicians from Palestine and Israel and exists to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation through music. When the orchestra started, Barenboim said, it was easier, for relationships between Israel and Palestine had not descended into such appalling violence. It is more difficult but even more necessary now because war has solved nothing, only intensified hatred and mistrust, and Israel's actions have spawned many more enemies. Barenboim's orchestra is a reminder that it need not be like this if we learn to respect even our enemies, as human beings.
The church is meant to be such an orchestra! Here at Volmoed, perhaps without thinking, we express this every day when we bow our heads to each other as we say the grace. For in this way we acknowledge each other as made in the image of God. So, Jesus tells us, don't simply greet your family members, even pagans do that; greet others and even your enemies in ways that affirm their humanity and dignity. This is a very tough call, but it is part of our calling as Christians, to do so. And when we do, even enemies can become friends. This is the message of the cross. This is what we celebrate at this holy table. "For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us."
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 28 August 2014