We badly need respect

Modern culture, from its dawn in the XVI century, has been based on a brutal lack of respect. First, a lack of respect for nature, which is treated as a torturer treats his victims, in order to steal all her secrets, (Bacon). Then, for the original peoples of Latin America. In his 1562 book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, (Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias), Bartolome de las Casas relates, as an eyewitness, that the Spaniards «in only 48 years occupied an area larger than the length and width of the whole of Europe and part of Asia, robbing and usurping everything with cruelty, injustice and tyranny, where twenty million souls were killed and destroyed in a country we had seen filled with people, and of such a humane people». (Décima Réplica). Shortly thereafter, millions of enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, and sold as «items» in the market and used like coal in the processes of production.

The litany of instances of lack of respect in our culture would be long, culminating in the Nazi extermination camps, where millions of Jews, gypsies, and others considered inferior were annihilated.

We know that a society only grows and attains minimally humane relations when it establishes respect for one another. Respect, as R. Winnicott shows, is born in the bosom of the family, especially in the figure of the father, who is responsible for one’s passing from the world of “I”, to the world of “others”, which is the first limit to be respected. One of the criteria of culture is the degree of respect and self-control its members impose upon themselves and observe. Then, just measure, a synonym of justice, appears. If such limits are not observed, we see a lack of respect and imposition on others. Respect presupposes recognition of the other as other and its intrinsic value, be it a person or any other being.

Among the many current crises, the general lack of respect is surely one of the gravest. Lack of respect dominates every aspect of individual, familial, social and international life. For this reason, the Franco-Bulgarian thinker, Tzvetan Todorov, in his recent book, Fear of the Barbarians, (El miedo a los bárbaros, Galaxia Gutenberg, 2008) warns that if we do not overcome fear and resentment and do not assume collective responsibility and universal respect we will not have the means of protecting our fragile planet and the already threatened life on Earth.

The theme of respect leads us to 1952 Nobel Peace laureate, Albert Schweitzer, (1875-1965). A native of Alsace, he was one of the most preeminent theologians of his time. His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, (Historia de las investigaciones sobre la vida de Jesús), is a classic, because it shows that a scientific biography of Jesus cannot be written. The Gospels contain history, but are not history books. They are theologies that use historical facts and narratives in order to show what Jesus means for the salvation of the world. Therefore, we know little about the real Jesus of Nazareth. Schweitzer understood that the Sermon on the Mount is historic and it is important to live it. He abandoned his chair of theology, stopped giving concerts of Bach (he was one of his best interpreters) and enrolled in medical school. On graduating, he went to Lambarene, Gabon, in Africa, to found a hospital to serve people suffering from Hansen’s disease. And there he worked, with great limitations, for the rest of his life.

He explicitly confessed: «what we need is not to send missionaries there who want to convert the Africans, but persons willing to do for the poor what needs to be done, if the Sermon on the Mount and the words of Jesus make any sense. What really is important is to become a simple human being who, in the spirit of Jesus, does something, no matter how small it is.»

During his work as a physician, Schweitzer found time to write. His principal book is Reverence for Life, (Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben), which he proposes as the articulating axis of all ethics. «The good», he says, «consists of respecting, conserving and elevating life to its maximum value; evil consists of not respecting, destroying and hindering the development of life.» And he concludes: «when the human being learns to respect even the smallest being of creation, be it animal or vegetable, no one will need to be taught to love his fellow human being; the great tragedy of life is when a man dies within while he is still alive.»

It is urgent that we hear and live this message, in these dark days that humanity is experiencing.

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