If we believe everything is alive, sacred and connected, that it is person (or potentially so) and therefore to be nurtured, then deep respect should be our most natural response to the world around us. Respect is much broader than simply maintaining human hierarchies. True respect is strongly shaped by love. It humbles our heart and gentles our actions. Respect nurtures deference, esteem, honour, consideration and on occasions awe. It always avoids insulting, degrading or violating behaviour.
Indigenous communities respect the divine in all the many different ways that is understood. For the Christian Animist God is also the source from which all respect flows:
‘Honour everyone … Fear God’1
‘Fearing God’ is a beautiful concept. It is like the response of a lover, so much in love with their beloved they don’t want anything whatever to spoil or disrupt the relationship. Such a response to divine love influences all other expressions of respect, and inspires us to:
‘… outdo one another in showing honour’ 2
Animists respect ancestors, ‘those who have gone before’. They may be family or community members who are related to in different ways. The ancestor is respected in terms of the contribution they made in life. In ancient Hebrew culture leaving behind a good name to be remembered and respected was vital. The dread of the dead was that: ‘… even the memory of them is lost’.3 The biblical instruction is:
‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and the quarry from which you were dug’ 4
Inspiring ancestors are roots to be remembered and honoured, ‘… a great cloud of witnesses … the spirits of the righteous made perfect’.5 We show respect by acknowledging them, learning from them and living in harmony with how they lived.
Animists move within wild nature with respect. They nurture everything around them and taking only what they need. Biblically, using persons for food and utility demands respect. You are not to plunder bird’s nests; you are not to muzzle the ox that treads the corn.6 The cycles of Sabbath and Jubilee honour the need for humans, animals, plants and the earth itself to enjoy rest and freedom.7 Respect has justice woven through it. Justice involves ‘working to put everything right’. The poor and vulnerable, wherever they are found, whatever their expression of personhood, is to be respected and honoured by being enabled to thrive.
Jesus said, “Love your ‘neighbour as yourself’.8 Respect begins with love, and Jesus makes it clear that every ‘person’ we encounter is our ‘neighbour’ (ho plesion - ‘the one near or close’). In Indigenous communities this respect is shown by an attitude of esteem, words of gratitude, often offering a gift and generally how they act towards a person - whether human, animal, plant, seemingly inert object, natural phenomena, or the earth itself.
Respect builds harmony across all relationships, exactly the biblical concept of shalom. Africans understand that it is when all relationships are right, ‘then the rains will come’.
1 1Pet 2:17
2 Rom 12:10
3 Ecc 9:5
4 Isa 51:1
5 Heb 12:1,23
6 Deut 22:6-7; 25:4
7 Ex 20:8; Lev 25:10-12
8 Mk 12:31-33