Friday, August 26, 2011

How much we need respect

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Modern culture, from its beginnings in the 16th century, sits on a brutal lack of respect. First towards nature, which is treated as a torturer treats his victim for the purpose of extracting all his secrets (Bacon). Then, towards the indigenous populations of Latin America. In his Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias ["Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies"] (1562) Bartolomé de las Casas, an eyewitness, says that the Spanish "in just 48 years occupied an area larger than the length and breadth of all of Europe and part of Asia, stealing and usurping everything with cruelty, injustice and tyranny -- twenty million souls having been killed and destroyed in a country that had been crowded with very humane people." (Tenth Replica) Then they enslaved millions of Africans, who were brought to the Americas, traded like "pawns" in the market and consumed as fuel in production.

The litany of our culture's lack of respect would be a long one, culminating in the Nazi death camps with the annihilation of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and others deemed inferior.

We know that a society can only be built and make a leap to minimally human relationships when it establishes respect for one another. Respect, as Winnicott demonstrated well, is born in the bosom of the family, especially the father figure who is responsible for the step from the world of the self to the world of others that arises as the first limit to be respected. One of the criteria of a culture is the degree of respect and self-restraint that its members impose on themselves and observe. Just measure, a synonym for justice, then arises. If the limits are broken, disrespect and imposition on others appear. Respect means recognizing 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 most serious. Lack of respect permeates all levels of individual, family, social and international life. That is why the Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov in his recent book The Fear of Barbarians (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010) warns that if we don't overcome fear and resentment and assume collective responsibility and universal respect we will have no way of protecting our fragile planet and life on Earth which is already threatened.

The issue of respect takes us back to Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1952. A native of Alsace, he was one of the most eminent theologians of his time. His book The Quest of the Historical Jesus is a classic, because it shows that one can not write a biography of Jesus scientifically. The Gospels contain history but they aren't 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's important to live it. He left the professorship in theology, stopped giving concerts of Bach (he was one of the best interpreters) and enrolled in medical school. After the course, he went to Lambaréné in Gabon, Africa, to found a hospital to serve Hansen's disease patients. And there he worked, within major constraints, all the rest of his life.

He explicitly admitted: "What we need to do is not to send more missionaries there who want to convert the Africans, but people willing to do for the poor what should be done, if the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' words have meaning. What really matters is to become a simple human being who, in the spirit of Jesus, does something no matter how small."

In between his chores as a doctor, he found time to write. His main book is Reverence for Life (Die Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben) which he places as the linchpin of all ethics. "Goodness," he says, "is: preserve life, promote life, help life achieve its highest destiny. The essence of Evil is: destroy life, harm life, hamper the development of life." And he concludes: "When man learns to respect even the smallest being of creation, whether animal or vegetable, nobody has to teach him to love his fellow man; the great tragedy of life is that it dies inside a man while he lives."

How urgent it is to hear and live this message in the dark days that humanity is going through.