Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relationship between means and ends; above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status… It has grown… as an invidious distinction between classes…
Marshal Sahlins ~ Stone Age Economics
The short answer to the title question, I think, is that everyone deserves respect. But not everyone deserves it equally, however it might be measured. Respect is a specious word. I can respect a rattlesnake and show deference to it but not wish to emulate its behavior. On the other hand, I can and should respect those who are senior to me, whether in age or in position. I should respect them, not because they are a danger to me or even because they may hold some authority over me, but because they have endured what I have yet to endure — succeeded where I have not yet gone or where I have been less successful. I can learn from them.
The Bible has much to say about respect. Passages addressing respect are replete in both Old and New testaments. Most will immediately recall Exodus 20:12, one of the Ten Commandments and not the least of them. It reads: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” But one of my favorite passages is found in Romans 12: 9 – 11: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, and serve the Lord.”
Whether you are a believer or not, I think that most of us can agree that there is great wisdom to be found in the Bible. We don’t have to literally believe everything in it to think so.
My daughter-in-law, bless her heart, thinks that I am overly sensitive about respect, that I am too quick to feel disrespected by younger people, especially by my sons and grandkids, and even my wife. My daughter-in-law is probably right; for, as a twenty-two year Army veteran, retired as a senior commissioned officer and retired also and most recently from a ten year high school teaching career, I have had stand firm in the expectation of respect from my subordinates and my students. I could not have functioned well in these vocations otherwise. But I am fully retired now and I know that it is not disrespectful for people to disagree. I believe that every person deserves respect, young and old, rich and otherwise, those with much talent and those with little, those with power and authority and those who have none. I know that I can learn something new from everyone, even from those with whom I disagree on matters irreconcilably. But when disagreement/ argument devolves into angry words, the disrespect between parties can quickly become mutual.
Should we respect the rich? Yes, not because they are wealthy, but because they are people just like us – children of God. They may have acquired their wealth through inheritance or just good fortune like the winning of a lottery. They may have benefited from corrupt political or business relationships. But wealth is also generated through entrepreneurial activity. Such “self-made” people are greatly admired in the U.S. Yet, there is a conspicuous problem with most accumulated wealth; it always involves exploitation on some level. We remember Andrew Carnegie as a great philanthropist, but he literally worked men to death in his steel mills with long hours, unhealthy conditions, and low wages. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Carnegie
Are all wealthy individuals like Andrew Carnegie? No, certainly not. Consider the following modern-day wealthy humanitarian examples: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Chuck Feeney, George Soros, Richard Branson, Jon Huntsman, Sr. http://www.humanservicesdegree.org/25-most-famous-humanitarians-of-all-time/
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”
Not all wealth is so contaminated, of course not. But this is primarily due, in my opinion, to protective labor laws. Capitalists the world over try to pay their workers as little as possible and are willing to exploit children as has recently been exposed in the U.S. fashion industry and its cost-conscious outsourced manufacturing. In the Northeast from which our nation’s yummy blueberries come, the unscrupulous have exploited children with their small hands to do much of the picking.
Even if the money belonging to the wealthy was accumulated under comparatively clean conditions, it is still money that is effectively stolen from workers rather than earned by business owners. It may seem pointless to belabor the fact that entrepreneurs exploit workers to the best of their ability, citing Adam Smith’s theory that such activity can contribute to the common good by making merchandise cheaper. But I believe that Adam Smith would be appalled by today’s levels of exploitation.
There is a counter economics theory which is that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few individuals is very bad for the society as a whole. Unequal societies lack social trust and political involvement. They have high crime rates, and low life expectancy. They suffer from high rates of obesity and related disorders. Does this not sound familiar?
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, and serve the Lord.”
Should we respect those who have great talent? Of course. But not just because they have special gifts in artistic fields such as fiction writing, acting, music, painting, and so forth. Admiring such people’s talents should never be confused with respect. The biographies of many celebrated artists are a catalog of personal failings and neuroses with high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illnesses. We may treasure their contributions but we should hardly want to emulate their lives. And what about those with special athletic talent? These persons seem to receive a great deal of respect from large numbers of people. Yet, many sports legends have been exposed as small-minded self-serving cheats. Not content with having better genes than the rest of us, many have chosen to enhance their biological edge using steroids. Many too have been exposed for perpetrating cruel acts on people. Consider people like O.J. Simpson, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and Oscar Pistorius. The list of such narcissistic professional athletes is long indeed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_professional_sportspeople_convicted_of_crimes
My bottom line is that we should respect everyone, not for what they possess, whether material riches or great talents, but for what they do for others. Even if they contribute nothing but opportunities for us to serve. Everyone deserves our respect. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.”
We can certainly respect those whom we know and love—our parents, our close friends, intimate partners, children, and selected relatives – those who have made our lives better. Beyond that, we can respect everyone who has helped us along the way, or those who provide a service that makes our lives better: the substitute teacher who fills-in when the teacher gets sick, the man who collects your trash, the person who works the graveyard shift restocking the shelves at the grocery store, the lady at the daycare center, the fast food worker, the janitor.
Another favorite Bible passage is from Galatians 5:13-14. It reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
When looking for someone to respect, maybe we should start at the bottom of the social ladder and work our way up. Those at the top are seldom all that they profess to be. Quite often they are a great deal less.
Please feel free to post a comment in response to this, whether you agree with me or not.