Where you encounter shame in another, offer dignity by giving your respect.
March 8, 2012
by Dr. Paul R. Ahr, President & CEO, Camillus House
Media coverage of the recent funeral for singer-actress Whitney Houston in Newark, NJ brought back many memories of my years in that city a half century ago.
My father was born in Newark and moved with his family to an adjacent suburb during his late teen years. My brothers and I grew up a little more than three miles from the church from which Ms. Houston was buried, and attended St. Benedict’s Preparatory School a block from the funeral home in Newark where she was waked. Between the time that our father graduated from St. Benedict’s in 1927 and I did in 1962, the population of Newark shifted from an overwhelming White majority to a Black majority, a transformation that accelerated after the Newark riots.
In July 1967, Newark and Detroit, MI erupted in frustrated and angry rioting contained mainly to those parts of town in which persons of color lived. Nine months later, on the morning of April 5, 1968, I experienced the same frustration and fury first-hand in Washington, D.C. as I inadvertently drove across NW 14th Street, through the heart of that city’s riots in the aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Valentine’s Day 1967, Ms. Houston’s godmother Aretha Franklin recorded her trademark version of Respect, a song written and first recorded in a much tamer format by Otis Redding. This young gospel singer from Detroit’s rendition was an instant and enduring hit, having been declared the fifth greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. It was released against the backdrop of an escalating war in Vietnam, stalled momentum on women’s and other civil rights and her own somewhat chaotic personal life. Aretha Franklin’s was a throaty, smoky cry, as if from the burned out buildings of Newark and Detroit and the smoldering aspiration to be treated with dignity of persons who were marginalized because of race or economic status or disability or combinations of all three. In August 1998, more than 30 years after it was first released, Ebony magazine (p. 90) wrote that Respect had become:
a personal and collective anthem not only for Aretha Franklin but for everybody living in the shadows, for abused and undervalued Sisters as well as undervalued Brothers, for women and men of all races who wanted, needed, had to have that respect.
I am struck by the similarities between the language of the Ebony retrospective and the words of the late Pope John Paul II in “Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.” In my Letter of March 22, 2006 I discussed how the Holy Father addressed in that encyclical the essential basis for ascribing an inherent dignity in all men and women, which is that all of us merit dignity because we have been formed in the image and likeness of the Creator. And he reminded us that the “all” who are formed in the Creator’s likeness especially includes brothers and sisters who are frail, disabled, dependent because of youth or old age, homeless and otherwise without the means to provide for themselves.
Respect that is beyond reciprocity.
In its simplest form, respect — the expression in thought, word and action of esteem for the other — is an underlying value of all major religions. Typically presented as the Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have others do unto you,” we can find analogues, for example, from Confucianism (When asked: "Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?," Confucius replied: "How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?") through Judaism (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Lev. 19:18]), to Christianity (“And exactly as you would want people to treat you, treat them also the same.” [Lk. 6:31]).
But is this the respect that is intended in the Brothers of the Good Shepherd’s charism of respect for human dignity? Maybe not. I suggest that the Brothers’ invitation to respect others comes closer to a new — and higher — standard: “Do unto others as you would do unto your Creator.” As our Holy Father taught us:
In our service of charity…we must care for the other as a person for whom God has made us responsible….we are called to become neighbors to everyone…and to show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone and most in need. In helping the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned — as well as the child in the womb and the old person who is suffering or near death — we have the opportunity to serve Jesus.