Temple Address: "Becoming Trustworthy: Respect and Self-Respect"
Thursday 10th November 2005A speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at Church House, London.
'Respect' is a well-travelled and flexible word. 'The common cold is no respecter of persons', we say. It doesn't matter how successful or important you are, some things just happen to you. There are a few modern translations of the New Testament which bring the same phrase into their version of the story about Jesus and the tribute to Caesar – Jesus is 'no respecter of persons', because he does not care for human status or privilege. Or then again, we hear people say 'Show some respect!' when they see another behaving inappropriately at a funeral or some other context; I've heard it in a prison chapel (with one or two extra adjectives), an older inmate telling off a younger one for clowning around during a carol service. And if you go on to the streets of London or some other big city, you'll hear it often enough. It's what young men demand from each other, and they're very sensitive (if that's the right word) to any suggestion that they're not getting it, or that their families and friends are being 'disrespected'.
Respect: it seems it can sometimes be a false concern for someone's importance, but it is also a proper concern for appropriate reverence to things that require it. And sometimes it is more like the 'honour' that dominates so many pre-modern societies, where your very substance and personal dignity is diminished if you don't get the right kind of recognition. But behind all these meanings – and more – is one thing in common. The idea of respect suggests that a good, an appropriate relationship with anything or anybody has about it some element of reverence, 'bowing down'. And it's important to understand properly what it is that we are venerating or expecting others to venerate and where this language would be out of place (we can't expect weather, germs or natural disaster to treat human beings with reverence). Important also not to turn the struggle for proper reverence towards everyone into a war over whether this or that person is getting enough reverence in the old-fashioned sense of 'honour'.
What is going on when, in modern London, rural New Guinea, the New York of The Godfather, or sixteenth century Spain, people become obsessed with 'honour' as a tangible social thing? It seems to reflect an inner gap or lack of some sort. It says, 'My security is always threatened. I wouldn't know who I was and what I was worth without the assurance of an external set of things that I can latch on to. I feel sure of myself when I feel sure that others are giving me what they owe me, and when that doesn't happen, I am quite justified in reacting with violence'. Cultures based around this concern with honour are always liable to this sort of violence, and they will work out all kinds of criteria for recognising occasions when honour and respect are thought to have been injured. One of the nastiest is the way in which male honour is seen as bound up with female behaviour so that any supposed compromise or scandal in what happens to women, even becoming a rape victim, justifies violence against them as well as against their abusers or seducers; hence the 'honour killings' of young girls that disfigure some societies even today. And it is interesting to see how that great Christian reformer in sixteenth century Spain, St Teresa of Avila, attacks the whole culture of aggressive demands for respect on social grounds, and does so with real ferocity. It is, she says, the enemy of friendship and the nursery of fantasy.
Being concerned about 'respect', then, has to be more than recreating a society that sees things like this. It isn't to do with degrees of reverence that can be carefully calculated, depending on who you are talking about. It's to do with an attitude that enhances everyone's world, that guarantees for everyone an adequate level of attention so that they don't have to struggle for it all the time. That's a good social goal. But it isn't without its problems. There's so much in our society and our world in general that simply gives the message to whole groups, classes, even nations, 'You're not worth attending to'. How can we talk of guaranteed 'reverence' for populations caught in poverty or exclusion, for countries ravaged by avoidable injustices, for individuals who see no sign in their environment that anyone cares for them or regards them with reverence. Who 'bows down' before the homeless addict in Lewisham, the teenager bringing up a family orphaned by AIDS in Botswana, the victim of sex-trafficking from Eastern Europe? And when I talk to so many young people in South London whose lives have come apart in various ways, my sense is that they are people who, in spite of all the language about respect, have been in effect told all their lives that they can't be trusted and that time spent on them is wasted. Individuals and individual charities do amazing things with them; but the negative message still gets through every day.
So if we want to claim that we are a society in which real respect matters, we have a long way to go. It doesn't look that way to a large part of especially the younger population in our cities; and this certainly helps to explain why what emerges is so often a culture that aggressively and even violently demands respect on its own terms, in ways that fuel those ruinous conflicts that set one disadvantaged group or one disadvantaged person against another. And we, looking at all this mostly from outside, how easy or difficult do we find it to give reverence to a violent, disruptive, foul-mouthed teenager who is hyper-sensitive to any claim that he or she should show respect to another? My guess is that it isn't easy for any of us.
Yet this is near the heart of the trouble. We may rightly and understandably want protection against brutal aggressive behaviour. Communities need proper policing, and the lack of security in the face of public aggressive and offensive actions is one of the most severe indices of deprivation these days. But when that has been addressed, what else is there to be done to get to the roots of the malaise? The question is not only, 'How do we connect with those whose deprivation has made them threatening in such a way as to show them a human respect that is owed to them?' but 'How do we help them connect with what it is in them that deserves reverence?' I don't think it is easy to answer this without having an absolutely clear conviction about where all this 'reverence' business comes from. Christians say that we are made in God's image. More than that, they say that God so values what he has made that he comes down to our level and speaks our language. St Augustine even said that we shall always miss the vision of God if we keep our eyes on high, looking for his beauty and splendour afar off, because all the time he is in front of us: he has bowed down to the ground before us. He has come down to earth for our sake, and that is where we must expect to meet him.
The Christian vision of human nature and human personality is that each person is made by God to have a conversation with God. God is all the time trying to communicate with each one; his creative word is at the root of everyone's personality. So when I look at another human being, I'm looking at someone God is taking seriously; I'm looking at someone God is talking to (even if they themselves don't want to hear him). And the reverence with which I have to approach them is a bit like the hesitation I ought to feel about interrupting someone in the middle of a conversation with somebody else. In other words, I think that real respect begins when I recognise that everyone – and for that matter every bit of our universe – has a relationship with God that's quite independent of their relationship with me, or with any system of earthly dignity or power. And if God speaks and listens to each one, each person has the right to claim a listening ear from the rest of us.
This means that the questions of respect from others and of self-respect are connected in a very special way. When I approach someone else with reverence, I am expressing my recognition that they are being addressed by God. And so part of what I hope is that the way I engage with them prompts them to see themselves in a new way, to listen to themselves and thus also to the God who is communicating with them in their depths. Thus it is actually a failure improper respect when we convey to someone that we give them our respect simply because they are full of extraordinary possibilities, because they can achieve anything they choose. It is in fact one of the real problems of our age that the absolutely correct wish to affirm people's potential and to encourage them to take responsibility for what they can become is often confused with a sentimental way of talking about 'pursuing your dreams' and so on, which does little to help anyone identify both their gifts and their limits. The language of the popular musical and the aspirational guff of the self-help book don't contribute much to a responsible and realistic kind of respect.
If our reverence for each other is based on the sort of vision I've been outlining, it means that we approach each other keenly aware of a dimension of mysteriousness in each other. I don't know what God is saying in the secret places of someone else's soul; my role isn't to tell them but to help them have space to listen. And the same holds for me as a person too: I learn to look at myself and listen to myself, conscious of a mysteriousness, a something to be uncovered in myself. Self-respect in this context means coming to recognise that I am more complex, exciting and unfamiliar than I could have thought. It sounds a bit odd to put it like this, I know, but I wonder if we could even say that I learn to approach myself with humility – with a recognition of what I don't know and can't sort out, with patience and wonder.
And I think this is rather different from what I rudely called aspirational guff a moment ago because it's not the same as saying, 'I can make any dream a reality'; it's more a matter of saying, 'I don't yet know completely what might be possible; I'm ready and eager to join with other in finding this out. There's shared work to do.' So that the natural result of the sort of respect I'm trying to define is just this, shared work: my willingness to accompany someone else as they find what God is saying, what their distinctive gift might be. And yes, of course I know that not everyone I meet will have any idea of a God who is trying to communicate with them. But I don't need to be talking about God all the time as I try and relate in this way. I shall be trying to walk with someone as they struggle for certain sorts of honesty and truthful hope. And these things are at least the bare bones of finding what God is up to: whatever the words God is speaking to someone, they won't and can't be different from what honesty and hopefulness involve.
It's this dimension of truthfulness that takes us on to the theme of 'becoming trustworthy'. Once again, the Christian approaches this in a special way. We trust God not least because he comes to us with no axe to grind, no agenda to pursue except our own life and health; you could say that he trusts us. He leaves us free to respond to him or not; and if we do respond to him, he gives us jobs to do for him in his world. If we look back to how Jesus relates to his disciples, what we see is someone who takes enormous risks with people, choosing volatile and not always very bright people for the most important task in history – receiving and passing on his teaching, witnessing to his actions, witnessing to his resurrection. As Peter says in John's Gospel, once you have heard these words of life, there is nowhere else to go, no-one else to trust in such a complete way – because of the transforming trust placed in Peter by Jesus, a trust which is renewed even after his betrayal of Jesus when he encounters the risen Lord after the resurrection. When Jesus heals people, he leaves them free to respond or not (the ten lepers in Luke's gospel, of whom only one comes back to say thank you). And he takes real risks in the context of his day in treating women and children as deserving of reverence and attention.
God respects our liberty when he offers us his love; and he respects our responsibility when we accept it. We may know, just like Peter in the gospel story, that we deserve nothing in the way of trust and cannot rely on ourselves. But there is no limit to the possibility God gives. The more we hold on to the recognition of our own weakness, the more we learn how to look to God and to rely on his constantly renewed gift to us. So the degree to which we can really grow in honesty becomes an important aspect of how we become and see ourselves as trustworthy. We don't become trustworthy by reasserting all the time the strength of our inner constancy, but by patient scrutiny of our weaknesses. In human terms, people learn to trust others when they see that they are still willing to learn and to develop. The mistake we are so often guilty of is to think that we can make ourselves trusted by saying more and more loudly that we never make mistakes. And whether in public or in private life this doesn't solve anything.
Self-respect is bound up with seeing ourselves truthfully – not seeing ourselves as heroes and geniuses, but seeing ourselves as the recipients of an extraordinary outpouring of attention and confidence and, above all, love that is happening long before we could suppose we had given any reason for it to happen. It is this that helps us face our failures, it is this that prompts us to look for ways of exercising our proper responsibility. And it is as we learn this that we become trustworthy people. Others can trust us to respect them and to treat them well, because they can see that we are aware of our own humanity, with all its pitfalls and frailties.
And there are quite a few challenges that come out of all this for our institutions and our public life. We are anxious and distressed by a culture in which respect as most of us learned about it doesn't seem to be in huge supply. But the answer isn't to go on demanding it as of right. Society might have been a simpler place when respect for some people and institutions was automatic – but now, when so many don't feel that they are taken seriously by such persons or institutions, that respect has to be earned afresh. Respect isn't the same as automatic deference. So it's important for institutions to be honest; for public bodies and leaders to be able to talk about their difficulties and their mistakes from time to time, to put forward a model of behaviour that suggests you don't have to be relentlessly tough and in control to be an adult person – quite the opposite really, because it is usually people who have some inner adult strength who can face their weaknesses without panic.
In other words, it's important for those of us who talk about this agenda to show that we have some respect for our own humanity, some ability to pay attention to who and what we are. Churches, governments, charities – we're all prone to try and do our business as if we need never acknowledge the humanity we share. And one of the real challenges of a culture of increasing regulation is that we shall become incapable of taking any risks because the framework in which we work doesn't recognise the possibility of mistakes and learning from them. I don't think I'm the only one to have sat with volunteers in highly demanding, highly successful, highly risky community projects that are trying to go where others don't want to go, and listened to deep anxieties about how regulation, woodenly and insensitively administered, holds back their work and discourages their workers. Strange as it may sound, excessive concentration on new rules and safeguards can undermine a proper culture of respect, since it assumes both that most people are unreliable and that mistakes are unforgivable – and that if things go wrong, you can invoke the law to have someone punished in reparation.
But before we start grumbling too much about this, we do need to recognise that the right kind of regulation is a practical expression of respect – the sort of regulation that guarantees listening, security, the knowledge that you won't be treated as less than human. And there are some areas where we need more not less of this – the way some aspects of our asylum laws are implemented, for example, especially as they affect children and young people, or the way in which people are or are not consulted as of right in matters affecting their physical environment when new developments are being built. Just across the road from Lambeth palace is the new children's wing of St Thomas's Hospital; it has been an inspiration to see how they have directly involved children in the planning of the interior, asking them what they think would be most important for them in a hospital environment. Better guarantees of this in every sphere would send out a crucial message about respect.
The wonderful Children's Society poster of a few years ago showed a young person obviously in distress, with the words 'What I need is a good listening to'. It's message that can't be repeated too often. How can anyone listen to themselves, to the painful, hopeful voice of God speaking in their secret places, if they are never listened to by others? How can they begin to listen to one another respectfully, reverently, if they only know the battle of rival noises? Respect in our society will never be imposed; but it can be 'caught'; it can come to seem the natural way to react to someone else if enough people start listening. Much patience is needed, because when you begin to listen to someone who isn't used to being listened to, you're likely to hear all kinds of things you might rather not hear, and you may quail at the anger or resent the blame. But it's the first essential step in communicating respect, letting someone know that they are, as I said earlier, complicated, mysterious and wonderful. And it is how honesty is slowly distilled, through an attention that gives someone a chance to test out in themselves what's true and what's phoney. This, of course, is where the sort of mentoring schemes increasingly in use with young people come into their own; they need all the encouragement we can give them.
In that sort of encounter, true self-respect grows; a person will come to expect something of themselves, will set themselves a standard of truthfulness, not leaving half-truths and fantasies unexamined. After all, most people who are really growing up will react with some resentment if they feel they are being patronised with uplift and fiction. I can remember a conversation with a young woman in South London, with a bad drug problem and a terrible history of abuse talking about her hopes for study; what was moving was the realism with which she spoke. She knew very precisely what sort of study she wanted to undertake, as a biologist, and she knew, with a very wry humour, just how many obstacles there were going to be. No waffling here about fulfilling dreams, but a really self-respectful awareness of what drew her enthusiasms and the problems she was going to have to face. And the respect demanded in return is that sense of shared work to be done which I mentioned earlier.
I've argued strongly in these remarks that we need more than just a general attitude of goodwill to those who don't understand what respect is about. We need a radical recognition of just what extraordinary things are going on in the 'secret places' of people. As a Christian, I cannot but witness to those extraordinary things – the self-communication of God, the bowing-down of God to the level of each and every human person so that they may rise with him (St Augustine again!), the trust God places in human hands so that people strangely and slowly grow into being more worthy of trust. Respect is for me bound up with wonder because of this fact, that God is involved with everyone I encounter before I am, before even they're 'involved' with themselves as often as not. The central realisation is that we live in a world of relationships much deeper than the conscious mind can cope with; and what I hope you may take from these reflections is a renewed conviction that respect, self-respect and trustworthiness are all grounded in these deeper relationships – our connectedness with God, with truth, with the life-giving fact that we are entrusted with unique gifts and tasks. Even – or especially – in a society that some think of as secular, these particular aspects of our sacred story are indispensable in helping all of us in this nation hold on to the conviction of that mysterious depth that makes us truly persons not atoms, not numbers, but spirits caught up in conversation with God's truth, and so endlessly and unconditionally worthy of attention, reverence and love.
© Rowan Williams 2005