Last week I spent four days at a camp across the Tanana River with a group comprised mostly of Alaska Natives. We were gathered to envision ways to change the dominant narrative of our dependence on fossil fuels with its focus on profits and envision a new economy focused on people. We heard from Native elders about the wisdom of traditional Native ways as well as the damage that has been done to Native people by Western colonization.
Today I want to explore the meaning and implications of the word “respect,” which I heard often last week and which rose for me in worship yesterday. What I heard last week was the value of caring for the land, its creatures, and other people. I think the dominant culture in this country is at odds with this view of respect. We are taught as children to respect our parents and our teachers, which typically means to do what we are told, to obey authority. Respect, in this worldview is one way—upwards.
At its core, Quakerism is profoundly countercultural. Early Friends took to heart the belief that Spirit resides in each one of us and they refused to doff their hats or use the honorific “you” in interaction with authority figures. This may seem quaint to us today, but it was a big deal in 17th century England, and many Quakers were jailed for not showing proper respect.
Pamela Boyce Simms, in her plenary address to Friends General Conference earlier this month, asked how we rekindle the fire that led George Fox to defy current cultural norms and live in a new way, responding to the Spirit within rather than the authority figures. Are we willing to break away from our pervasive cultural patterns and live in right relationship with the earth and other people? My yoga class ends with saying “namaste, the divine light in me honors the divine light in you.” This, to me, is respect. It is relational, non-hierarchical.
Perhaps, because of the cultural baggage that comes with “respect” for many of us, we can substitute words like humility and compassion. These words are dominant in The Book of Joy, which features a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both men agreed that compassion and generosity were central features of lasting happiness.
Whether we call it “respect,” “compassion,” or “answering that of God,” it all comes down to how we view the world. I think we are being called to an awareness of how damaging our dominant cultural world view has been, especially to indigenous people, people of color, and to the earth. As we learned in the gathering last week, we all need to shake loose from the effects of colonization, whether we are descendants of colonizers or those colonized, and live into acceptance of our interdependence. In Quaker terms, I see it as finding our roots, sinking down to the seed sown in our hearts, and letting that guide us to “the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.” (Isaac Pennington, 1661)