In a pluralistic society, mutual respect is a moral imperative

By George Clifford

As a person with dual loyalties to God and country, loyalties that sometimes but not always conflict, the two Florida pastors burning of the Koran and the violent rioting by Afghan Muslims in response left me both upset and concerned about the future of a civilized global community. These events are but the most recent in a string of incidents that include some radical Muslim leaders issuing a religious ruling authorizing Salman Rushdie’s killing after he published The Satanic Verses and the furor that erupted after a Danish newspaper published cartoons that many Muslims believed disrespectful of the prophet Mohammed.

I willingly served in the U.S. Navy for twenty-four years, retiring as a Captain. Like all military personnel, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I took that oath in good conscience because I believe the rights and freedoms that the Constitution establishes as the basic law of the land provide the foundation for a healthy, progressive society.

Free speech is one important right, enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. This right includes actual words and “speech acts,” gestures and deeds intended to communicate a message. In broad terms, U.S. law only prohibits speech that directly jeopardizes the safety of others (e.g., yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater) or harms property that belongs to another person (e.g., malicious libel that ruins a reputation or burning a cross on someone else’s lawn). Free speech was instrumental in the U.S. abolishing slavery, extending the vote to women and non-property owning males, and the continuing campaign to eliminate discrimination based on gender, gender orientation, religion, and ethnicity.

The U.S. flag symbolizes our rights and freedoms, a symbol military personnel daily accord special respect. People who display a flag that wind has whipped to shreds or who use flags as decorative items offend my sense of respect for the flag and what it symbolizes. However, I willingly defend their right to misuse the flag in those ways, even to burn the flag as an act of protest if they so choose.

Those “speech acts” may offend me but do not harm me, an important lesson that I learned as a child. I vividly remember my parents’ unflagging efforts to establish and to maintain civility in the household they inhabited with their five sons. Not surprisingly, teasing, taunting, name-calling, insults, and other verbal attacks were almost daily occurrences. Complaints of verbal harassment invariably prompted parental reminders that “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” In doing so, my parents nurtured their sons’ self-esteem, fostered our moral courage, and emphasized that a person can and should control his or her emotions. Furthermore, if the miscreant was one of their sons, my parents, who knew the importance of mutual respect, disciplined the culprit swiftly and appropriately.

These are basic lessons in civility, the type of wisdom that Robert Fulghum distilled in his popular bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. These are lessons that many in our global community need to learn or take to heart, as current events have emphasized. Two people who need to learn these lessons are the Florida pastors who burned a Koran that they owned. They had the legal right to burn it. Nevertheless, they should have voluntarily restrained themselves from doing so. What is legal is not always moral.

My loyalty to God in Christ defines my moral compass. Jesus taught that his followers should love their neighbor as themselves. I find it impossible to interpret burning the Koran as an act of love for Muslims. The Christian pastors who burned the Koran disrespected Muslims and transgressed Jesus’ command to love their neighbor. Indeed, I value the rights and freedoms established in the U.S. Constitution precisely because I believe that those rights and freedoms are essential expressions of respect for others.

Similarly, a person or group that insists other people’s words and actions always respect certain ideas or practices displays unwarranted hubris that disrespects and dehumanizes those who disagree. Mutual respect without actual tolerance for diverse beliefs and practices is meaningless. Pointing a finger at Muslims who riot in the aftermath of a Koran burning and shouting “Guilty!” is easy. Building bridges to the alienated is more difficult. Having the moral courage to defend free speech in the face of threats and intimidation is still more difficult. Remembering that intolerance is not unique to Muslims can be even more difficult, e.g., an expectation, and often pressure, for people to be “politically correct” is a form of intolerance and disrespect for diversity.

I once had an agnostic sailor stationed aboard a ship for which I was the chaplain come see me. Another of the sailors living in the same berthing compartment was an evangelical Christian. This Christian left a tract (a brochure with the gospel message of God’s saving grace in Jesus) on the agnostic’s bunk every day. The agnostic had asked the evangelical to stop doing that. When the evangelical persisted, the agnostic sought to enlist my aid. I asked the evangelical to stop, explaining that being an irritant was inconsistent with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and that the evangelistic effort, no matter how well intended, was actually self-defeating. The evangelical listened politely but ignored my advice. So, one night the agnostic left a satanic tract on the evangelical’s bunk. Things immediately deteriorated; only when the ship’s executive officer threatened to punish both sailors did the two sailors declare a hostile truce.

Civilian society has no command structure to enforce mutual respect and to establish genuine tolerance for diversity. Consequently, people of good will – and I hope, in spite of the two Florida pastors, that this includes most clergy and Christians – must stand firmly and assertively in defense of mutual respect, tolerance for diversity, and human freedom as non-negotiable basic tenets of civilization and healthy, pluralistic communities.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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