Scripture and Lutheran tradition both encourage respect. Paul writes to the Romans: "Pay to all what is due them ... respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Romans 13:7).
Similarly, Martin Luther writes about the commandment to honor one’s parents: "It is a much higher thing to honor than to love. ... Honor requires us not only to address them affectionately and with high esteem, but above all to show by our actions, both of heart and of body, that we respect them very highly and that next to God we give them the very highest place" (Kolb/Wengert, 401.106-7).
These words seem so self-evident and sensible. They’re consistent with what we know of God’s love, which is both respectful and compassionate. But think of how unsettling it is to read Acts 10:34, especially in the King James translation: "God is no respecter of persons."
These jarring words distinguish two kinds of respect: a godly respect for others and a kind of respect that runs counter both to God’s promise in Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s liberating work.
This second kind of respect is the fraudulent privilege that makes the experiences and perspectives of some the criterion for valuing others. It can even determine who can participate fully in the work and activities enjoyed by privileged groups. This “respect of persons” (to use the older language) is a system of privilege that enfolds a community in a common life dominated by, identified with and centered on the experiences and perspectives of the privileged.
The great irony is that this system of privilege dishonors and disadvantages everyone, even those who are privileged. Think of the racist and sexist discrimination that impoverish the whole community when the wisdom, passion, expertise and skill of some are devalued or excluded.
This system of privilege, even when overt racism and sexism are recognized, operates in subtle ways. For example, while white people nearly everywhere in the U.S. can live obliviously inattentive to their racial identity and think of themselves without reference to race with little or no consequence, most people of color cannot afford to do the same.
Similarly, while most men can enjoy success at work without others expressing surprise in their ability, many women have different experiences. These differences in everyday assumptions and actions shadow our common life with compromises that impoverish us all.
This fraudulent system of privilege also affects our life in the church. For this reason one guiding commitment of the churchwide plan for mission is a deliberate attention to racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion.
This commitment is reflected in actions ranging from ongoing anti-racism training for all churchwide staff to the work of a churchwide communal discernment task force, which seeks to discover ways of respectful engagement with each other and God’s Spirit even when we strongly disagree about important matters.
This course is not an easy one. It would be much simpler and more comfortable to continue in the familiar “respect of persons” that privileges a few and excludes so many others.
We follow this course in hope, however, because we know Jesus bore the violence and shame of human sin so a new creation might bring the dignity and honor of God’s forgiving mercy to all.
"God is no respecter of persons." Instead, God pours out the Spirit’s gifts with astonishing fullness and envelops us all in a new community in which regard for each other and the world is a witness of Christ’s promise.
During this month our neighbors and friends will commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., who witnessed this hope of a new creation in Christ despite the hardships and threats imposed by a system of fraudulent privilege. You and I belong to that same community of promise. Let us give to each other and the world a shared life that embodies Christ’s gracious regard for all.