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A Call for Respect

September 21, 2012

By Sister Michelle S.

We Sisters of Mercy, like many orders of religious, engage in and value a participative decision-making model as opposed to a hierarchical one. We make decisions together with consultation and discussion.  This type of process requires skills and values which allow us to speak our minds and hearts honestly yet respectfully and also to listen deeply and patiently.  We simply must preserve our mutual love even while hammering out our differences.
I have been very concerned in recent years by a severe lack of respect in our nation’s political conversations.  I have also been ashamed to discover my own tendency to speak disparagingly of political opponents while conversing in a circle of politically like-minded friends. Mutual respect and the assumption of good will in political discussions is not just about avoiding hurt feelings or being polite; they are essential to the survival of our nation as a democracy.  The hatred which enables people in other nations to kill, torture and attempt to obliterate fellow citizens could happen here and indeed has happened here–most horrifically in our Civil War.  Representative democracy, the Bill of Rights and the system of balance of powers which we currently enjoy are the fortuitous result of a long process of historical development.  We must strive to preserve its benefits for ourselves and future generations.

A crucial factor required for both the establishment and the maintenance of democratic government is broad acceptance of “the rule of law.”  Rule of law does not mean merely that people are “law abiding” nor is it simply that one must pay a penalty if the law is violated.  It means that by and large those who participate in the political process accept that a vote will settle an issue at least until another vote is taken.  People accept that rules established by the political process are binding.  It is an enduring agreement that even those who prefer a different course will nevertheless abide by the group decision; and just as crucially– that those who disagree will neither leave the union, nor resort to violence to get their way.  **

If public discourse is filled with expressions of contempt, if opponents are portrayed as evil, stupid or ignorant, then the necessary feeling of being fellow-citizens and having a common destiny is undermined.  If one loses a vote to others one sees as contemptible, then one will be less inclined to abide by the outcome.  If one wins a vote over others who are seen as evil, there is much less motivation to protect the rights of the minority.

Our founder, Catherine McAuley, is a great example and inspiration for building relationships that bridge political and religious divides. In an era of hatred between Anglo-Protestants and Irish Catholics, she invited people to cooperate in relieving the misery of the poor. Just as Jesus came both as Prince of Peace and to speak the truth we can practice both.  We have a banner over one of our meeting spaces which has become a motto for me: “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, be open to the outcome.”

** In extreme circumstances, as we have seen in civil rights movements, this principle is honored in the breach:  Citizens, or members of society who feel unable to obtain the rights of citizens, press for change by not obeying the law, yet willingly enduring the penalties such as going to prison and refusing to resort to violence.


–To help stimulate your own reflections on candidates’ positions through the lens of Mercy, see “U.S. Elections 2012: Where do the candidates stand on issues of mercy and justice in our world?” —

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sister Sharon Kelly, RSM permalink
    September 21, 2012 10:12 am

    I am idealistic enough to believe that candidates from all parties have the “common good” in mind when they run. Most want to help those who are poor, disenfranchised, un or underemployed, The question is how to help. Is the the ultimate responsibility of our national government or state government or individuals and corporations. As Sister Michelle states, it is only through respectful, mutual dialog that some consensus will be found. If I can be humble enough to loosen my grip on long held and cherished political stands, maybe I will be able to perceive the truth in another’s. As long as our political process is not co-opted by political self-interest and greed, together we will find a merciful, compassionate. fair solutions to our pressing issues.

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