Nighttime view of The White House in Washington DC, USA

Respect the Person, Not the Office

“Total jerk, but, gotta respect her position.”

“Paid off porn stars, but, he’s the President. And we should respect the office.”

These are the kinds of things that flow almost unconsciously out of keyboards and mouths of millions. While it frequently happens in the context of politics, it also happens in the context of corporate board meetings and in churches. Respect the CEO. Respect the pastorate. Respect the leader. Who cares about who fills the office. Somewhere buried behind all those office chairs is a virtuous ideal or a legitimate cause.

But most of time, this is bad idea.  Yes, separation can definitely be made between the functions a person has in the world, and their inner person and characteristics. It’s often necessary. But separating too much allows for tyranny of all kinds – tyranny of husbands over wives, pastors of congregations, Presidents over peoples, etc. This is because a person can never be isolated from what they do. They are, after all, the ones acting in a certain position. And when more and more exceptions are made in subservience to an “office,” or even just an ideal, well… you just might end up with family policy councils, various nonprofits, seminaries, and entire Christian ministries publicly supporting the most ungodly people on the planet.

“Before we can deceive people, steal from them, or assault them, we must first separate ourselves from them internally. We feel justified in bending them to our will because we consider ourselves wiser, nobler, or stronger. In other words, we feel that we are somehow better than they are; we are different, separate, apart. Aggression is the physical manifestation of our judgement of others and our internal separation from them…in using aggression as our means, we have destroyed the connectedness (goodwill toward all) that appears to be a necessary precondition of the happiness we seek. In using aggression as our means, we sabotage our ends.” Ruwart, Healing Our World: The Compassion of Libertarianism (p. 276)

Worse still is that this idea of “respect the office, not the person” is anti-Christian. Jesus taught and embodied an unpopular message: respect the person, not the office. All human beings are worthy of dignity and respect because they’re human beings. Don’t act otherwise! When you throw a party and a bunch of people show up, don’t show favor to some just because of their high position (James 1-2). When people are yelling at you or grabbing your clothes for help on the street, don’t reject them just because of their low position (Matt 15). And when it comes to offices like Caesar’s throne, these really aren’t “respectable” positions anyway.

Behind every uniform is a soul.

Trump and Obama are dudes. When they get out of bed in the morning and get dressed, they put one leg in their pants before doing another, and sometimes when they do this too fast, they lose balance and fall on the floor. And then they rush out and forget their car keys. Then they fall again tripping over clothes they forgot to pick up. They go to the dentist and grimace in pain. They sometimes get nasty nightmares and headaches. They get winded going up stairs too fast. Trump and Obama are spiritually and intellectually needy. They are insecure people who will soon face the same death as anyone else. 

All I’m doing is describing human beings on this earth. All or most of the above could be said of virtually anyone. That’s the point. If it makes you feel uncomfortable or if this practice seems weird, then it just proves the idea:  we’ve forgotten that certain “official” persons “in office” are persons. We’ve delineated – or “specialized” – too much so that we’ve become vulnerable to the “powers and principles of this world.”

I know a pastor who will never, ever allow anyone to see him in anything other than a suit. This is really sad and disturbing. Upholding formalities in the context of an office – especially when it is unnecessary – is often an assertion of power over another person. It is reminding everyone of their position in relation to yours.

Jesus hated this. That’s all that the Pharisees did. And it is precisely why the gospel writers went out of the way to show how Jesus undermined all of this egoism: the first will be last, the last will be first. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Before his most glorious moment on the cross, he was crowned with a crown of thorns. He didn’t draw attention to himself even when all of us would have.

True, sometimes we need to respect the office – as David did in refusing to kill “the Lord’s anointed.” But it’s not always clear who is in that role, or what that role might consist of. These kind of situations are also rare occasions, not regular. Furthermore, offices and positions of power are secondary to people themselves – because it is people that construct these positions in the first place. In short, then, there are good reasons for prioritizing people above their various roles and social identities.

So I hope the point is clear. The next time you hear someone say in a political conversation “I don’t like that person, but gotta respect the office,” try a different direction: “You know, I don’t care so much for the office – power does corrupt, but that person needs some love and grace. They’re needy people just like me.”

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