The Ultimate Reason for Respect
The apostle Peter tells newly converted Christians, living in a hostile Roman community of the first century: “Show proper respect to everyone” (I Peter 2:17a, NIV). Ultimately, the reason believers are to respect every human being is that he or she a sacred icon, being made in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27).
Integrally related to respecting every human being is respecting God. In fact, Peter tells believers to “fear God” (I Peter 2:17c, NIV). In other words, an ultimate respect for the God the Creator often results in a respect for God’s creatures, specifically, human beings. That is to say, a proper view of God (theology) helps to develop in believers a proper view of other human beings (anthropology). Not only that, but a proper view of God also shapes the way Christians should treat others (ethics).
No Inferior Human Beings
Because all human beings are made in the image of God, they share in the same, common nature, namely, a human nature. Because all humans, ultimately, originate from a common source, namely, God, then there are no inferior humans. They are fully and equally members of the same human race, fully and equally possessing the value or dignity of a human being – regardless of their race, religion, color, nationality, language and gender.
Degrees of Love
Peter admits that there are degrees of love, just as there are degrees of honor. He tells Christians to “love the family of believers” (I Peter 2:17c, NIV). Believers, then, are to have a natural, general love for humanity, all human beings, and a special, particular love for redeemed humanity, the spiritual family of God, their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Degrees of Respect
Peter instructs his readers to “honor the emperor” (I Peter 2:17d, NIV). Perhaps a better translation than “emperor” is “king” (KJV). The same Greek word (τιμάω) for respecting everyone, at the beginning of verse 17, is applied to honoring the emperor or king, which, at that time, was Nero.
Peter presupposes that there are practical degrees of honor, which are based on a person’s excellence or achievements and the kind of office he or she may hold. For example, the highest honor should be given to the Being that has the highest worth or dignity, such as God. There are also other kinds of honor, which are due to human beings. For instance, I honor a judge or the President of the United States, because of the high offices he or she holds, even if I do not agree, on moral grounds, with the kind of person he or she may be.
Respecting the Unrespectable
Sacred Scripture says that Jesus Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all people” (I Timothy 2:6, NIV). There is, then, something redeemable about all human beings, (i.e., the image of God in the human person), even the most unlikable, undesirable, unlovely, disgusting, vile ones. Of course, such people are not to be respected, say, for the crimes they may commit. Rather, they are to be respected for God’s sake, sending his Son to die on the cross for their sins.
Summary and Conclusion
Therefore, “Show proper respect to everyone,” as hard as that may be and even when he or she, because of committing some evil act, is not worthy, on moral grounds, of respect. Like the Christian principle of “Love the sinner, while hating the sin,” honor the trace of good in him or her, the divine image, while not honoring the evil in his or her life.
Of course, what I am writing about, in many cases, is hard to practice, just as it was for the first century Christians, when they first read Peter’s message. However, it is an achievable, humanizing ideal, which, when practiced, promotes a more humane culture, a culture of respect and a “civilization of love.”