I say that to my teens a lot. That, and "You aren't trash...", which I say so often that my girls often finish it for me: "... so don't talk trash." They tell me I'm weird and cheesy sometimes, but I hope those phrases and the concepts behind them become embedded in their semi-conscious psyche. I hope they form the way they see themselves and interact with other people.
My biggest reason for pushing my teens to handle themselves with respect is because it works on their behalf. In a culture that says you may punch, swear, yell, and throw things because you're upset, it's hard to explain this in a way that makes sense... but I've seen it played out often enough to know it's true: If you're yelling, you drown out what you have to say. If you're disrespectful, you only prove you aren't mature enough to stay respectful under pressure. Your immaturity discredits what you have to say, and no one feels obligated to listen to you. Whether motivated by vicarious embarrassment or glee over another's spectacle, other people's response to you is not dissimilar to shoppers' reaction to a two-year-old having a meltdown in the candy aisle.
And my teens have something to say. They have too much to say in one sitting. Wisdom comes from pain, and my teens have a lot of both. They deserve to be heard because they have a lot to offer. Because, simply, even if what they offer isn't apparent, they are people. And people deserve to be heard. People deserve respect. When God breathed His own breath into the first man He'd made in His own image, He gave each of us a birthright of dignity that demands recognition.
Election year always wears on me. After the first few debates, I don't watch them anymore because they depress me. I love to debate ideas, exercise the logical side of my brain (which sometimes goes on hiatus and I'm extremely abstract and paint a lot), and learn from other people's viewpoints. Conflict in the form of topical debate doesn't stress me out. It invigorates me. But when anyone resorts to personal attacks or the point of the debate becomes winning the argument instead of presenting a viewpoint, I'm out. That just smacks of immaturity to me, or, more darkly, of some ruthless need to dominate another person mentally and emotionally. It feels twisted and wrong. That's why, even though I have a passing interest in economics and a rather vested interest in judicial law, politics and elections depress me. I don't know why we make so sacred a system where success is rated and obtained by belittling and attacking your opponent. The best political jokes and punchlines far too often rely heavily on stereotypes and personal attacks for any would-be content. And I look at the cheering masses and wonder why we think this is so wonderful... and start to analyze why we idolize one person, waving their banner like we expect them to be the answer to all of our problems, and feel completely justified in spewing all manner of verbal garbage at another... and I get depressed about us all. This isn't the way we were meant to treat each other.
And we do have something to say. I personally don't vote because I don't feel the need to be part of a system I can't endorse. I don't want my name signed to the ballot of a person who will wage war in office, among other things I oppose. Many Christians feel strongly otherwise about their level of involvement in government, and I respect that. This is where I stand, based on my understanding of what it means for me to follow Jesus. Huge subject for another day. But I don't think those of us (ahem, Anabaptists and Mennonites, most of us, anyhow) who take this position are cleared of any responsibility to think about pertinent government issues and talk about them from our cultural strengths of nonviolence and community. Those strengths are relevant and needed in our world, and the change they can effect most definitely isn't limited to the voting booth.
Howard Zehr is an Anabaptist and visionary who saw how his understanding of Jesus' teachings on reconciliation could heal the perpetrators and victims who aren't well served by the current model of crime punishment and started the Restorative Justice movement. His model works. I talked to the director of a Restorative Justice organization actively involved in dealing with crime, and his face lit up with pride as he told me that their organization is now receiving compensation from the state of Pennsylvania. The state is realizing how much money one little organization, led by this kind, soft-spoken man, is saving it because the repeat offender rate is almost nothing compared to the 60% repeat offender rate in the judicial system.
Zehr is just one example. My friends, Clair and Anna, do all sorts of cool things: befriending people that are at risk of (or entangled in) a life of crime and helping them live more wholly. Shane Claiborne (since I heard him with my own two ears declare himself a "brother" to the Mennonites), went to Iraq as a petition to the government to refrain from bombing Baghdad. He stood with people in a park, looking up as the sky cried missiles, and heard the outrage of the woman who asked him, "Your God does this?" More recently, he's continuing to feed the homeless in Philly even though it is becoming illegal .
Being put into office doesn't give any human the inerrant handle on solutions. We have solutions to offer, but offering them in a way that is disrespectful of the person in office won't only distract from our offering... It is also wrong for us. Everyone but the speaker always seems to know that raging diatribes become a reflection of the speaker. It looks like hate. It fractures the human in us. It labels as "nothing" the human in our target. The God-image in you and the God-image in others deserves your respect.
This is what I dream for us this election year:
That we have opinions. Well-informed opinions that fuse current events with a constant focus on how Jesus wants us to respond to laws, leaders, and injustice. We have to live with them, and it's important that we know how to relate to them. It's important that we discuss them. Because we live out of the way we view our world and our humans. Having our heads in the sand gives us the worldview of an ostrich, which means we will act like ostriches, which means... Well... yeah, that's all rather awkward.
That we neither idolize nor demonize the candidates for office. They are human, and they are neither the final answer to all that is wrong nor the catalyst for the Apocalypse. Or was that Apocrypha? (Sorry. Old, lame, inside joke.) Either way, real change to real people most often happens in a very daily, very dirty manner. More rarely, and in a more inhibited fashion, in white houses on white paper, signed by white collars.
Be informed of change. Be change. But, with all that lieth within you, keep it classy.