The Common Good

Obama's Bow and R-E-S-P-E-C-T

091118-obama-bow-japanThe gospel according to Aretha Franklin says: "R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me."

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Biblical wisdom teaches: "Give everyone what you owe him. If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." (Romans 13:7 NIV)

President Obama's critics have complained that he bowed too deeply to the emperor of Japan during his current trip to Asia. The argument is that such a gesture demonstrates an undue deference. It is a sign of weakness. It flies in the face of America's value that all are created equal. I say: President Obama's bow was a gesture of respect that does not diminish America's greatness but rather demonstrates our self confidence and our magnanimity.

First, one cannot give what one does not have. A gesture of respect for another can only come from a strong sense of self-respect. And just as in every other act of generosity, the more one gives, the more one receives. Respect is a central element in just peacemaking. However, respect as a moral virtue is not given because we expect anything in return. It is given as a pure gift, as an act of justice.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote about the gift as something that we give without expectation of return. A gift is only a gift when it is not recognized as such. To give a gift with an expectation of return turns the gift into a trade. President Obama's gesture of respect was a gift to the Japanese people. It was a sign of respect for their traditions of courtesy. It was a sign of respect for the emperor who is a symbol of the state and of the unity of the people. In bowing to him, President Obama was recognizing Japan, its geography, its people, its history, including the tragic history of war between our nations. It implicitly recognized the horror of nuclear war that the United States unleashed upon Japan. It was fitting that the bow should be deep.

Second, respect as a moral virtue is a form of justice. Justice says we ought to give everyone and everything their due. Respect is the justice of recognition, of acknowledgment, or paying proper attention. It is due regard. It is a way of saying that the individual, and in the case of the emperor of Japan, that which he symbolizes, is worthy of our regard, that we see an intrinsic dignity present.

There is a dignity that inheres in every human being. This is not the only occasion where we have seen President Obama bow deeply before another human being. During a conversation in the oval office about haircuts, the president bowed deeply before a child, so that the child could see the top of his head. This too was a gesture of respect, even love.

I am grateful that we have a president who will bow before emperors and children, who is confident enough in his own power and the greatness of our nation to demonstrate good manners and to show respect.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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