The queen of soul has died, and it is time to pay our respects.
The queen of soul has died, and now is the time to pay our respects. Aretha Franklin, who died August 16, was truly a lamp that could not be placed under a bushel. Her indomitable gifts of range and soulful styling embodied liberating hope and joyful faith.
Most of all, she taught us how to spell respect.
Franklin was a prodigy, a daughter of a preacher from Detroit. She would go on to sing for princes and presidents but never left her gospel roots. Her 1972 album “Amazing Grace” left no doubt about that. It was among the best selling albums of her long career, and featured a live recording of the classic hymn. Arguably, however, her most theologically significant song was her cover of Otis Redding’s song, “Respect.”
Redding said, “That little girl stole my song,” but that is only partially correct. In truth, she took a song ostensibly focused on domestic relationships and turned it into an anthem of liberation. Her ability to spell out the meaning of respect is especially needed in a time when our nation is again divided, and mutual forbearance and appreciation are not highly-prized.
We devalue respect and mutuality in nearly every sector of life. We place praise on snarky putdowns and sarcastic comebacks. Thoughtful reflection and consideration of others have taken a backseat to humiliation and shaming. We spent a lot of time socking it to each other, and not in the way Franklin imagined.
There is a sad irony that Franklin died in a week that has included headlines of insults, political tweet-storms, and attempts to silence those with whom we disagree. Yet President Donald Trump’s squabbling with his former aide and reality show protege Omarosa Manigault Newman is hardly the only sign of the shrinking reservoir of respect in our world.
The shoreline of human interaction is littered with the massive debris of disrespect: victims of clergy sexual abuse lined up next to our failures at racial reconciliation, and the survivors of the MeToo movement washed against the polluted shoreline of communities focused on abusive relationships. We dehumanize each other and tear into each other, shredding our opponents.
“All I’m asking,” Franklin sang “is for a little respect.”
It was a bold statement.
Respect is more than silently assenting to another’s abuse. Franklin took Redding’s song and infused it with theological meaning. Hers was the song of the Syrophoenician woman who fell at Jesus’ feet, imploring him to heal her daughter. It was the song of the woman who had poured out costly perfume on Jesus’ feet. It was the song of the woman Jesus met at the well.
All they wanted was a little respect.
I think that is the core of the Gospel message: love God and love your neighbors. That commandment is forged from the recognition that God invites us into loving, respectful communities of mutuality and service.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T spells out the command to love. It is the queen’s legacy which now invites us to continue dismantling cultures of fear and self-centered rage.
A version of this posting appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Faith Perspectives page, where Chris Keating is a regular contributor.