The Gospel and Bullying
We’ve had our fair share of tragedy in school bullying issues recently here in Rochester, MN. Undoubtedly a nationwide issue – bullying, and it’s frequent and ugly consequences – is obviously a horribly painful thing for a community to go through. Why does it have to happen?
Since the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999, there has been a significant rise in the awareness to bullying issues. Many dollars and much time and energy have been invested in the prevention of school bullying. Currently, 48 U.S. states have anti-bullying laws and educational programs in place in school systems to discourage bullying-type behavior.
The reviews of such programs remain mixed because the results remain questionable. My local paper, the Rochester Post-Bulletin suggests: “Indeed, we must admit that anti-bullying campaigns — and news reports about anti-bullying campaigns — have become so commonplace that they’ve begun to take on a “white noise” quality.” (see full article here) The writer went on to say that the most recent incident in a nearby town – a girl who committed suicide and cited bullying as the cause – will probably wake people up to the voice of the campaign warnings. Without sounding too cynical, I’m not nearly as optimistic.
For sure, I think the recent incident will raise attention to the bullying issue for a time. But we humans tend to have a reactionary way of handling such things as this. If we don’t change the way people view the world, long-term societal changes are difficult, if not impossible.
As a pastor who believes that the Bible is divine insight from the one who created humans (i.e. God himself), I think the root cause behind bullying is not a lack of awareness nor do I think the answer to it is a general tolerance of anything and everything. And I have absolutely ZERO confidence that Hilary Duff’s insights are going to have lasting impact on the bullying issue.
So, let’s get down to the heart and core of it. Why do we bully?
As a Christian, I believe that we have an imperfection that now permeates us as the result of our ancient ancestor’s fall into sin (Romans 5:12 sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin). We were NOT created to be broken, sinful, and hateful people. In fact, we still maintain a semblance of the way we were created to be (Genesis 1:27 in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them, see also Gen. 9:6; Acts 17:29; 1 Cor. 11:7) This internal dissonance leads to frustration. We often take our frustration out in unhealthy ways – sometimes on ourselves (over or under eating, perfectionist tendencies, asceticism, drugs and alcohol abuse, even suicide) or sometimes we take out frustration on others (bullying physically, verbally, emotionally, or “new” to the mix, cyber-bullying). In both cases, i.e. both the bully and the victim of bullying, the problem is that we all, to a degree, hate ourselves for the imperfection that we don’t believe should be there.
So, how do we deal with bullying?
Well, again, as a pastor, I believe that the gospel (the message of salvation gifted to us through Jesus) is the most powerful motivating force in the universe. Therefore, if you’re trying to motivate people apart from the gospel, you’re simply using a lesser tool. Granted, these tools can work for a time. But they can’t truly change hearts and therefore they can’t have true long-term impact.
The (non-gospel) motivational tools that I most often see being used in society, and sometimes amongst Christians, are pride and fear. Think about it. When you have Hillary Duff telling you how you should or shouldn’t use the word “gay”, what are you doing? You’re having someone you believe society deems “cool” tell you that it’s “uncool” to speak a certain way. So either you use words the way she thinks they should be used and are part of the inner circle of people in-the-know (i.e. pride as motivator) or you do your own thing and be on the outskirts of society as the one who talks stupid, dresses stupid, and is stupid (i.e. fear as motivator). You could make the case that in her anti-bullying campaign……..she’s bullying!!! Am I insane or am I the only one who sees the inconsistency there?
Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that the point and purpose of anti-bullying campaigns is bad. I’m suggesting that the motivating forces are not as strong as they could be and the execution of such campaigns is sometimes embarrassing, and I think many people are savvy enough to see through the garbage. I believe this leaves people searching for a better answer.
Cue the gospel
I believe that the Christian faith alone possesses the ultimate answer to bullying. Yes, I have proof :).
As I mentioned earlier, the bully and the bullied both generally feel terrible about themselves (God forgive me, I’ve probably spent more time as the former than the latter). The act of hatred towards another is fueled by pain and generates pain. But what if the bully or the bullied were to take their eyes off of themselves and fix their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2), their perfect Savior? If you were as obsessed with Jesus’ perfection to the degree that you are aware of your own imperfection, do you really think you’d be as preoccupied with your own shortcomings and feel as bad about yourself as you do? In other words, if you truly believed that all of your personal flaws and mistakes were covered, paid for, and erased by a loving substitute, would you feel so bad about yourself that you’d take it out on others? (Rom. 1:17; 8:1) If you truly believed that regardless of who does what to you in this lifetime, you have an eternal wealth, comfort, acceptance, and happiness coming to you, do you really think what others said about you would bother you so much? (1 Cor. 2:9; Isaiah 64:4)
How many anecdotal evidences would you need to see before you believed that the gospel can have this effect on people? Saul of Tarsus, when converted, went from regular bully of Christians to regular beatings for his Christian faith (Acts 7:58 and the change to Acts 14:19 & Acts 16:23). As far as we know from church history, every one of Jesus’ disciples except John faced bullying and martyrdom for their faith and did so willingly. Finally, on the cross, Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to forgive the people who bullied him unto death. He went to die to pay for the sins of the very men who were bullying him! And this is all after he went and loved and served the very people whom society had bullied (Luke 15:2; Matt. 9:10-11; Mark 2:15-16; Matt. 11:19 Matt. 21:32). Who does that?! Only God himself.
I hate to say it, but I think what it’ll take for the world to recognize that the gospel is the best answer to bullying is for the world to eventually see Christians living out their faith AND bullied, even to death, and for Christians to not try to combat through revenge or legislation but to respond with love and truth. If the world can see that the gospel allows us a more beautiful approach to life, the beauty will attract like a light on a hill (Matt. 5:14).
In the meantime, what can we do as a church? I will defer to the wisdom of my wife on this one from a comment she made years ago. I was remarking how churches seem to have a fairly high percentage of socially “strange” people. And she reasoned, “It’s because every other social group might reject someone, but a church won’t.” Yep. I think she was onto something. If we believe the gospel – that we’re all truly sinners saved by God’s grace – then we’ll never have a reason to view ourselves as inferior to OR superior to anyone. Regardless of appearance, intelligence, personality, social class, ethnicity, etc., we’re all sinners saved by God’s grace. That’s the bottom line.
So what’s the motivating force for bullying to go away? Let’s be honest, a shallow encouragement toward “Tolerance” is not enough. There must be something deeper, more profound. I think everyone senses that. And there IS something deeper – the love of God expressed through his Son.