A study in questions
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
- For the third time this week, a child slumps helplessly into a corner, breathless with laughter, while a younger, stronger child tickles her unmercifully. She is laughing so uncontrollably that no one can see her panic. How will she escape? Again?
- All in the classroom are invited to an after-school event, with snacks and games. All but one: the wild one who gets high on sugar and makes a lot of noise and tells jokes on the teachers and teases the girls. He hears the buzz at school about the party, the party, and he waits for his invitation, which does not come. He is seven years old.
- A teenager misses many afternoons of school for reasons not easily apparent, and bears the brunt of classmates’ jokes surrounding his choices. They like ribbing him. Always him. He is a scapegoat when one is needed, the outlier, the easy target for humor. He’s a good sport and laughs along. He’s so dumb he doesn’t even know it, haha, just kidding.
- On the edge of the gaggle of girls, a lone and sober child stands waiting to be included in the conversation, although she cannot think of anything to say. She has not been given relational tools. Her dress was made for someone else, and her hands are behind her back, nervously picking at each other. The other girls chatter and giggle. One of them casts her a sidelong look, and at some unseen signal, the pack leans into a tight circle for a whispered interchange. She is left upright, outside.
- Beneath a tree on the church property stands a boy with grass stains on his knees, and burrs in his white Oxford shirt. He is looking up into the tree at two other boys, whom he has asked to join and been denied. They have led him on a merry chase through the woods, all in fun of course, and no hard feelings. They are just children playing. His hands are torn, and he is fighting tears.
- A child runs across the road in front of a moving vehicle. Fortunately, the vehicle is not moving fast. It is the fourth dare she will take this week from her friends. The first was to step out of line in the hallway without getting caught. The second, to throw away a sandwich instead of eating it. The third, to get anything but an A on her math test. She can never say no to a dare, and they know it.
Which of these stories qualifies as bullying? A younger child picking on an older? A laughing accomplice provoked into courting his own damage? A child shunned for failure to blend in?
All of them.
Synonyms offered in a thesaurus for the verb bully may capture only a portion of the whole, but they include words like domineer. Hustle. Coerce. Strongarm. Oppress. Persecute. Nag. Intimidate. Torment. Press. Tyrannize. Cow. Push. Oblige. Hound. Goad. Force. Pressure.
If we broaden our understanding of bullying, we may see it happening: not out there in the big bad high schools and the dark alleys, but sometimes—here. In our own celebrations and school hallways and church parking lots.
I have been bullied, and I have bullied others. My children have been bullied, and they have bullied others.
Is that impossible? Is it conceivable that our children, our high scorers and great runners and joke tellers and Bible reciters and well-adapted kids—crowds of children who fit or exceed the mold—are pushing around the weak ones who look okay? There is no physical shoving. Not in public. What we see is a neat row of heads in Sunday school and on the gym bleachers, all present and correct.
Who are the isolated ones on the periphery?
Where are the unprotected?
Whose heart is in turmoil because of the treatment she receives from her peers?
Are we willing to take a closer look on behalf of those who will never speak for themselves? Or do we think our community’s stance toward outliers is understandable, and there’s not a lot we can do about it? Are we sure of our own compassion—or are we subtly giving our children permission to sideline and harass the people who don’t fit?
Bullying behaviors come from derisive attitudes, and derisive attitudes are easily excused when we care more about being on the inside of a circle ourselves than looking to see who is outside it.
How are we setting a standard of respecting all people, no matter what?
Are we gentle and humble?
Do we accept those unlike us and enjoy them for who they are, even when we require them to grow?
How did our Friend love the unlovely, he who said Blessed are the poor and the hungry, the sorrowful and the persecuted, because they are mine?
We cannot perfect our relationships to a state of flawlessness, or remove bullying from society—even from Christian society. Any of us, and any of our children, may be cruel in ways we do not even understand. Here is my question:
When it happens, are we taking it seriously, and repenting, and bridging back across the gaps?
We have the opportunity to build a place where people are connected and at rest, where attitudes of arrogance and groupthink are laid down in favor of charity, joy, and friendship. When we do anything less, we mar the body of Christ and impoverish our own communities.
Rejection costs dearly. Who pays the price?
For more information on defining, discussing, and preventing bullying, see stopbullying.gov
CONTRIBUTOR: Shari Zook