It's Anti-Bullying Week here in the UK, and I thought sharing some experiences that I've had might encourage and challenge others. It may be difficult to read in places, but trust me, it was also difficult to write.
I currently work for a charity that goes into our local schools and teaches relationship skills. For my very first session, I ended up in a group of mostly boys that made me remember just how bloody awful it is being a teenager. There was jeering, eye-rolling, snide comments, kicking, and foul language. One boy at my table (we'll call him what he was, a bully) was like a trainwreck, just impossible to ignore. He had at least a bottle's worth of gel in his hair, a very fancy large diamante earring, a "bum fluff" budding moustache and braces on his teeth. It was almost comical the difference in maturity and attitude between him and the kid that he and a friend had decided to torment for the hour I was with them. "Tom" was tall and slightly heavier, but he was kind and quite witty when answering some of my questions. Every time Tom spoke, the bully would do this little brother-like copycat thing or just laugh or start talking about Tom's face being ugly. Tom just took deep breaths and continued, but then he just stopped participating. I can't blame him, but for someone half my age, I think he showed a lot of restraint. I personally wanted nothing more than to, as we say in Georgia, "smack him upside the head." I think we have this image of big, mean bullies and scrawny targets, and it certainly wasn't true in this situation. Bullies can look like anyone because they are anyone.
The whole event gave me flashbacks to 7th grade. I have pretty much blocked out most of what happened that year, but it was so tough for me. My diary is full of tearstained missives about what it felt like when girls stole my clothes and put them in the toilet, leaving me to wear my smelly gym clothes all day. One of my closer friends became a cheerleader and subsequently joined a higher strata of student that enjoyed taunting me for wearing clothes that my mom purchased on clearance at Sears or JC Penney, while they walked around in Calvin Klein Jeans and clothes from The Gap. A girl convinced my best friend to play a mean practical joke on me and then give me the silent treatment for months. It broke my heart, and readers, these were my friends.
I doubt many of my current Facebook friends will remember the names that they called me, because as we gradually got older, they stopped being quite so mean and hopefully just matured. I'm sure that they have their own stories as well, because I think we are all prone to bullying and hurting others at that age. Maybe I was unpopular and wore the wrong clothes. Maybe I was too quick to answer the teacher's questions and carry around my bible, which made me a goody-goody. I still hurt others. There were other girls, less cared about than even me, who became the butt of cruel jokes and the subject of lies. I helped spread those lies too, because it made me feel, for just a moment, that I was not the target. It was wrong, and I wonder on a regular basis whether one small bit of gossip, repeated over and over, might have changed the course of their life. It might have, like me, made them stronger and more mature, more resistant to pain. Or, it could have broken them and led them into choices that hurt them even more.
It's that reason that makes me think so much. I was a bully just as much as I was bullied, and as a Christian, I'm ashamed of it. It wasn't just an early teenage problem, it was a heart problem. I'm called, no commanded, to love my neighbour. I often forget, and I think others have as well. I can't let myself off the hook anymore. Let me say this now: Christians can bully with the worst of them because we have a pulpit. The worst part of this is that we think by using the phrase "in love," we are somehow excusing our actions. We are not. You don't get to say: "I'm a Christian, and you're sinning. Therefore, you deserve to be hurt even more by my judgement." I just really don't think Jesus was into that. Speaking the truth in love is a hard wire to walk on, and I think as Christians we need it far more than the world does. Each of the following is real. They've happened. They can't happen if we're going to truly love our neighbour.
To the Christians who leave disgusting notes on their restaurant receipts and stiff a hard-working server, just to show them how their lifestyle is "an affront to God": you were wrong. That wasn't spreading the gospel. It was bullying.
To the college friend who stood outside of Planned Parenthood in Atlanta and shouted "You're a murderer!" at every person who walked in and out (including the mailman and people who were there for breast exams and birth control): you were wrong. That wasn't protecting the innocent. It was bullying.
To the high schoolers who ignored their pregnant friend except to tell her she was "damaged goods" and she would never find anyone who would love her forever: you were wrong. That wasn't "stating the obvious." It was bullying.
To the church member who asked every homeless person whether their donation of change would be going to buy drugs: you were wrong. That wasn't caring for the needy. It was bullying.
To the girl who scoffed and made gagging noises every time she came within a few yards of a gay person: you were wrong. That wasn't "speaking the truth in love." It was bullying.
To the parents who hit and starved and threatened their children into submission, you were dead wrong. That wasn't godly discipline. It was abusive bullying.
To the entire church congregation who dedicate their existence to pain, hurt and anger: you are so, so wrong. Everything you do is bullying.
Christians are not immune to becoming bullies. I'd venture to say that because we are forgiven, we're almost prone to it. Matthew 12:34 says a harsh word for those who bear this kind of bad fruit: "From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." Maybe our hearts need to start overflowing with something else: real, forgiving, life-altering love.