Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Against Bullying

I arrived in 7th grade a short and scrawny farm kid. I was the object of some bullying. One day in gym class another kid, O., grabbed me and dropped me to the floor. O. was one of those guys who was two or three years ahead of the rest of us in physical development. He dropped me to the floor and wrapped me up in a headlock. Into my ear, he said, "I could break your neck." Unable to move or resist, the only defiant thing I could think to do was reply with a dare, "Then do it." He eventually let go.

Besides being a scrawny, I suppose I was odd in other ways. A bit of a geek, I read books about history - things like ancient Rome and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte (a little guy who did big things). In 8th grade, another bigger guy, A., picked me out for verbal abuse in English class. One day, he walked by my desk, looked at me with disdain and said, "Where'd you get that sissy shirt, Gunter?" Actually, he used a word rather less delicate than "sissy". It doesn't sound like much, but it hurt enough to make an impression. I don't remember many things from 8th grade. But I remember that.

In 9th grade, I checked out a book on tennis from the school library. While I was walking through the hall with the book in hand, a guy who had picked on me before came up from behind. Observing the book, he snidely offered, "You'll never play tennis, Gunter." "Why", I wondered, "does someone who hardly even knows me want to say such a thing?"

None of this was all that bad compared to the bullying others have experienced. But, coupled with a less than affirming relationship with my father, it was bad enough. It got better. I began to catch up physically. I ran track and played football. I gradually became more sure of myself (very gradually it seemed at the time). And, most significantly, I became more deeply aware of God's love revealed in Jesus Christ which put whatever others thought or did in a different light.

Those experiences have given me deep empathy for others who are victims of bullying and abuse whether verbal or physical. There are lots of reasons people are bullied: physique, weight, gender, race/ethnicity, perceived personality quirks, etc. Over the last few weeks we have been reminded that gays and lesbians (and those assumed to be so) are often targets of particularly nasty bullying. That needs to be addressed. And it needs to stop.

I continue to have good deal of ambivalence, not to mention confusion, about how Christians should make sense of gay and lesbian sex. I am frustrated by the way it has been handled in the Episcopal Church. But, of this I am sure: Christians must speak out against bullying whoever the target is. And, given the heat generated by debates over homosexuality in the church and beyond, we have a particular obligation to be clear that bullying of gays and lesbians is unacceptable. That means some Christians need to temper their rhetoric and take into account the flesh and blood reality of the lives of those about whom they are talking.

In the end, bullying - whoever the target and whatever the reason - is not just about how kids are treated in school. And it is not a problem for the schools to solve. The problem is with the coarseness of the general discourse in the adult world. When our political, ecclesial, and other public discourse is full of disdain, disrespect, ad hominem attacks, exaggeration, and distortion; we are contributing to a culture in which bullying is acceptable. And that is a culture of death. Sometimes literally. We can do better. Those who accept Jesus as Lord are commanded to do better.

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