Over the last few weeks, several teens over the last few weeks have committed suicide. The pundits and the prophets have been reflecting about the problem of bullying.
To some, the current discussion seems different than the everyday cruelty of a group of teenagers or children testing out their power, their desire to determine who is in and who is out. It may be how easy technology connects us to each other and makes harming others easy. Give a teen ager a cellphone, a twitter account and Myspace and it’s hard to avoid the potential for taunting, teasing and emotional brutality.
Most of us have experienced fickle friendships, inconvenient infatuations, and the occasional betrayal, and the disinvitation to a party. It’s not just those who played Dungeons and Dragons and ran the math team; the awkward, poor and pudgy. Even the talented find themselves harassed by the envious and resentful.
But bullying isn’t just a confined to high school or prisons. A waitress related the story of a internet tycoon who threatened to have her fired waving around a couple dollars, declaring his superiority; the unemployed are taunted by those who shout at them, “can’t you just get a job?”
The teased are offered advice: walk away; ignore the bully; say “thanks for sharing” and roll your eyes. But when these become impossible, the victim becomes both enraged and powerless, at which point they turn upon themselves.
The heart of the Christian story is about bullying, although a more academic word could be “scapegoating.” The victim takes the place of the rest of the class, who is terrified of breaking the rule of power the bully has. One person bullies and the others follow.
And the consequence of standing up for oneself, or for others, is intrinsically risky. It requires being strong enough to tell the truth; to resist manipulation; to take the side of someone who is defenseless. That strength is learned, and it is fostered through love, the encouraging support of family and friends who can’t always be present.
Christians have themselves been bullies. Our anti-semitism, gay-baiting and alliance with racial supremacists have enabled sorts of Christians to justify all sorts of cruelty. And yet, it would take a certain kind of blindness not to see that how progroms, gay-bashing and lynching are analogous to the cross. The cross signifies this: we scapegoat people, and it does not have to be that way. Any religion that denies the brutal fact of this all too human tendency also denies our own inclination and power to hurt others, if only to protect ourselves.
There are good reasons for us to turn away from the cross. To be so humiliated, diminished, embarrassed is to suck the life out of someone; to render them ashamed and powerless. This is one reason the cross was so offensive to imperial religion. Jesus remained weak and powerless – all too human. What kind of God is this? A bullied one. And nobody wants to be on that side.
His response, of course, was remarkable. It was not to punish those who crucified him; rather, he instead said, “peace be with you.” The mark of those who follow Christ would be fearlessness in standing against injustice; and reconciliation with those who killed him. We need not be afraid of the bully; we may pity them. Instead of fear, a transformation – and an offering of mercy.