We attended my son Brian’s DARE Graduation last week and in addition to the anti-drug messaging, they now include raising awareness about bullying. There were several eloquent messages from police officers, the mayor, school officials and state legislators.
They shared some tragic stories about the effects of bullying in the area – including victims committing suicide as well as stories of awful torment. And in the news we have heard many stories of the serious effects of bullying in high schools and colleges. For too long, bullying has been taking a terrible toll on lives and communities not only with its direct impact but also with the corrosive effect it has on organizations and communities.
I know growing up, I am sure there were times when I either joined in bullying someone verbally or did nothing about it. I regret that knowing what I know today.
Few us of know what it is like to change our walk home to avoid people, or to stay home from school because we are scared of violence, or to be humiliated via the internet, or to be constantly harassed for physical features. The results are injuries, stress, decline in grades or extra-curricular performance, isolation, depression and worse. We know that young people can start to feel like there is no future beyond what is happening in the present. Often it is hard for them to imagine getting through being bullied – especially if they are suffering in complete or relative silence. Our young people can be bullied at school or at home – and the scars can last for decades. Some people, years later, still feel the sting of being rejected or shunned by “popular” people when they were in school.
It’s real. And it’s not just happening to young people. It happens to adults too – in the workplace and in homes. For adults, who are usually able to see beyond the present circumstances, there are additional pressures – mortgages, families, the cost of relocating, professional reputation and others all weigh on adults who feel they have to stay in and tolerate abusive conditions. Families, companies, organizations and communities only lose in the short and long term when adult harassment and bullying is not dealt with.
For me, at various times in my life, I have experienced bullying. Ranging from growing up and being harassed about physical features, to being threatened by a state senator for (truthful) comments (as part of my job) I made in the media about his political allies. Unfortunately, most of my bullying experiences have come from churches and in particular by so called “church leaders” including – harassment, threats, slander, humiliation, undermining, and shunning (including shunning my wife). Believe me, as a leader, I understand dealing with opposition and obstacles – this was not that. When people want to, Christians or not, they can make a school, workplace, church or community a very uncomfortable place for others. I want to say today that I stand in solidarity with anyone who is (or has been) being bullied and to testify that you can endure and survive it. And I can also attest that it is one of the worst experiences in the world – the powerlessness, the disbelief, the self-doubt, the betrayal and more – faith or not.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the bullies’ tactics is when leaders and “by-standers” know what is happening and either do nothing and/or blame the target(s). Sometimes targets speak up, confront bullies and document what is happening and inform “authorities;” and sometimes they are unable. Young people and adults know this feeling of watching school officials, leaders, friends, “brothers and sisters” even, turn the other way, deny or wonder why the targets didn’t say “more.” Often bullies and abusive systems will try to confuse, deceive and distract people from what really happened to avoid responsibility. All of this sadly is indicative of cowardice, pride, love of the status-quo, or just plain dysfunction in the given system or community.
But take heart in these words from Scripture, “Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you (Isaiah 41:11-13).”
I know so often it doesn’t feel like it. I know you feel like there are no answers. But I want to encourage anyone suffering in a bullying situation or trying to heal from one – God is with you and he will not forsake you. Furthermore, God has a future for you, a future of hope – bullies and/or communities cannot undo it.
At the same time, I just want to offer some solutions for schools, companies, churches and communities. First, if there is no truth about bullies, their targets and bullying episodes, there will be no healing. Schools, churches and companies can and often do try to cover it up, but it won’t work. Sometimes the calculation is made that “moving on” will cost less than “upsetting” everyone with the truth. False. The truth about bullying may be ugly and upsetting, but only when there is accountability, consequences, understanding and restoration can the body or system respond in ways that are healthy and life-giving. Because guess what – bullies and bullying systems don’t just stop after one target – and that’s just one target people may know about. If there is anything that we have learned in the last few decades about leadership – it is that credibility and dealing with issues head-on, no matter what the cost, is effective, builds trust (over time) and leads to a more secure future.
Second, bullying is not just about individuals and communities – it’s a justice issue. Tolerating bullying is unjust and means that a school, church or community is operating for the few or for the “self.” Whatever you want to call them – the popular, the elites, the righteous – may be working in your school, church, company or community for the benefit of themselves and will protect it aggressively. Yet, when people are working against bullying and not tolerating it, it means that a school, church, company or community is committed to justice for all. And I would add, speaking theologically and spiritually, a church that is rife with bullying and division is a body of believers that does not have Jesus Christ at the center – Jesus, among other things, is about unity and justice – when these are not visible and not working – neither is He.
At Brian’s DARE graduation, legislators reminded us that New Jersey now has the toughest school bullying laws in the United States – very commendable. The laws include raising awareness, stiff penalties for bullies as well as for schools that tolerate it – that’s justice.
Likewise, schools, churches, companies and communities can be places of justice – it starts when everyone is valued equally, when injustice is dealt with openly and effectively and there is a commitment to a shared purpose and mission.
Rev. Christopher B. Wolf
Christopher B. Wolf is pastor of First Reformed Church of Saddle Brook, New Jersey. He is the author of Giving Faith a Second Chance: Restarts, Mulligans and Do-Overs (2007) and the forthcoming, With You Every Step of the Way (2011).
“It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.” N.T. Wright