Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.
In a study published last Wednesday, the effects both of being bullied or being a bully were found to last well into adulthood (including, but not limited to, a severe increase of anxiety disorder, depression, suicide, and panic attacks). According to the New York Times, “bullying is not a harmless rite of passage, but inflicts lasting psychiatric damage on a par with certain family dysfunctions.” In a sense, the psychological effects of bullying are on par with sustained, severe child abuse.
As someone who has not been the victim of childhood bullying, this news is eye-opening. I, much like the church, have kept a wide distance from the topic. I have never heard a sermon on bullying, nor have I read any books or seen many members of my Christian community interact on the topic of bullying. As I finished the article, stunned by the cruel realities of the world and how much I had distanced myself from them, I wondered why I so rarely hear this talked about. What is it about the subject of bullying that the larger Christian community finds so hard to engage with?
For myself, I know my lack of awareness and empathy comes from living a very different experience. I grew up in a fairly conservative home, and I was home schooled up until 11th grade. I lived in either rural or sheltered suburban environments, and most of my friends were similarly schooled at home or in small private Christian institutions. In my own experience, I never saw an instance of bullying, either first or second-hand. It simply wasn’t an issue for me, safe and secure in my Christian bubble, filled with AWANAS and youth meetings and positive music alternatives. But for many children, including those within the church, vicious taunts and jokes were their every day experience.
Another reason the church has been slow to respond to the issue might stem from who we perceive to be the objects of bullying. While Christians might think themselves the persecuted minority in America, the truth is that most of the more visible forms of childhood bullying center around not differences in religion, but differences in social acceptability: being overweight, ugly, socially awkward, or not conforming to strict gender norms.
It is the last one that has gotten a fair amount of media attention, and which the church has failed to address in any meaningful way. When the “It Gets Better” videos went viral, the church was silent. When Lady GaGa becomes an international pop star, due in a large part by her acceptance of outcasts and freaks—calling them her “beautiful monsters”, we are merely befuddled. When nearly every episode of Glee centers around a song-and-dance number on the importance of accepting ourselves, we roll our eyes and click off the TV.
But to ignore the very real issue of childhood bullying is both dangerous and lacking in what marks us as Christians—our love. Perhaps we have largely ignored the issue of bullying because it highlights a fact that most of us in the church do not want to confront: that there are large sections of our society that are being told, day after day, that they are not valuable. And we are letting it happen.
Words matter. To the ones being bullied, the church has a chance to step up and say: “I’m sorry for the words you have heard. We are here to tell you about the One who made you, who loves you and has a place for you in his kingdom”. The church, more than Dan Savage or Lady Gaga, should be at the forefront of the anti-bullying message. Do we not believe the Good News? Do we not believe that “It Gets Better?” Do we not see a place in the church for all the “beautiful monsters” of our world? If we don’t believe that, then our silence makes sense.
But I do believe it. I believe that within Christ’s kingdom, there is a place for all the outcasts. That through his perfect, redeeming love, we are all called to His presence. I believe in Jesus our high priest, who identifies with every suffering, including bullying, whom we can approach in all confidence, assured of finding grace and mercy.
So let’s watch videos like these, and seek to understand the lasting pain and hurt of words. Let’s be vigilant in our own communities, paying special attention to how our children interact with others. Let us seek to identify with those on the fringes of society, instead of ignoring their hurt and pain. Let us be the first to say we are sorry for their pain, to hold megaphones on the front-lines of the anti-bullying movement, to asses our own tendencies to ostracize those that we don’t understand.
But most of all, let us point to a radical Love that truly changes everything. There is a kingdom coming where the meek and the mild, the hungry and the sad, the poor and the persecuted, will be the heralds of God’s rule and reign on the earth. Jesus himself told us so: it gets better. The kingdom is coming; the kingdom is already here.