Adult Bullying, the NFL, and the Kingdom of God

Bullying is in the news again. This time it’s the adult version–and in the NFL, no less, where one would think that a football player would be impervious to bullying. Surely there’s no such thing as bullying a 300+ lb. lineman, right? At that point, isn’t it just pranking, or “boys being boys”? Isn’t it just a by-product of the machismo culture of pro male sports?

Not so much.

Jonathan Martin recently left his team, the Miami Dolphins, when the bullying became too much for him to bear. The story is that, when a

Jonathan Martin from “”

group of players left the lunch table when he tried to join them, he packed his bags and left the team. Turns out, he wasn’t an over-sensitive victim of innocent pranks, as he had been verbally victimized by Richie Incognito, another veteran, pro-bowl teammate.

One voicemail message left by Incognito for Martin (in April 2013) went like this:

Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.

That’s bad. Real bad.

I recently preached a sermon on Matthew 18:6-9. There Jesus jealously talks about the “little ones,” warning that anyone who causes one of them to sin is in danger of judgment: a “millstone” is going to be hung around their necks!  Jesus often spoke of the “little ones” in guarded ways (the “meek” in Matthew 5, the “least of these” in Matthew 25–with whom he identifies his very self, his presence). The little ones are the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outsider, the over-looked.

Bullying is the assertion of power over the “little ones.” It, like any form of abuse, is in direct opposition to the Kingdom way, in which the marginalized and outsider define the center. The outsider helps the rest of us to understand what “Kingdom of God” really means and what God most values.

In an discussion about this bullying incident on K-FAN (Minnesota’s sports talk radio), someone referenced the oft-repeated dictum that “hurt people hurt people.” That’s an important point. We cannot forget that something (either in the past or present–or both) causes the bully to be a bully. They need love too. But they need to be waken up to the reality of the Kingdom, first and foremost. For Jesus, the image of a Millstone seemed an appropriate way to do that.

One might point out that, in Matt. 18, “little ones” refers to disciples of Jesus who, like children, are considered vulnerable, insignificant, and lacking in influence and power. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the principle of protecting little ones, and not causing them to sin (or to turn away from Jesus), extends to “little ones” in general. God has a particular heart for the weak and vulnerable. While it’s hard for us to think of Jonathan Martin as weak and vulnerable, every situation is susceptible to power differentials and abuse of power by one over another (i.e. an NFL veteran over an NFL rookie).

For Jesus, any such abuse of power seems to be serious business. Don’t mess with the “little ones.”

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About Kyle Roberts

(PhD) is Associate Professor of Public Theology and Church and Economic Life, supported by the Schilling Endowment, at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: 2014-10-14 10.26.51Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and a book about the virgin birth (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)