a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice (Isaiah 42:3)
I arrived at primary school aged 4, one of the youngest and therefore smallest in my class, to add to that I came with ginger hair and asthma, by aged 10 I had added a serious eye condition and thick NHS glasses to the target.. A lot of the other kids new each other already. On day one, a gang was formed and a leader appointed. I wasn’t in it. So a long period of bullying started that only really abated when my dad decided to teach me to box . So one day I hit the lead bully back. I was escorted off whilst the dinner ladies stood and cheered me! It was a temporary victory, there were more battles ahead with the other bullies and at middle school, one teacher when I disagreed with her about evolution took it upon herself to join with the bullies making my life miserable in the classroom as well as in the schoolyard. I learnt that year that adults are not always your friend. It was only when I got to upper school aged 13 that the bullying stopped. It was a rough school but also a diverse enough place for everyone to be themselves, rub along and make friends. Plus I was clever and so protection was there from the real tough guys in return for homework help!
A lot of us have experienced bullying in life, often at school and so we come into church and we hope that we will find a safe and loving place. Yet it is not always like that. Whilst I have never seen or experienced physical violence in church contexts, I have seen how easily cliques form that exclude those who don’t fit in. In conservative evangelical culture this has centred around the class system expressed through belonging to the right church, knowing or being related to the right people and attending the right camps. In other contexts gang law is preferred to New Testament models for church relationships with the alpha male deciding who is in, who is out and where they rank.
I have met people driven out of churches by whole interconnected groups of church members. They have shown me the spiteful face-book comments gossiping about them sent between church members who should have been in bed sleeping. Meanwhile church leaders are subject to whispering campaigns stoked up by people outside of their church.
However, I always assumed that as horrendous as this psychological bullying is, that it was primarily cultural, primarily carried out in ignorance and that evangelical Christians would not resort to physical abuse. How wrong I was. A series of high profile cases, ritual punishment beatings, sexual assault, domestic violence, coerced homoerotic behaviour have disavowed us of this belief. These cases do not come from the usual suspects, prosperity preachers, TV evangelists and dodgy Catholic priests. No, we are talking about mainstream evangelicalism.
At this point, it is worth noting some key characteristics of bullies,
- Bullies are cowards and often operate in groups. This also enables them to believe that they are in the right because their victims are in the minority and can be outvoted. In church, this means that the “two witnesses” principle is used against the victim.
- Bullies are legalists. They are quite happy to flout God’s law themselves and will find means to justify their own behaviour. At the same time they hope that their persistent digging at their victims will lead to the day when the victim breaks so that they can accuse them of something. This enables them to inflict further penalties.
- Bullies are still people made in God’s image, fallen and marred who desperately need the gospel.
Now let’s take these in turn.
Bullies are cowards and often operate in Groups
This is important when considering our response to recent scandals. The phrase that has struck home to me so vividly is that rotten apples really do grow on trees. Bullies are operating in a culture, in an environment. Think of the school where the corridors are oppressive, graffiti remains on the walls, vandalism is left unrepaired and (yes this is a specific example) the toilet doors don’t lock. Don’t be surprised if this environment breeds bullying. Bullies have enablers and protectors. Furthermore, quite often it isn’t the masterminds of the operation who get caught. They are happy (to borrow a phrase) to throw others under the bus. Bullies come with their henchmen, loyal supporters who enjoy being in their company and happy to do their dirty work for them.
So, we cannot simply assume that one or two rotten apples have been exposed and all is okay. This is particularly pertinent when history keeps repeating itself. Self-examination both individually of the habits we have picked up and corporately of the culture we have allowed and imbibed is painful but necessary.
Bullies are legalists
There are two important things to remember here. First, as I have argued elsewhere, The Law, whether the law of the land or Torah is not in and of itself a friend of legalism. So make sure you know the law. The legalistic bully will be quick to impose their own harsh standards on you and resort to legal methods such as NDAs but also try to talk you out of seeking legal remedy. First of all remember that Paul’s teaching on lawsuits has nothing to do with submitting to criminal law. Secondly, whilst you may opt not to seek specific legal remedies, the church should match and better the legal standards of the land not fall below them.
Secondly, remember that the Biblical Law is intended to point us to and draw us to the grace of the Gospel. So allow yourself to be drawn to the Gospel and if you are counselling the victims of bullying apply the Gospel to them. This is where they will find healing.
Bullies are still made in the image of God
Which means that they too need the Gospel. We pray for them. We seek to remind them of the Gospel. However, what we do not do is ignore or cover up their sins. Rather it is through genuine repentance and turning to the cross that their sins will be covered over by Christ. It does mean that we don’t resort to bullying tactics against them. It means that no human enquiry or disciplinary and restoration process will really cure the bully’s heart. Only Christ can do that.
Having experienced bullying myself, I have learnt a couple of things. First that forgiveness is vital but also painful. It takes time and cannot be imposed. Secondly that bullies need to be stood up to, wherever we encounter them. I know what it feels like to be isolated and on your own, where no-one has your back against the bullies. I know what it means when someone steps in and says “I’ve got your back.” Most of all I know that only the good shepherd has every truly and perfectly got your back.