Abuse, bullying and slander – a war of attrition

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When it comes to concerns about abuse and bullying I think we can identify the following types of context

  • Clear examples of coercive, cruel and manipulative behaviour
  • Clear examples of false accusation
  • One off but significant failures
  • The reality that all of us are finite and fallen and consistently get things wrong in terms of our behaviour towards each other

Only the first category could truly be called abusive. However, before we move on, I think it is worth identifying a 5th category. Some bullying and abuse doesn’t come in extreme and overt forms.  It might be helpful to go to the football field. In football, there were often the notorious hardmen who were unafraid to go in strong in the tackle, even if it led to a foul, booking or even a sending off. However, there’s always been another type of play, sometimes referred to as dirty rather than hard. What they would do throughout a game is constantly niggle at the player they were marking, a little nip at the ankles, an elbow extended so you’d run into it and constantly goading, insulting, taunting the player. The aim being to wind up the opponent until they lost their cool. At all times, such a player would stay just under the radar in order to keep out of the referee’s book.

Similarly, classroom teachers will be familiar with students who engage in low level disruption on a continuous basis, a little bit of talking over the teacher, the odd sly comment, constantly turning up a few minutes late. Nothing that would seem enough to earn a detention and yet the disruption would ware down the teacher and the rest of the class over time.

And it can be like that in terms of bullying/abuse in the workplace or even sadly in church.  In the church context, there wouldn’t be anything that would obviously lead to church discipline or a safe guarding complaint. However over a period of time, the bully might engage in behaviour that woe down others.  This might include for example constant complaints and grumbles behind someone’s back or even jokes or little digs to their face.  Nothing that seemed like an outright accusation, the kind of thing where if the church were to take it seriously it would ask for witnesses, the kind of accusation that if proved false would be a serious matter.

However, the little digs and comments combined with behaviours such as cold shouldering work over time like a war of attrition, gradually undermining the character of the target so they find themselves isolated from others and at the same time wearing down their resilience as they increasingly believe that there must be a problem with them.

This is one of the reasons why I talked about “lads culture” in church the other day but this doesn’t have to be -indeed isn’t unique to men”. It is possible for men or women and mixed groups of both genders to engage in this kind of behaviour.

Whilst we tend to see these things as minor demeanours, not the distinctive and deadly public and serious sin that leads to a 1 Corinthians 5 excommunication, the Bible takes a different view. Have a look at these references:

 “Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly I will destroy. Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.” (Psalm 101:5)

Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. (Proverbs 20:19)

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:20)

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)  

The theme coming through is that people who use their mouths to harm others and cause division are seen as in serious sin, morally foolish and best avoided.   Further Titus is instructed by Paul:

10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. 11 You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)

You will recognise there that the type of language used is in the church discipline category. Again, those who seek to cause harm by divisive behaviour, those who in effect carry out wars of attrition against others in the body are as serious a danger to the health and the life of the church as those who get involved in serious sexual immorality.

Back to my comments in the article on lad culture, this means that there are certain cultures and habits that we should have zero tolerance for, starting with our own lives. It’s important that we recognise their seriousness and don’t downplay them.  When we see it in others it means being willing to challenge such behaviour and to stand up for and alongside those on the receiving end.

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