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Healing, forgiveness, and redemption

Joseph Forgives His Brothers, by the Providence Lithograph Company (http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart/1907/gen45.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of connecting with Stephanie Drury (of Stuff Christian Culture Likes) through an online community we both belong to.  I’ve long appreciated what she has to say because even though I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, she’s one of the people who comes closest to expressing more or less where my own faith is right now.  I don’t have the history of spiritual (and other) abuse she’s endured; my stay in the conservative evangelical world was comparatively short and uneventful.  My leaving was mostly for the sake of my children.  I saw enough to know that even in the best-intentioned evangelical spheres, abuse is a natural outflow of certain teachings.  It wasn’t something I wanted my children to have long-term exposure to.  Trust me when I say I’d have been happy to foot the therapy bill knowing I could have prevented the damage and didn’t.

That said, yesterday, I read Stephanie’s post, hugo schwyzer’s suicide attempt, the feminist response, and the tension of holding horrible things alongside possiblity.  While again, I don’t agree 100% with everything she says, it resonated with me.  Bear with me as I attempt to explain why, keeping two things in mind:

  1. Stephanie writes from a place of having been harmed.  No one should accuse her of failing to understand what it’s like to be victimized.
  2. I am not writing from that place.  I’m writing from the place of one who has both done the harm and seen the harm.

A lot of people were pretty angry about what Stephanie said in her post.  I understand that.  There was a time when I would have readily jumped on that train.  I have my own experiences with being told to forgive someone who had wronged me–to the point of not being able to express my anger because both Christianity and “psychology” told me that the burden was on me to “own” my reactions.  I wasn’t supposed to hold past misdeeds against people who continued to hurt me.  All of those things are lies; it’s not on me to do anything, and a person’s history does inform his or her present actions.  So believe me when I say I get it that some of what Stephanie said could trigger a lot of feelings.

On the other hand, her post did make me consider two things that are very important for me.  I emphasize that last part because I recognize myself to be pretty near the top of the privilege food chain.  I’m white, I’m cisgender, and I’m straight.  I’m a married stay-at-home-mom (to me, that’s like the height of economic privilege, that I can choose to do what I want).  I’ve never been spiritually abused, though I have a long history of other forms of bullying, and there were certainly abuses in my family.  What Stephanie’s post made me think about wasn’t how I treat those who have wronged me but how I, as a person who has wronged others, have had my own redemption story.

First, I have to really, truly, deeply own my history of fundamentalist ideas.  When I was 15 or 16, I was in the car with a couple of family members.  I cheerfully told them that “sin is sin,” a line I was repeating from church.  They already knew that my church had taught me that gay = sin.  The conversation went like this:

Me: Sin is sin.  One sin is no better or worse than any other.

Family member 1: So, lying and murder are equal.

Me: Yep.

Family member 2: You believe it’s wrong to be gay.

Me: Yes.

Family member 1: So, being gay is as bad as being a rapist.

Me [now very uncomfortable]: Yeah, I guess, but it’s just because all sin keeps us from God.

Family member 2: So I’m as bad as a rapist.

Me: I don’t know. I guess so.

And that’s the most mild and printable of the ways I hurt this person.

Ten years.  It took me ten years to get to a point where I didn’t still believe that.  I have no idea how that particular family member stuck it out with me.  All I can say is that from the time I was old enough to remember, she’s been one of my favorite people in the whole world.  She’s been one of my biggest advocates.  Because she (and other family members, who have also been wonderful) loved me and waited patiently for me, we made it past all that.  I changed.

It’s that belief that people can–and do–change that keeps me blogging.  It keeps me searching for new ways to be an ally and it keeps me reading on Twitter to see where my privilege is showing and what I can do to make it right.  It keeps me searching for justice and my part in it.  It keeps me pointing to the voices of others and asking people to listen.  I express all that in different ways.  Sometimes I’m angry and bold; sometimes I use Scripture; sometimes I write about how deeply I love the people in my life.  I keep going, though, because someone, somewhere may be reading and might just find the spark to change.

The second thing that occurred to me is that I’m a harsh critic of people.  I don’t actually like people very much.  Perhaps that’s the result of my history with peers at school or with some of my family.  It could be because I’m pretty introverted.  I don’t really know.  The problem is that I often have trouble separating what people say and do from who they are.  This is particularly true when those people are public figures.

I have little difficulty accepting and loving ordinary people, even when they aren’t perfect.  The real people in my everyday life get the benefit of my ongoing forgiveness.  My two closest friends (other than my husband) are very different women, but I love them both so, so much.  Have we ever hurt each other?  Sure.  Do we do things the others think are probably bad ideas?  Of course.  But there is a lot of good history that none of us are willing to throw away.  We make things right and we move on.

That can’t be done with these big-name “celebrity” bloggers, pastors, and speakers.  I’m not at all condoning what any of them say or do.  We need to keep calling them out on their behavior because they are doing these big, public things and using their fame to gain followers who will then turn around and do the same things.  We need to stop them.  We need to be angry, we need to be pushy, we need to be bold.  We also need to be gentle and persuasive and kind–not because that’s the “best” way to do it but because our natural personalities make us respond in our own ways.  I cannot imagine some of my fellow bloggers being polite about Mark Driscoll or Hugo Schwyzer’s latest pile of poo.  On the other hand, there are many bloggers I can’t imagine writing a scathingly funny take-down or an angry rant; they normally write very differently than that.

Where we may be able to agree is that we can say what a person is actually doing without assigning motive or making assumptions about who that person is or whether there is any hope for change.  We can say with certainty that Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Hugo Schwyzer, and others have said and continue to say terrible things.  We can worry about their families.  We can tell anyone who will listen in whatever way we need to that their words are damaging.  What we can’t do is know why they do those things or whether they will ever change.

I also feel uncomfortable with name-calling, as that speaks to who or what we think someone is at their core.  I admit to having done this; I imagine that I learned to do it as a child.  My mother used to call me names when she was angry, and I was bullied mostly with name-calling for years.  Whether or not anyone else agrees, I believe no matter what abuse someone has committed or appears to have committed, it is, in fact, bullying to call people steaming piles of shit or assholes or fucktards or douchebags.  I don’t really care that you think it’s not hurting them because they hurt you first or that you’re just expressing your anger.  It’s still not right.  They are humans, not poo or body parts–regardless of the evil things they’ve done.*

There is one place where I strongly disagree with Stephanie (and I hope this does not hurt her, in the same way that I hope not to have hurt others with my words above).  In the specific case of Hugo Schwyzer, his past is applicable.  He may have apologized for what he did, but the fact that he keeps on doing it says volumes more than his apology.  Perhaps he wouldn’t try to kill an intimate partner now, but he isn’t demonstrating respect for women.  This is the same man who penned an article (which I will not link to) about removing a tampon from his soon-to-be ex-wife.  If that’s not a violation of her privacy and her womanhood, I don’t know what is.  If he wants people to stop bringing up his past, then he needs to stop behaving that way in the present.

I know this post is already too long; I hope you’ve stuck with me.  I honestly don’t want to hurt anyone with my words.  As I said near the beginning, this was mostly about the things I believe I’ve done wrong and now wish to amend.  It won’t change the fact that I’m going to continue to use my words to fight injustice.  It does mean that I want to be careful not to conflate actions with unknown motives or words with people.

I’d love to know what you think; leave me a comment and tell me what’s on your mind.

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*I maintain that name-calling can be ok for institutions (which are not thinking/feeling beings) or in certain humorous contexts, such as the post I linked in my News last Friday about being a better douchebag (it wasn’t connected with a specific individual).

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: After-Image

Graphic by the amazing Dani Kelley

I wasn’t able to participate in the first day of Spiritual Abuse Awareness week due to other demands on my time.  I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything today, either.  My experiences are mild compared to the horrific things friends and fellow bloggers have shared, and I believe those people who have survived need safe space to heal.  That sometimes includes people like me, who only feel it like the residual tremors of an earthquake, remaining quiet and letting others tell their stories.  But I had an experience that reminded me that everything has consequences, even if we don’t realize it at the time.  So here is my story about the aftermath of dealing with spiritually abusive people and how deep it can make us bleed.

Last Sunday, the pastor asked to speak to us about our son.

I was on my way in alone; I was playing my violin during the service and had arrived early to practice with the choir.  My husband and children were driving separately.  The pastor stopped me on my way up to the choir loft and said,

I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes in my office after church, about your son.

I must have looked surprised, because she added that it was about his baptism, which is scheduled for the Sunday after Easter.  I nodded and told her that was no problem.  But inside, I was panicking.

That’s not really a healthy response to a conversation with a pastor.

I need to say here that our pastor is a lovely woman.  She is kind and gentle and delivers fantastic sermons.  She has been nothing but loving and warm towards our family, our children in particular.  My daughter warmed to her immediately, which is fairly miraculous–she has discriminating taste in people.  So there are no circumstances under which I should feel threatened or intimidated by this pastor.  Even if I had committed some grave error, I suspect she would handle it with grace.

And yet.

My immediate reaction to anyone in spiritual authority asking to speak to me has become one of fear.  I have learned to expect rebukes rather than positive conversations.  When I realized what had happened, that my response was out of proportion with reality, I was puzzled.  Where in the world did such feelings come from?

I knew that it wasn’t really the result of my experiences as a teenager.  I was a little afraid of the pastor of that church, but I don’t believe that I thought of him as genuinely in authority over me.  I had no sense of church politics or hierarchy; I was in a bubble of Christian youth culture (as much as there actually was back in the late ’80s/early ’90s).  And it certainly didn’t come from the ten years my husband and I spent at our first church as a married couple.  That pastor and his family were like an extension of our own.  We were close, and we remain in touch to this day despite the 3000 miles separating us.

I’m sure you can guess where this is going.  I am not going to sit here and say that I was spiritually abused by our church or the leadership*.  That would be lying, and it would be hurtful to those who are still involved.  But I will tell you this: There were people in authority there who absolutely, unquestionably used intimidation tactics on me and on others.  I was spoken to multiple occasions about my writing, particularly in regard to my feminism and my unwavering stance as an LGBT ally (and once or twice about my parenting).  I was never told I shouldn’t blog or use social media, but I received subtle threats about it more than once.  Additionally, there were a few adults who used my children for the purpose of coercion and “correction.”  (Nothing makes me go all Mama Bear faster than church people using my kids as weapons.)

None of that may sound particularly bad; and perhaps it isn’t.  But taken as a whole, it damaged my sense that pastors and leaders are safe people.  They may not overtly threaten or shun or shout from the pulpit, but they hold power over the people–in large part because they (or the church structure) dictates that they do.  When leaders wield their authority inappropriately, it undermines people’s faith that they can trust them.

This is exactly what happened to me.  I believe that over time, I can–and will–regain my ability to trust, because it wasn’t damaged beyond repair.  But there are others for whom the same cannot be said.  This is unacceptable–not because it’s unacceptable to be non-religious or non-churchgoing, but because the reason for being non-religious or non-churchgoing should never, ever be because it was literally or figuratively beaten out of you.

By the way, the reason the pastor wanted to talk to us was so she could set a time to come to our house to speak to our son about what will happen when he’s baptized, physically and spiritually.  We met last night, and it was good–exactly as I should have expected.

I hope you will read the other stories about spiritual abuse this week.  There are some remarkable survivors out there.  Take the time to get to know them through their words.  And if you have been spiritually abused, please read this excellent post by Caleigh on self-care.  Meanwhile, I’m going to spend some time praying for the strength to trust again.

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*That is not to say that I wasn’t exposed to abusive beliefs or teachings; I’m speaking specifically here about being directly abused, harassed, threatened, mistreated, intimidated, etc. by pastors, elders, and other leaders in the church.

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For more posts on spiritual abuse, visit these web sites:

Wine & Marble: Spiritual Abuse Day 1

Joy in this Journey: Spiritual Abuse Day 2

 

Why bullying matters

By Lphip003 at en.wikibooks [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Trigger warning for bullying.

A new study states that the effects of bullying have long-lasting effects on the survivors.  According to the New York Times article on the report,

Victims of bullying at school, and bullies themselves, are more likely to experience psychiatric problems in childhood, studies have shown. Now researchers have found that elevated risk of psychiatric trouble extends into adulthood, sometimes even a decade after the intimidation has ended. [Read the rest of the post here.]

No. Shit.  Really?

Well, thanks for that, JAMA Psychiatry.  We certainly couldn’t have figured out that adults who were bullied as children might suffer with symptoms of PTSD without your expert help in identifying that fact.  It’s not at all as though those of us who were actually traumatized as children haven’t been saying this, you know, for years or anything.

It really makes me angry that it’s taken so long for the after-effects of bullying to be recognized.  We have networks to help survivors of all sorts of other violent acts, and we acknowledge the trauma that has been suffered–except for bullying.  When it comes to bullying, it is still looked at as a rite of passage.  Victims are still sent to “social skills” classes to learn how not to be “easy targets,” and all of us have heard at least one person say to us, “Just get over it already.”  We’re told that the bullies are to be pitied (and within the church that they deserve “grace”).

I don’t need the New York Times or JAMA Psychiatry to tell me what I already know: Bullying destroys a person from the inside out, and it takes years to break free of the self-loathing.  We internalize the messages of worthlessness and some of us never fully recover.  We have permanent scars, physical and otherwise; some of us don’t make it at all.

I lived it for eight years of my childhood.  I was called names, I was ostracized, I was mocked.  I was punched in the face, smacked with a bag of heavy books, and poked with sharp objects.  I was spit on and had all manner of disgusting substances put in my hair.  I was pantsed in the lunch room.  One kid used to flip open the latch on my musical instrument cases and laugh at me when I told him to stop.  I had a boy in my ninth grade study hall threaten to rape me because “ugly girls deserved it,” and he spent the first five minutes of nearly every study hall touching my thighs and calves under the desk where the teacher couldn’t see.

You know what happened?  Let me list it:

  • I was told to ignore it
  • I had the “sticks and stones” rhyme recited at me
  • I was told I was “thin-skinned” and needed to toughen up
  • I wasn’t believed (after the backpack incident, my father examined me and declared that there were no bruises–i.e., I was lying)
  • I was told that boys who picked on girls “liked” them and I should be flattered (yes, even the rapey guy)
  • I was told it would pass
  • I was told it wasn’t that bad
  • I was called a complainer
  • I had several teachers laugh at what the kids did to me
  • I had to ask for my seat to be moved on more than one occasion, rather than having another student moved or told to stop

So does this produce trauma?  Yes.  And I hardly need some study to confirm what I could have told the researchers in a five-minute phone call.

I think one of the worst parts of this is that my experiences were mild compared to some of my classmates.  As bad as it was, I used to be grateful not to be some of the other victims.  I’m ashamed to admit that while I didn’t bully any of them, I did nothing to help them.  I was too busy trying to survive and I feared that my situation would worsen.  I have no excuse; I should have stepped in anyway.

If you want to know why I’m so passionate about being part of making sure we take down institutions that enable person-on-person aggression of any sort, this is why.  It’s not about “accepting” the “other.”  It’s not about being kind to people in spite of our differences.  It’s about respecting the humanity of each and every person and teaching our children to do the same.  When that becomes our starting point, then there will be no “others”; only people.

Why we need to speak up

By Adamantios, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, this post received a lot of attention.  The author, Lore Ferguson, urges Christians to focus more on their local congregations and less on what big-name pastors like Mark Driscoll are saying or doing:

I don’t go to Mark Driscoll’s church. I don’t have to concern myself with how he teaches the book of Esther or how Mars Hill handles church discipline or how threadbare his tshirt is.

I don’t go to Rob Bell’s former church. I don’t need to worry about how progressive the service or teaching is there or how cool his glasses are.

I don’t go to John Piper’s church. His hand motions don’t affect me and the size of his congregation doesn’t bear on me.

I don’t go to Rick Warren’s church. I’ve never read The Purpose Driven Life and the main purpose of my life is drink more coffee, so that’s good enough for me.

I go to my church. I am covenanted in there. I am knit there. I seek theology first in the Word and second from my pastors. I trust there. I am trusted there. They rightly have the most influence on me and I trust that even with all the influence I might have elsewhere, the most influence I have is there. At my church.

To a point, she is correct.  We absolutely need to make sure that our primary connection (if we attend a church) is to the one in which we serve locally.  However, she is wrong that we don’t need to concern ourselves with what well-known leaders are doing or teaching.

The first thing that it’s important to note is that Lore attends a church that is part of the Acts 29 Network.  I believe she should have put a disclaimer on her post stating such.  While Mark Driscoll is not the president of the Network, he is still affiliated with it and it was originally his baby.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the theology of an individual church within the Network differs significantly from that of the Mother Ship.  One would hope that the abusive practices of Mars Hill have not trickled down, but there are definitely some teachings that are concerning.

The other problem that I have is that Lore seems to be unaware of the influence Pastor Mark has on church leaders across the country.  The practices at Mars Hill are indeed being implemented at smaller, local churches.  People are looking to Pastor Mark for guidance and reading his books.  This is not a good thing.  I would not suggest that every word he’s ever written is terrible, but the overarching themes in his books, sermons, and comments are all of the same variety.  If we want to stop the poison from spreading, it is absolutely our responsibility to inform people before they walk into a book store to purchase one of his texts.  Local pastors need to be aware of the underlying hostility and abuse.

I am distinctly uncomfortable with Lore’s assertion that “God has this, He’s on His throne, His eyes on His children. He’s got this.”  It sounds to me like a bit of magical thinking.  I’ve heard this one before–we don’t have to do anything except pray, because God will take care of it.  Now why does that sound so familiar?  Oh, yes.  It can be found in James:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? [James 2:14-17, The Message]

It most certainly is our job to do something.  Anything else is merely an attempt to assuage our discomfort and avoid getting our hands dirty.

The fact is, real, live people are being hurt and abused directly and indirectly by Mark Driscoll and his teachings.  Speaking out is not “gossip” any more than speaking about rape or child abuse or domestic violence or hate crimes is “gossip.”  The only way to prevent more people from suffering is to name the abuse and affirm that it is wrong.  We need to ask ourselves why there is an entire web site devoted to people sharing the ways they have been harmed by leaders at Mars Hill.  We need to read the stories of abuse and shame and we need to get angry that someone who claims to be speaking God’s truth is getting away with actively harming people.

There are two other things we must do.  First, we need to examine why we feel uncomfortable when we hear stories of deep hurt coming out of churches.  If we conclude that it’s because we don’t like “bad-mouthing” leaders, then we need to go back and read Jesus’ words to the Pharisees–and lather, rinse, repeat until we understand that it is not the hurting that Jesus called out, it was those who claimed to speak for God. If we conclude it’s because those people must have “wrong” theology or that the abuse they suffered was somehow their fault, then there are bigger problems we need to work out about victim blaming and our own personal doctrine.

Second, we need to stop defending Pastor Mark (and others like him).  We need to stop saying things like, “Well, he’s just cashing in on his shock value–it’s what he does” and start realizing that this is not a healthy way to spread the Gospel.  I’m not going to stop pushing back on this.  I refuse to sit here in silence, even though I don’t attend a church remotely related to Acts 29 and even though I can’t fathom a reason our pastor would ever pick up one of his books.  There are people I know personally (including myself) who have been deeply wounded in one way or another by the implementation of Mark Driscoll’s abusive teaching.  I will not sit idly by and watch more people’s lives be destroyed.

If I sound angry, it’s because I am.  I am angry that we have let this go on too long.  If I can do anything–anything at all–to stop this from continuing, then I will.  I will speak until I have no voice and write until I run out of words, but I won’t stop or back down as long as anyone is allowed to continue to spiritually abuse people in the name of my God.

It’s ok to call someone names if they deserve it.

This one is going around again.  Maybe it’s because it’s the start of a new school year.  Who knows?  Instead of passing it along on Facebook or Twitter, I think I’ll do what I do best: pick it apart.

At first, this looks pretty good.  I mean, it’s absolutely true that people get picked on by people who don’t know them.  But when I look deeper, I see something disturbing about it.  There’s an underlying message that probably wasn’t intended, but is an unfortunate side effect.

It’s not okay to bully people for things that aren’t true, but otherwise it’s fine.

It’s not good to call a virgin a slut, but maybe you can get away with it if she really is sleeping with a bunch of guys.

We shouldn’t assume that pregnancy was the result of consensual sex, but if it was, we can mock her.

If we see the fat girl eating potato chips, it’s a good idea to bully her into eating the way we think she should.

Best not to physically assault someone who is abused at home, but they’re fair game if their home life is stable.

You can call a kid “lame” if you want, as long as you make sure he’s not the sole source of his family’s income.

It’s fine to make fun of people with disfiguring scars, unless they’ve served in the military.

See, we don’t really need to know someone’s story.  We don’t need to know the history of another person in order to treat him or her with dignity.  Respect doesn’t depend on what someone else has or hasn’t done.  The message of this “anti-bullying” picture isn’t one of treating others with honor.  It’s about continuing to judge others—their actions, their motives, their bodies.

I’m also uncomfortable with the “RIP” at the beginning of the message.  While it’s true that sometimes bullied teens take their own lives, two other things are also true:  Not all bullied kids are suicidal and not all suicidal adolescents have been bullied.  It doesn’t address the problem in a healthy way.  Instead of generating concern that leads to finding solutions, it only encourages pity.

There are better ways to address the serious social problems our young people are facing.  We can start by being the kind of people who teach our own kids to hold others in high regard, to respect them regardless of their physical appearance or their personality quirks or what we’ve heard about their behavior.  We can also help our kids recognize signs in their friends that they might need help.  These are not issues that can be resolved by reposting pictures on the Internet.

The Victim Is Responsible?

I was at my son’s school today and picked up a few packets of parent information.  Most of it was the typical stuff, a couple of recipe books, school news, that kind of thing.  There was also a newspaper-type thing.  This month’s issue was all about bullying.  Since I have a particular interest in the topic, I thought I’d check it out and see what it was.

The first page was all about some multi-page document outlining a full bullying-prevention program.  The rest was devoted to providing exercises and activities related to bullying, presumably for use in the classroom.

The first couple of sets of exercises were impressive.  There were several scenarios, with discussion questions throughout each situation.  Questions included the type of bullying and how the child might have been feeling.  Each scenario ended with the sentence, “It was not _____’s fault that s/he was bullied.”  There were also some great questions for kids about identifying their own feelings and using healthy responses to feelings.

Despite the outward appearance of being a great tool, I had some concerns about the material.  There was a list in the front of the magazine which outlined types of bullying and the degree of concern each deserved.  I had no problem with the lists, for the most part.  Obviously teasing, while mean-spirited, is not life-threatening; flashing a knife is.  However, I disagree that racism is the only potential hate crime.  I saw no mention of violence or threats based on gender or sexuality.  I realize this is a publication for elementary school students, but are the authors of the magazine that clueless?  Surely experts on bullying are aware that kids are already being singled out for harassment, even at such a young age.

My second concern was with material presented later on in the magazine.  While the authors were careful to point out that bullying is not the victim’s fault, they made it clear that the victim is (at least partially) responsible for ending it.  Now, I’m all for kids standing up for themselves.  But that can be hard to do, especially if you feel that there isn’t anyone on your side.  It’s easier to assert yourself in the company of friends who care about you.  But that won’t happen for a kid who feels that he or she has no one to support him or her.

We’ve come a long way from the days of assuming it’s entirely the victim’s fault.  But why, oh why, don’t we stop excusing the perpetrators?  It reminds me of all those seminars for women on how not to be victimized.  Yeah, that’s right, ladies–don’t wear “sexy” clothes, don’t drink booze, and make sure you say no loud and clear.  Huh, so it’s not the guy’s fault that he’s a jerk?  Kid, make a wisecrack when someone insults you and ignore what those kids are whispering about you.  Never mind the fact that no one has the right to be cruel to another person.  When are we going to stop making excuses and start holding kids accountable for harassing others?

In my experience, and that of many other kids, bullying doesn’t get better just because you’re assertive.  It doesn’t get better just because you tell an adult what’s happening, either.  For many kids, it continues to get worse.  And when kids take their own lives over it, parents are beginning to demand someone pay.

Why let it get to that point?  If we stop it, if we create a culture of respect, kids will treat one another accordingly.  This is what we need to expect in our schools.

Sticks and Stones

Yesterday, I was peacefully sitting in Dunkin Donuts, sipping my coffee and doing some writing  (working on yesterday’s blog post and fooling around with some character development for a short story) while waiting for my daughter’s dance class to finish.  I had the misfortune of having my quiet morning interrupted by two men discussing their political views.

I use the term “discussing” loosely.  It was closer to one of the men exploding, while the other sat silently (except for the incessant ringing of his phone).  I was mostly able to tune it out, until the one man said, loud enough for all of Dunkin Donuts to hear, “Anyone they put up has a chance to finally get that a**hole out of there.”  Having heard the rest of the conversation, I was already aware that the “a**hole” to whom he was referring was President Obama.  He followed by offering his opinions on the best candidates, emphasizing that the few women he mentioned were, in some way, either too stupid or too weak for the job.

I found myself, besides just feeling irritated that I had to be in earshot of the conversation, upset by the tone.  It’s true, I don’t always agree with whatever those in government say or do.  But to resort to name-calling?  That doesn’t help anyone.

When we resort to name-calling, we reduce people to no more than the things about them we dislike.  We separate ourselves from them by reminding ourselves that we are not those things.  It makes it easier to fuel hate and anger when we are able to think about someone else as less.  Not only that, we justify ourselves.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to call someone an a**hole if he’s acting like one (or, at least, what we think one acts like).  And let’s be clear on this, Christians are no better about this than anyone else.  Sometimes, we’re worse.

It’s no wonder that our children call each other names at school.  It’s no wonder that our youth are depressed enough to commit violent acts against themselves and others.  When we, the adults, cannot set a better example, then what hope have we?  We can institute anti-bullying rules, campaign against name-calling, and even blame the victims.  None of it does any good if our children are hearing us dehumanize others.

One thing we need to keep in mind is that no matter a person’s behavior, he or she is still a person.  That carries with it the necessary understanding that even “a**holes” are created in the image of G-d and loved by the G-d who became flesh and died for us.  We can still dislike things a person does; but we must separate that from who the person is and teach our children to do the same.

Another Tragedy

Forgive me, words are failing me this morning.  I have just seen in my Twitter feed and on Facebook yet another article chronicling the senseless death of yet another one of our young people.  You can read about the tragic suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer here and here.  Pay particular attention to the first two comments on the Buffalo News site.  Neither shows much compassion for the victim, only the same tired arguments about “Christian values” being missing from our schools.

I am torn up over this.  Why?  Because I know that my own people—my fellow Christians—have a hand in these deaths.  You may be wondering how I arrived at that conclusion.  You may be thinking, “But I never bullied a gay kid.”  Perhaps not.  But by the attitudes and beliefs regarding homosexuality perpetuated by many conservative evangelicals, the church has indeed contributed.

Week after week, many Christians perpetuate myths about GLBT people.  These include that “most” were sexually abused as young children, that their “issues” come from having an absent/weak father and overbearing mother, that they weren’t instructed as children to be “real” men or women, that they are promoting vile, destructive, and perverted lifestyles and activities, and that they are “abominations.”  If you think that Westboro Baptist’s “God Hates F*gs” sign-waving is an isolated thing, try again.  While most Christians would see that behavior as over-the-top, the sentiment isn’t unusual.

Day after day, Christians sit at work, at home, and in churches failing to do anything to stem the tide.  By our silence, we allow the bullying to continue.  We sit by and shake our heads at how kids have “become like animals” because we “teach them they came from monkeys.”  But we do nothing to protect these youths who are desperate for acceptance and love.

My charge to you today is this: Do something!  Do not sit back and watch this happen even one more time.  Create safe space.  Teach your children that no matter what your religious beliefs, it is not okay to harass another person.  Be the love someone needs today.  Help your children learn to stand up for kids who are being tormented at school.  Do it yourself—refuse to listen to the misguided teaching at church about the origins of homosexuality.

Please, please listen and love your kids.  Support them.  Find it in your heart to lay aside your personal feelings.  Jamey’s parents loved and supported him, yet he still took his own life.  Imagine the pain of the kids whose parents could not accept having a gay child.  Hear your children when they tell you that they are being bullied and demand that something be done to stop it.

Not even one more person should have to die to escape the pain.

Bullying

Bullying is bad.

Well, there’s a way to start a post with an obvious statement.  But I think you know what I mean.

Today, my kid confessed that back when a kid was teasing him at school, this kid told him he should “just go kill yourself.”  Nice, huh?  I wonder where a seven-year-old learned that particular phrase.  Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, at least for now.  J is now friends with this boy.  I’ve met him; he’s not a bad kid.  He was polite, his mom is a sweetheart, and J has a great time playing with him.  It seems strange to think this is the kid who spent a month teasing J.  We were also fortunate that J’s teacher is good enough to spot bullying and didn’t tolerate it in his classroom.

Not all kids are so lucky.

This is the kind of thing that goes on every day, in classrooms all across the country.  And it’s not limited to classrooms or schools.  It happens on playgrounds and in other recreational settings.  I’ve had to tell my kids on more than one occasion that they should stay away from certain kids on the playground because they are teasing other kids.  My nephew has a couple of boys that live in his neighborhood and have picked on him in his own house.  It took months before the whole situation came to light because they were just sneaky enough to do it where the adults couldn’t hear.

Which is, of course, what most kids do.  They carry out their bullying in much more subtle ways than beating up another kid, and they do it where and when parents or teachers are not listening: Hallways, bathrooms, playgrounds; sly notes, whispers during lessons, even in a kid’s own bedroom, apparently.  I can remember being called names for years, and even when I told my teachers, they either didn’t believe me or brushed it aside as “kids will be kids.”  I was often told to toughen up or ignore the bullies.

These days, it’s also popular to sympathize with the bully.  It’s true, we need to love our enemies.  But often the victim is pushed aside in favor of offering “psychological help” to the perpetrators.  This may come partly from the mistaken idea that bullies all come from broken homes or have abusive parents.  While that is certainly true some of the time, it doesn’t explain everything.  Some kids are just mean to others regardless.  The kids who picked on me came from stable homes, for the most part.  Which only made it harder, actually, because it meant that I took it to heart that there must be something wrong with me if the “normal” kids said so.  In fact, I once had an adult suggest as much–that the other kids should be kinder to me even though I was “different.”  (I was never exactly clear on how I was different.)

And what about when the adults are the problem?  I’ve worked in schools and my husband is a teacher, so we’ve seen it happen.  A teacher develops a dislike for a certain student and creates tension for that child.  We’ve seen teachers discipline students over make-believe incidents.  I recall one student who had stomach aches for an entire year because he was convinced his teacher didn’t like him.  I tried to remain non-committal, but it was difficult, given that I knew for a fact that his teacher had expressed dislike for him.  I recall another student who was mocked by several teachers who all claimed it was “in good fun.”  I know some teachers who say rude things about the (lack of) intelligence of their students and who seem to have very little clue about developmental stages.

Sadly, it doesn’t go away as adults.  It concerns me when I see this kind of thing happening.  I have seen people publicly speak about how we need to be more patient and kind in out interactions with the world, such as showing patience with a slow clerk in the grocery store.  Five minutes later, the same person is refusing to associate with certain types of people during social time after worship.  Not everyone outgrows the stage where they see themselves as better than others.

There is no clear answer for this problem.  Sure, I could pull my kid out of school and go back to teaching him at home.  I will do that, if he’s ever bullied or harassed to the point of being miserable or not wanting to go to school.  But I’d rather that he have a good public education without being victimized.  Is that too much to ask?

Competitive Spirit

I am not an especially competitive person.  My husband is.  We learned quickly how to make that work for us in our marriage.  I think this is likely due to his easygoing and adaptable nature.  I learned how to win graciously (I am definitely the type to let other people win if it will make them happy, despite the fact that I’m not a people-pleaser).  My husband learned how to lose graciously (he wasn’t much fun to be around when he was on the losing end, particularly when watching professional sports).

Something that has been nagging at me lately is the way loving, generous, kind Christians can turn into rather hateful beasts when it comes to competition, most often related to professional sports.  I often hear comments (or see them in print) that are in sharp contrast to Christ-like behavior.  They range from name calling to derogatory comments to declarations of “hate” for a rival team.  People teach their children to express the same negativity.  They make excuses for their behavior by saying it’s “all in fun.”

Really?  You could have fooled me.  Perhaps my definition of “fun” is vastly different from my friends and acquaintances.  I don’t find it fun to attend a sporting event and shout obscenities about the other team every time they make a play.  I don’t find it fun to make hateful statements about rival teams into a Facebook status update.  I don’t find it fun to teach my children on Sunday morning to turn the other cheek, but qualify it Sunday afternoon at the ball park by teaching them that the opponents “suck.”

The thing is, I do understand friendly rivalry.  As far as I can tell, this is actually how the players themselves view the game.  After all, they could be playing for that team following a trade.  I understand wanting to win and wanting to see your favorite team succeed.  That’s what makes the game exciting.  I even understand disappointment when it doesn’t happen.  My husband and I have a joke that we can’t go see the Yankees play live, because they lose every time we do.  The difference is that we keep a better handle on what comes out of our mouths.

There are three things we ought to keep in mind.  First, minding our tongues is a pretty common exhortation in the Bible.  Our words can hurt or they can heal.  Even if we have reduced a sports team to an entity, it is still made up of people.  I am sure that most professional athletes are used to it, but I can imagine that it is pretty tiresome to hear your team’s name twisted into a derogatory term, for example.  We also might consider what our aim is when we speak that way.  Is it to appear cool?  Are we trying to show loyalty to our team?  In either case, using nasty words and foul language about the other guy doesn’t further those goals.  Simply put, it isn’t nice and it isn’t what the Bible tells us to do.

Second, we should, as Christians, always be in the business of considering the other person.  Imagine how it would feel if you were at your daughter’s soccer game and the parents of the rival team members were calling your daughter and her teammates “stupid sluts”?  (That shouldn’t be hard to imagine, actually, as it does really happen.)  How would you feel?  How about if someone shouted obscenities and told your son to “go home, you suck!” when he stepped up to bat at his Little League game?  Is this the behavior we want to encourage?  Aiming those comments at professional athletes is no more appropriate than aiming them at children.  And failure to watch our mouths, even when it’s “all in fun,” demonstrates that we haven’t moved beyond foolish schoolyard bullying.

Third, what kind of example do we want to be for our children?  If we expect them to play sports with respect for the competition, we might try doing the same with our favorite teams.  It isn’t wrong for competitive people to go after a goal.  Playing sports is a great outlet for that spirit in kids, and it can shape their ability to do the same as adults in other areas of life.  But teaching our kids to hate their competitors isn’t a wise move and it doesn’t help them sharpen their skill in respectful rivalry.  Like it or not, our kids are sponges for our words and deeds.  Even when we think we are being “private,” kids pick up on our attitudes.  We need to use care.

If we are called to be mindful of our speech in other areas of our lives, then it stands to reason we ought to do the same when it comes to our pastimes and pleasures, too.  Today, let’s consider how we can lift others up with our words–even when they are our “enemies” on the playing field.