Fac­ing up to the is­sue of bul­ly­ing

The Church of England - - ENGLAND ON SUNDAY - By Pete My­ers

Bul­ly­ing is deadly se­ri­ous, but rarely dis­cussed. This, I would ar­gue, is one of the rea­sons why it is worth re­flect­ing on from a bi­b­li­cal per­spec­tive. In fact, let me give you three good rea­sons why you should con­sider think­ing about this topic in more depth. First, bul­ly­ing is a sig­nif­i­cant theme through­out the Bi­ble, but as I’ve al­luded, it has not re­ceived the at­ten­tion it de­serves. I know of no the­o­log­i­cal book that se­ri­ously en­gages with the theme of bul­ly­ing. I know of few ar­ti­cles that ad­dress the is­sue. I have yet to see a ser­mon spe­cially ded­i­cated to the topic. I have heard many ex­pos­i­tory sermons that fail to touch on bul­ly­ing in a real, se­ri­ous and pas­toral man­ner, even where to my mind the pas­sage would ap­pear to de­mand it.

Sec­ond, bul­ly­ing is per­ceived by many as a “youth and chil­dren’s” is­sue. Per­haps there might be a sem­i­nar on the topic at New Word Alive or a youth work train­ing day, but th­ese will fo­cus on bul­ly­ing as some­thing that hap­pens be­tween chil­dren in large so­cial set­tings, like at school or youth group.

Third, bul­ly­ing oc­curs within the con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­nity. But out of a right con­cern to be gra­cious and “nice” it is not al­ways chal­lenged, con­fronted, and han­dled prop­erly. Of course, bul­ly­ing also hap­pens among charis­mat­ics, open evan­gel­i­cals, An­glo-Catholics and lib­er­als. But I don’t spend much time in those sorts of churches, so I can’t speak into those sit­u­a­tions. The sad re­al­ity is, due to our sin, bul­ly­ing does hap­pen amongst us also, so we need to hear the Bi­ble speak to us about it.

For th­ese rea­sons I would like to briefly in­tro­duce you to this bi­b­li­cal theme, and the in­sight that even a cur­sory glance can be­gin to shed on the real-world re­la­tion­ships you can see all around you. There’s so much more to say on this topic, but for now I hope that this ar­ti­cle might just get you think­ing about bul­ly­ing the­o­log­i­cally, and ap­ply­ing the Bi­ble in fresh ways to the sit­u­a­tions you’re in. Bul­ly­ing as “Op­pres­sion” In the Old Tes­ta­ment, a com­mon He­brew word that has sig­nif­i­cant over­lap with the English word “to bully” is “ashaq.” It is most com­monly trans­lated in the ESV, KJV, and NIV as “op­press.”

While there is much writ­ten on this sub­ject, it is usu­ally from the per­spec­tive of ex­plor­ing the Bi­ble’s so­cial con­cern for the poor and needy. But I want to ar­gue that what the Bi­ble has to say about “ashaq” (op­pres­sion), has much more wide-rang­ing ap­pli­ca­tions to our daily lives than just the is­sue of so­cial ac­tion.

Ec­cle­si­astes 4:1 uses the word three times to de­scribe the idea it of­ten con­veys: Again I saw all the op­pres­sions that are done un­der the sun. And be­hold, the tears of the op­pressed, and they had no one to com­fort them! On the side of their op­pres­sors there was power, and there was no one to com­fort them, (Ecc 4:1, ESV)

The writer of Ec­cle­si­astes is mak­ing an ob­ser­va­tion about the world. As wis­dom lit­er­a­ture, such ob­ser­va­tions are there for us to med­i­tate, re­flect on, and un­pack fur­ther. From my own med­i­ta­tion on this verse, there are three ob­ser­va­tions I want to make about the na­ture of “ashaq” or “op­pres­sion.”

First, the re­la­tion­ships are polem­i­cal. The op­pres­sors and the op­pressed have be­come two dif­fer­ent “sides.” This is what I mean by polem­i­cal: that an “us and them” men­tal­ity has devel­oped, at least in the mind of one party. Not ev­ery polem­i­cal sit­u­a­tion nec­es­sar­ily means some­one is be­ing op­pressed/bul­lied, but for bul­ly­ing to start hap­pen­ing, “us and them” think­ing needs to start first.

The ques­tion to all of us is do we have this sort of thing on our pas­toral radar? Are we in the habit of de­tect­ing and pick­ing up signs of “us and them” think­ing? If not, take note, be­cause where we can see that kind of at­ti­tude be­ing dis­played, it might be the only vis­i­ble sign of a more se­ri­ous pas­toral is­sue go­ing on un­der­neath the sur­face.

I’m sure many of us can quickly think of in­di­vid­u­als who have a ten­dency to see things in an “us and them” way. They tend to ap­proach re­la­tion­ships polem­i­cally, and may find it hard to em­pathise with other peo­ple and see things from their point of view. As a re­sult they will of­ten take an ag­gres­sive tone when deal­ing with oth­ers. This is of­ten how gen­uinely con­verted Chris­tians, who

care deeply about Je­sus and oth­ers, can de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing “bul­lies.” Some­thing that may sad­den them deeply - if only they were aware how they came over to oth­ers. This is why it is so im­por­tant to be self-aware of the oc­ca­sions when we our­selves most tend to fall into “us and them” think­ing.

Se­condly, power is on the side of the op­pres­sor. The op­pressed are weak, or at least weaker, than the op­pres­sor. This ob­ser­va­tion is ex­tremely im­por­tant, as the heart of bul­ly­ing is really in un­der­stand­ing the power dy­nam­ics of re­la­tion­ships.

From one per­spec­tive, bul­ly­ing could be de­fined as us­ing power to put some­one else down in the con­text of an “us and them” re­la­tion­ship. This is worth paus­ing on briefly.

There are some ob­vi­ous ways of mis­us­ing power in this way: Any church leader has power due to their po­si­tion. The dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity in a mar­riage has power over the spouse raised in a qui­eter house­hold. The ed­u­cated and in­tel­li­gent, or those who have re­ceived good church teach­ing, have power over those who don’t share in such gifts.

It is not hard to see how in­di­vid­u­als in a po­si­tion of power might use their ad­van­tage to put oth­ers down. This should come as a warn­ing: the more priv­i­leged or pow­er­ful we are, the more re­spon­si­bil­ity we have to em­pathise with oth­ers.

But, in our churches, peo­ple can ex­er­cise power over oth­ers in more sub­tle ways. Imag­ine, for ex­am­ple, the Bi­ble study leader or Sun­day school teacher who does some­thing that a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual doesn’t like. Per­haps it in­volves some mi­nor mis­take on their part, or a sim­ple mis­un­der­stand­ing. Je­sus is very clear un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances that be­fore talk­ing to any­one else, the ‘of­fended’ in­di­vid­ual should ap­proach that per­son di­rectly (Matt 18:15-20).

Yet on many oc­ca­sions in many churches, this is not what hap­pens. In­stead a com­plaint is made im­me­di­ately and di­rectly to the vicar, in or­der to be fed back down to that in­di­vid­ual. There are some churches where this can hap­pen a lot.

When con­sid­ered from the per­spec­tive of power dy­nam­ics, this can be un­der­stood as a very sub­tle form of bul­ly­ing. If an in­di­vid­ual has a prob­lem with a brother or sis­ter, then why would they not ap­proach them di­rectly? Be­cause do­ing so feels scary. That re­quires build­ing up the courage to chal­lenge them, whereas ask­ing the vicar to do it is much, much eas­ier. Pass­ing my con­cern onto the vicar means I am em­pow­ered to make my com­plaint when I feel too weak to make it di­rectly my­self. Some in­di­vid­u­als may even court re­la­tion­ship with the vicar, in or­der to guar­an­tee a sym­pa­thetic ear the next time a prob­lem oc­curs.

This is just one ex­am­ple of how power dy­nam­ics shows that bul­ly­ing can oc­cur in many very sub­tle ways. Thirdly, the op­pressed are iso­lated and made to feel alone. There is no com­forter for them. When­ever some­one who sees a re­la­tion­ship in “us and them” terms uses power to put some­one else down, the vic­tim is al­ways made to feel alone.

It is again not hard to see why those who feel bul­lied by their vicar, spouse, or more switched-on mem­ber of the Bi­ble study group would feel lonely.

But this is also the case in the ex­am­ple of subtler bul­ly­ing that I have given above. When the Bi­ble study leader or Sun­day school teacher re­ceives a “pas­toral word” from the vicar that an anony­mous per­son is up­set with them, it is much harder for that in­di­vid­ual to feel re­laxed about re­la­tion­ships with al­most any­one at church. Who is this per­son? Why were they of­fended? Might I in­ad­ver­tently do it again?

This re­veals a very im­por­tant pas­toral ques­tion to ask for iden­ti­fy­ing and tack­ling bul­ly­ing: are the ac­tions and words of one party forc­ing an­other to be made to feel iso­lated and alone?

I have been heav­ily in­volved in re­cent months help­ing a sin­gle mum who es­caped from an abu­sive mar­riage. The ex-hus­band is a wholly un­rea­son­able guy who has con­tin­ued to bully her even af­ter the di­vorce. What has shocked me, how­ever, is how the words and ac­tions of some around this ex-hus­band have helped con­trib­ute to this poor woman’s lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion. They are not overtly ag­gres­sive in the way that he is, but they seem fix­ated on iso­lat­ing this young woman from friends she has looked to for help. I have sadly be­come aware of sev­eral other mar­riages, in con­ser­va­tive evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles, where a sim­i­lar set of prob­lems are go­ing on. Bul­ly­ing – A Pas­toral Chal­lenge Bul­ly­ing is a pas­toral is­sue, and one worth think­ing through and watch­ing out for. And I hope that some of the ques­tions I’ve raised will help you to do that: Can you see ev­i­dence of “us and them” think­ing? A nec­es­sary pre­cur­sor for bul­ly­ing to start hap­pen­ing.

Can you see ev­i­dence of an im­bal­ance of power, and per­haps a mis­use of it? Some­times peo­ple may gain power over oth­ers in very sub­tle ways, or the fact that they them­selves feel weak may be their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mis­us­ing the power they’re not aware they have. Can you see ev­i­dence of some­one be­ing made to feel iso­lated and alone? Bul­ly­ing al­ways has this ef­fect, and shock­ingly some peo­ple make this their goal to do to oth­ers. May we all strive and pray to be like our Lord, who rather than be­ing weak and so seek­ing power, in­stead be­ing strong made him­self weak.

Fa­ther, please sup­press all bul­ly­ing that goes on in our churches. Amen. Pic­tures from The

Princess and the Dragon! A chil­dren’s book and al­le­gory of bul­ly­ing and spousal abuse, writ­ten by Pete My­ers and il­lus­trated by Vicki Byrne. Pete My­ers is an Or­di­nand at Oak Hill Col­lege and Coun­cil

mem­ber of Church So­ci­ety

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