Facing up to the issue of bullying
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