Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On Bullies, and Loving Them by Standing Up to Them

On August 14, I posted the following Facebook status:


We don't stand up to bullies because we hate them, but in order to practice the difficult work of loving our enemies. To stand up and say "I will not allow you to express your hatred of me with violence" is to open the possibility of an alternative path to a person who has allowed hate to seize control. It is to knock the weapon from the bully's hand before he does something he will regret.

We cannot make people stop hating others. But when we stand up to bullies, we say, "You can do better than this hatred, and I'm not giving up on you."


There was lively conversation on this thread, but in particular I want to pull out this question, voiced by a friend and parishioner:

This sounds nice and all, but do you really think it fits reality? Or am I reading this wrong and the way you worded this is meant to communicate "we should" rather than "we do"?

My reply:

I try not to use "we should" very often. I guess I would say, "Here's a philosophy that is available for us to apply to this work, should we choose to accept it." And I think it helps to keep the "other" in the human category.

Her reply:

In that case, in what manner do you mean to deny the bully the use of violence? And what do you see as a possible "alternative path" that a bully may follow once denied?

And mine:

As always, you ask excellent questions. I'll invoke vacation privilege to take time to ponder them. :)

Several weeks later, I want to write more about this.

The weapon we knock from the bully’s hand is not the use of violence. We can’t prevent that. The weapon we knock from the bully’s hand is that of denigrating us, of taking away our dignity. By resisting the bully, we demonstrate that no amount of violence will succeed in lessening our dignity. Our hope is that the bully will then recognize the futility of violence and decide not to use it. But even if the violence does occur, the futility stands. The alternative path becomes clearer: the bully could choose to acknowledge the dignity in the other person and let it affect his decisions.

Here’s a story. When I was in the 7th grade, a bully named Todd picked a fight with me (because I was vocal about the fact that my family was voting for Walter Mondale). I agreed to fight him after school in the band room. By the time I got there, a number of other kids had also assembled to see what would happen. I seem to remember that some of them were indignant that Todd had been picking on me and may have been willing to stick up for me.

I came to the fight very scared, but I was prepared. I had seen a movie in which a character played by Gary Coleman had to stand up to a school bully. So when I faced off against Todd, I used a version of Gary Coleman’s speech:

“OK, Todd, you have a choice. I’ll let you throw the first punch. If you hit me, then you’ll look like a fool for beating up on a kid who’s so much smaller than you are. If you don’t hit me, you’ll still look like a fool. Now, which will it be?”

At that precise moment, the band director came out of his office and called me in. I thought I’d get in trouble for fighting. Rather, it turned out that the band director had heard of the dispute earlier in the day and wanted to set me straight about Walter Mondale. “He’s a communist,” he told me sternly. “You don’t want a communist for president, do you? Perhaps you might talk to your parents about voting for someone else—if not Ronald Reagan, then maybe a third-party candidate.”

By the time I got out of his office, Todd was gone. I left feeling befuddled and with the feeling that my grand scheme had been robbed of its full potential by the band director's interruption. But Todd never bothered me again. (As for the bullying perpetrated by my band director—well, that's another whole topic.)

Here's another personal story. When I was in the 9th grade, a bully named D.J. customarily picked on me in the locker room after P.E. One day he began rubbing deodorant all over my back. I had had enough. Before I knew what I was doing, I turned around and punched him in the face. He punched me back twice as hard, and I hit the ground. After I got home, I burst into tears. I felt that I had let myself (and God?) down by giving in to violence. My cheek sported a bruise for a week, which I remember made it particularly difficult to play my cornet. But D.J. never bothered me again.

There are two ways to stand up to bullies: with violence, and without. The difference in my mind between these two events is that I left the Todd situation feeling befuddled and uncertain, but completely free. I left the D.J. situation feeling sinful ... and less free.

Walter Wink has written a good piece about Jesus’ words “turn the other cheek” and subsequent passages. His take is that Jesus was advocating precisely this approach of standing up to bullies.

And, of course, this form of nonviolent direct action became the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this topic with far more wisdom, knowledge, and direct experience than I will ever have. This letter should be required reading for all Americans, frequently!