Beyond Bullying

Beyond Bullying: A Resource for Theological Conversation & Congregational Response
Rev. Cody J. Sanders, M.S., M.Div., NCC

Bullying is Violence

Common myth: “Bullying isn’t a serious problem, it’s just kids being kids.”
Roughhousing on the playground, pushing in the line, getting angry and calling each other names – these may all be common events of childhood, or “just kids being kids.” When certain kids, teens, or even adults are made targets of violent acts or violent and derogatory speech, this is no longer just kids being kids. Bullying can occur in many forms – physical acts, verbal attacks, cruel pranks, online harassment, even systematic social ostracism and exclusion. In all of these forms, bullying should be seen and spoken of as an act of violence.

Many of the ways individuals are targeted for bullying are due to some perceived difference embodied by the targeted person or their membership in a minority group. For example: persons of racial, cultural, ethic or religious minority groups; lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender persons; persons embodying differences in body type such as weight or height.

Examples: In 2005, 38% of students ages 12 to 18 had been exposed to hate-related graffiti at school and 11% reported someone directing hate-related words at them (U.S. Department of Education and Justice, 2006). A survey of 7,261 middle and high school students found that nearly 9 out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students experienced harassment in school and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation (GLSEN 2009 National School Climate Survey).

Bullying/Violence Does Not Begin in Physical Actions

As serious as physical violence is, bullying does not begin with the physical. The way individuals and groups are targeted for bullying begins in how we think of others, and how we think of others has everything to do with the ways we speak of others. Our ways of thinking and speaking of others are important theological considerations.

Theologian Fumitaka Matsuoka argues, “Evil acts as forces that claim both the sole voice in determining how things are experienced and the right and legitimacy to supply the lens through which life is properly viewed or experienced” (p. 57). Violence acts as a force by which a dominant perspective of reality is upheld (i.e., how the world is perceived from the viewpoint of the majority racial group, gender, religion, or sexual orientation; how normality/abnormality are defined; etc.).

Language that undergirds acts of bullying/violence takes place in both political and religious spheres: Any language that constructs binary, black-and-white divisions between persons and groups (e.g. a group called “Us” to which we belong and groups called “Them” to which others belong) supports the subjugation of the other and delegitimizes the other’s perspective, often leading to the coercive use of violence (particularly when we view “Us” as higher than “Them” on a social or theological hierarchy).

Physical Injury is Not The Only Result of Bullying/Violence

Bullying, as violence, does not only affect the physical wellbeing of the victim, but also affects the emotional, psychological and spiritual lives of both victims and others who are not directly victimized.

Iris Marion Young defines “systemic violence” as violence “directed at members of a group simply because they are members of that group“(Justice and the Politics of Difference, p. 62). This is often the type of violence represented by bullying that targets an individual because of her or his membership in a particular group according to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Beyond the physical injuries sustained by individual victims of bullying, larger effects of violence include the psychic terror experienced by those who witness and experience the presence of bullying in their social contexts. Members of targeted groups may live with the constant knowledge that they may, at any time, become a victim of overt bullying/violence. This results in a harmful and sometimes debilitating expenditure of emotional, psychological, and spiritual life and energy.

Bullying/Violence Not Only Harms Direct Victims but Perpetrators, Too

The type of harm that results from bullying/violence poses a challenge to the explicitly theological notion of humans as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) and of a striving toward mutual human relation. Matsuoka argues, “It is the failure to enter into relation that in the last analysis constitutes evil, or nonexistence…Evil originates in the devaluation of a collective human life, inevitably accompanied by coercion and often violence” (The Color of Faith, p. 57).

As much as bullying/violence harms the direct victim, it also diminishes the humanity of the perpetrators. “Institutionally, evil generates images, metaphors, paradigms, and categories to which those who are in the position of dominance become captive…It estranges us all by eroding trust in relationship and creating a deep gulf in communication, ultimately making the future less promising for all” (The Color of Faith, p. 58).

Churches and Faith Communities Have Avenues of Response

“Central to a Christian understanding of human relationships is the church, which is called and empowered to witness to God’s intended wholeness for all creation. The church does this both by transcending in its own life those barriers (e.g., of race and culture) that divide persons from one another and by opposing such barriers in human society” (Matsuoka, The Color of Faith, p. 53). Rather than covering over human differences, the church may move toward greater respect for and valuing of difference in ways that deconstruct barriers to mutual human relatedness and challenge the use of violence and force to subjugate minority voices to a dominant majority.

Certainly, preaching and teaching against the use of violence is, itself, a theological and faithful response to bullying. If this is where we stop, however, we have only dealt with the surface-level of bullying/violence and have failed to attend to the depths and complexity of the problem. Suggestions and considerations for going further in our theological resistance to violence may include:

  1. Becoming attentive to our language. Particularly public language (e.g. preaching and teaching) but also in our informal conversation – do we represent the world and human relatedness in binary terms (e.g. “Us” and “Them” language)? How can we theologically transcend these terms?
  2. Expand our theological notion of “we.” Our theological language is often very exclusionary of those who embody some difference from “us.” How might we consider telling “our” stories in ways that include more and more persons (and more and more difference) into the definition of “we?”
  3. Re-imagine our theological concept of “sin” and “evil” to include – and even emphasize – the diminishment of human relatedness through binary and hierarchical (“us”/”them”) understandings of persons and the use of force to uphold dominant views and interpretations of life in the world.
  4. Speak frankly to children and youth about bullying and violence. Do not pretend bullying will stop at the end of adolescence. Bullying/violence continues into adulthood and harms all involved.
  5. Include children and youth as equal partners in theological conversations. The wisdom of their experience – particularly regarding bullying/violence – is an invaluable theological resource.

Resources in Print & Online:

  • Bullying: A Spiritual Crisis by Ronald Hecker Cram (Chalice Press, 2003)
  • “Bullying: What We Can Do To Stop It,” United Church of Christ (online)
  • The Color of Faith: Building Community in a Multiracial Society by Fumitaka Matsuoka (United Church Press, 1998)
  • Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America by Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker (Greenleaf Book Group, 2008)
  • God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu (Image Book, 2004)
  • Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall (Routledge, 2006)
  • Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks (Routledge, 2000)
  • "Why Anti-Gay Bullying is a Theological Issue," Religion Dispatches by Cody J. Sanders (online)