October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and as someone who spends time thinking about faith and sexuality, that delights me for two reasons. First, I think bullying prevention is an absolute theological slam dunk. I’m well versed on disagreements about the biblical perspectives on same-sex relationships, but I believe one of the most consistent themes throughout the entirety of the scriptures is God’s heart for those whom society oppresses, marginalizes, and, yes, bullies. Like many of my all-too-ready-to-fix-the-world-by-supporting-causes peers, I genuinely appreciate opportunities to participate in demonstrations or events that encourage productive dialog about significant issues. Nevertheless, because my enthusiasm lies in the arena of sexual minorities and the Christian faith, I often find myself participating half-heartedly in secular rallies that don’t quite capture the statement I want to make or second-guessing every step I take out of fear for how my message will be received by certain communities of people. When it comes to the crisis of bullying in our country, though, I have no hesitation extending my full support to prevention efforts—especially as they relate to anti-LGBT bullying—and I’m convinced Christians should actively seek to prevent bullying regardless of what they believe about nontraditional sexuality. (I’ve argued this before: “Why I Need You to Stop Saying ‘Gay.’”)
Second, I’m enamored with a recent cultural shift that has slowly started making bullying prevention cool by celebrating the diversity and individuality of those who are frequently the victims of bullying. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what has changed, and it’s even harder to define exactly how the change happened; but somewhere along the way, people learned to revel in their nerdiness and stand up for society’s misfits. I choked back tears when Mitchell, one of the gay characters on Modern Family, delivered the following gem to bullied kid Manny: “This is the funny thing about growing up. For years and years, everybody’s desperately afraid to be different in any way. And then suddenly, almost overnight, everybody wants to be different…and that is where we win.” In spite of myself, I tapped my foot along when the ragtag chorus on Glee sang an original song celebrating their status as school outcasts. I blew up all my social media outlets trying to share the video of hundreds of students at a Houston high school performing a musical anti-bullying PSA. And I beamed when I heard the recent story of the overwhelming support for the Michigan girl who was elected to her school’s homecoming court as a cruel joke. As bullying became an epidemic in our country, many of the people who shape culture decided to make prevention cool, and their influence is slowly trickling down in the form of vocal support for victims.
That influence only moves so quickly, though, and the harsh reality remains that we’re facing a legitimate bullying crisis, especially with reference to LGBT youth. That point was made clear to me when I came across a site that tracks the frequency of anti-LGBT words and phrases (including “Faggot,” “No Homo,” “So Gay,” and “Dyke”) on Twitter and was painfully unsurprised to see their weekly rate of occurrence numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Stats on LGBT youth and suicide, harassment, violence, and homelessness remain disturbing (start here, for example), and I’ve heard countless anecdotes from people who identify as gay or whom others merely perceived as different about the pain of persecution and intimidation throughout middle school, high school, and even college. It’s essential that we separate the safety of the victims of bullying from any perceived political movements or religious ideologies; to get tangled up in discussions about sexual ethics and marriage laws is to miss the point, because the point is that youth (and many adults) feel unsafe and unloved.
Unfortunately, as much as I celebrate our culture’s gradual cool-ifying of bullying prevention, I’m uncomfortable with the way the anti-bullying narrative often takes the shape of retributive bully-shaming, whereby the victim of bullying receives support and encouragement while the perpetrator of bullying suddenly becomes the new victim of (seemingly deserved) negativity and scorn. Thus does Mitchell’s above pep talk to Manny end on a note of winner-loser competition, does the Glee number essentially boil down to a dismissive message of, “You’ll be sorry once I’m famous,” and does the headline to which I linked frame the high schooler’s experience as enjoying the “last laugh” in the controversy. We’re getting better at recognizing the harms of bullying and standing up for victims, but I fear we’re prolonging a cycle of harassment when we start throwing vicious language at bullies and essentially write them off as hopeless lost causes. In fact, the label of “bully” may now carry as much shame and disgrace as any of the discriminatory pejoratives we would hear from the lips of a so-called “bully”—and it may be worse, since the “bully” label includes a certain sense of having been earned. If anyone deserves to feel abused and mistreated, so the thinking goes, it’s the people who have abused and mistreated others. We feel justified bullying the bullies.
For example, you may have heard the story of Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor who responded on-air to a viewer’s letter that expressed disapproval of her appearance. Her statement was eloquent and poignant, and it deserves the national media attention it has received. Livingston has also received an outpouring of encouragement, but it’s distressing how quick many have been to lambaste and demonize Kenneth Krause, who wrote the letter to her. Make no mistake about it; I disagree with Krause’s perspective and his decision to send the letter, but the outpouring of vitriol he’s received simply adds more negativity into an already painful situation. I’m thinking here about comments to the original YouTube video, where individuals have labeled Krause everything from a “coward” to an “idiot” to a “jerk,” or an article on Jezebel (admittedly, a site known for abrasive language and content) that names him a “concern-trolly d-bag,” an “asshole,” and someone “made of slime.” Criticism and ridicule have, once again, begot harsher criticism and ridicule.
Christians who work to prevent bullying have the opportunity to do something different by actively working to protect and affirm victims of bullying while simultaneously recognizing and embodying God’s ever-present, unconditional love for every single person, even for the perpetrator who bullies others. The compassion Christians show the world begins with humility, the unassuming confession that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8). Even in the process of dying for the ungodly, of course, Jesus showed compassion for his tormentors, famously praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). John 8 portrays Jesus literally standing up against those who, in their positions of power, would publicly shame a woman for the sake of proving a point, but he does so in the gentlest means possible. (He reserves harsher criticisms for another setting.) Christians don’t get to choose sides and call certain people “bad guys,” believing as we do that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:23-4). (Forgive my cliched examples throughout, but I really think we’re dealing with spiritual baby food here.) In a world that often protects victims by shaming bullies, we have the chance to demonstrate radical love through our extension of mercy and grace to every person.
Here’s what I would love to see: I would love to see Christians—and especially those Christians who are eager to pursue tangible reconciliation with the LGBT community but who feel like their hands are tied with certain religious convictions about sexuality—take up the cause of bullying prevention, making noise and using the wonderful creativity God has given them to express words of hope, safety, and belonging to those who are victims. I’d love to see them use National Bullying Prevention Month as an opportunity to reiterate to the world through our actions how seriously we take matters of oppression, violence, and injustice because of how seriously God takes them. I’d love to see them set an example for others (especially for young people) of how to handle disagreements (especially in this political season, and especially online) with respect and generosity. And more than anything, I’d love to see them work to eliminate our country’s crisis of bullying while extending compassion, empathy, mercy, and healing to its perpetrators.
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