The Jesus Treatment of Bullying

In Catholicism, A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image Books, 2011) Robert Barron explains the nonviolent way of Jesus in the face of evil as a “third” way, apart from violently fighting or fleeing the evil (pp. 48-51):

In words that still take our breath away, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44). In order to understand this radical teaching, we have to be clear on what Jesus means by “love” (agape in Matthew’s Greek). Love is not a sentiment or feeling, not merely a tribal loyalty or family devotion. Love is actively willing the good of the other as other. Often we are good or kind or just to others so that they might be good, kind, or just to us in return. But this is indirect egotism, not love. And this is why loving one’s enemies is the surest test of love. If I am good to someone who is sure to repay me, then I might simply be engaging in an act of disguised or implicit self-interest. But if I am generous to someone who is my enemy, who is not the least bit interested in responding to me in kind, then I can be sure that I have truly willed his good and not my own. And this is why Jesus says, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? … And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Mt 5:46-47). Jesus wants his followers to rise above the imperfect forms of benevolence that obtain among the general run of human beings and to aspire to love the way that God loves: “for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:45). […] If we are truly free from our attachments, especially from the attachment to approval, then we can become “sons and daughters” of [this Love], this God and hence conduits of his peculiar grace. […]

The already radical teaching on loving one’s enemies becomes even more intensely focused as Jesus turns his attention to the practice of nonviolence. Giving voice to the common consensus among law-abiding Jews, Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well” (Mt 5:38-40). It is most important not to overlook the fact that this was, for its time, quite an enlightened, compassionate rule, for many individuals and nations would have felt justified in answering a violent affront with a devastating and disproportionate counterviolence. The seemingly brutal “eye for an eye” rule was in fact an attempt to delimit the retaliatory instinct. But, as we can see, Jesus is uneasy even with this relatively benign recommendation. I fully realize that Jesus’s instruction can sound like simple acquiescence to the power of violence, but we have to probe further. There are two classical responses to evil: fight or flight. When confronted with injustice or violence, we can answer in kind – and sometimes in our sinful world that is all that we can reasonably do. But as every playground bully and every geopolitical aggressor knows, this usually leads to an act of counterviolence, and then still another retaliation until the opponents are locked in an endless round of fighting. Gandhi expressed it this way: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The other typical responses to aggression are running away or submitting – and sometimes, given our finite, sinful situation, that is all we can do. But, finally, we all know that ceding to violence tends only to justify the aggressor and encourage even more injustice. And therefore it appears as though, in regard to solving the problem of violence, we are locked in a no-win situation, compelled to oscillate back and forth between two deeply unsatisfactory strategies.

In his instruction on nonviolence Jesus is giving us a way out, and we will grasp this if we attend carefully to the famous example he uses: “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well” (Lk 6:29). In the society of the time, one would never have used one’s left hand for any form of social interaction, since it was considered unclean. Thus, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, he is hitting you with the back of his hand, and this was the manner in which one would strike a slave or a child or a social inferior. In the face of this kind of violence, Jesus is recommending neither fighting back nor fleeing, but rather standing one’s ground. To turn the other cheek is to prevent him from hitting you the same way again. It is not to run or to acquiesce, but rather to signal to the aggressor that you refuse to accept the set of assumptions that have made his aggression possible. It is to show that you are occupying a different moral space. It is also, consequently, a manner of mirroring back to the violent person the deep injustice of what he is doing. The great promise of this approach is that it might not only stop the violence but also transform the perpetrator of it.

Robert Barron then gives some examples of this strategy, as it was used by Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Pope John Paul II (see the video fragment below):

The award winning social skills educator Brooks Gibbs, who tries to educate people to live by the Golden Rule, took the “mirroring strategy” of Jesus as a way to deal with bullying. What the mirroring strategy does, basically, is to take away the power of the bully to humiliate the victim. The words of the bully are received as “badges of honor”. It is comparable to the way the word “nigga” is sometimes used nowadays among African-American youngsters themselves, so the word gradually loses its power to have a derogatory meaning. I remember being called “homo” one time and thanking the one who yelled it for “the compliment”. In other words, the mirroring strategy in the face of evil is a kind of transformative mimetic practice that invites evildoers to imitate another set of practices and assumptions to end the evil. It could be an example of what René Girard calls “good mimesis”.Tupac on Niggas

Does it work? Not always, but if it does, the results are stunning, as is shown in the video below by Brooks Gibbs:

Powerfully Vulnerable

I just had to share this amazing story! It is told by Adam Ericksen at the Raven Foundation website. Here it is, republished with kind permission:

The Internet can be a very mean place. But it can also lead us to grace.

BalpreetThe dichotomy of meanness and grace was recently displayed on the website reddit.com. The backstory goes like this: A man was waiting in line at airport security. He spotted Balpreet Kaur, a young woman who is a baptized Sikh and a student at Ohio State University. The man surreptitiously took out his phone, positioned the camera, and while Balpreet looked away, he took her picture. Then he posted it to Reddit’s humor section, called r/funny, with the caption, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The picture quickly went viral and people made demeaning comments about Balpreet’s appearance.

What was “humorous” about Balpreet’s appearance? She has facial hair.

It’s a classic example of Internet scapegoating. The original poster, whose reddit username was “european_douchebag,” (Seriously! You couldn’t make that up!) wanted to invite his Reddit community to join him in demeaning Balpreet’s appearance, and his community was happy to join. Balpreet became their scapegoat. As the picture went viral, people began posting degrading comments about her. They accused her of being ugly, and in that accusation they began to feel a sense of their own beauty.

Are You Imitating or IdolizingBut scapegoating always provides a false sense of beauty. Scapegoating boils down to this: We know that we are “beautiful” by comparing ourselves with someone else that we consider “ugly.” Unfortunately, scapegoating in this way can be seen throughout human cultures. Every culture has arbitrary standards of beauty that lead to scapegoating. When our sense of beauty is based on these arbitrary standards, it leads us into the trap of scapegoating. This is the trap that “european_douchebag” and his community fell into, and it is a trap that we all fall into. Until someone has the sense to pull us out.

And that’s exactly what Balpreet did. A Facebook friend informed her about the picture on Reddit. After she found the image and read through some of the comments, she posted her own response to her image and the demeaning comments:

Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the OP [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled :) However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-) So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together t-shirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. :) I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.

Love is not love until love is vulnerable (Theodore Roethke)Balpreet’s response was so powerful. It nearly brought me to tears for two reasons. First, Balpreet has a strong sense of her own beauty. She knows her beauty is not dependent upon arbitrary cultural standards. Rather, her beauty is dependent upon something else: The “Divine Being” that has made her body beautifully sacred – and has made everyone’s body beautifully sacred.

The second reason that my 33 year old eyes nearly teared up was that because Balpreet believes in the sacredness of all human bodies, she broke the cycle of scapegoating. Now, I could easily understand if she responded to “european_douchebag” with her own resentful meanness by saying, “your username is appropriate, you freakin’ jerk!” But if she did, she would simply be imitating “european_douchebag” in defining her own goodness against his meanness. Fortunately, Balpreet didn’t imitate him. Instead, she imitated the “Divine Being” who doesn’t reject any body, but rather makes all bodies beautifully sacred. Even the body of a man with the username “european_douchebag.”

Here’s where the story gets even better – her gracious response softened his heart. He actually imitated her response by responding with a gracious apology on his Reddit account:

I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.

The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)When we imitate someone else’s meanness by responding with our own meanness, it only hardens both our hearts and makes us all mean. Fortunately for us, Balpreet is focusing her “life on creating change and progress for this world.” That change and progress is the courage to end the cycle of scapegoating. We learn from her that when we respond to scapegoating with the spirit of grace and forgiveness, believing in our own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, then our hearts can soften and we have the chance for a better imitation – the imitation of grace.

– by Adam Ericksen

I explored this dynamic of “the imitation of grace” also, in an earlier post. Click here for “Turn the other cheek.”