Lessons on Bullying from Being the Vulnerable One

In last September’s Spirituality & Health, the “Jesus Solution to Bullying” suggested that “rather than preaching against bullies, Jesus taught people to stop thinking like victims.” The recommendation was to “learn to tolerate aggression” and place “responsibility directly upon the victim’s shoulders, where it should be. Whether or not [the victim] is upset is entirely up to him, not the bully.” In other words, stop reacting to the bully’s “teasing.”

I believe there are several things wrong with this approach. First, in the Good Samaritan story and in the story of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus stood with the vulnerable one and made caring for that person of the very highest priority, next to love of God itself. At certain times in our lives, each of us is the vulnerable one. When others take advantage of that, a “Jesus Solution” would clearly be to stand in protection and to administer radical care. Perhaps it would help to stop using the word “victim,” as that implies helplessness and pity, and to use, instead, “vulnerable one.”

Another problem with the so-called “Jesus Solution” is the assumption that the answer lies in not buying into what someone says — words are, after all, “just words.” If I am upset then it is my problem, not the bully’s. Of course, knowing the truth about ourselves makes bullying somewhat less damaging, but to be derogatorily addressed in front of one’s peers is damaging, and those who engage in this form of “teasing” need to be made aware that their behavior will not be tolerated because it does emotional harm. Bullies need to see examples of adults who will stand in strength for the vulnerable one. And the vulnerable one needs to see, as if in a mirror, himself or herself — someday — standing up for the bullied with courage and deep strength. I was about to write that I couldn’t recall ever seeing anyone stand up to a bully, when I remembered David Livingstone. In fourth grade, as two boys held me while another was about to hit me, Livingstone, a somewhat older boy, came up and said, “Hold it! Don’t do that!” This, I believe, is the “Jesus Solution.”

I grew up in a family with a father who raged, who seemed to be on the verge of “final” violence. I was thin and shy, and there were a number of incidents with other children in which I was physically threatened. Each time, my mom, my older brother, my dad, or other friends would advise me to “stand up to them!” It was not until well after high school that I realized something and said, “You think if I fight, I will get hurt; I feel like if I fight, I will get killed.”

Intimidation often feeds on a landscape of established fear. The dreadful is always in the air, around the corner, hiding in the strange town or the big city. It is hoped that one who lives in such a landscape will find ways to leave it behind or, perhaps, to see through it to another, deeper reality about life. In my case, learning judo helped; therapy helped; facing intimidations in teaching high school helped; eventually confronting my father helped; discovering my own strength helped. I am sure about one thing: “taking responsibility” for the bullying has not been part of the answer, nor has pity. The answer I have found has not come by strength alone but by monumental kindness combined with strength that others have shown and helped me to find within myself.