Diary of a Delegate: Who are the Bullies? (a call for repentence)

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Last week I mentioned on facebook/Twitter that I was wearing pink as part of Pink Shirt Day, a movement to help raise awareness about bullying (here’s one article that gives a little background about why pink shirts). At the time I wrote that wearing a pink shirt was not all I planned to do to combat bullying.

As a member of the Church and Society B legislative committee at General Conference (convening in one week +1 hour, but who’s counting?), I will have the opportunity to discuss a few pieces of legislation seeking to update the UMC’s resolution, “Prohibition of Bullying.” There are some strengths to the various proposals offered (naming the often fatal consequences of bullying, encouraging a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying, expressing the church’s stance through sermons and printed materials). However, I feel that across the board, the resolution could be stronger.

I’d like to see our denomination have a special Sunday devoted to combating bullying. We have a Creation Sabbath (this Sunday!), and a Children’s Health Care Sabbath; I’d like us to have a Sunday once a year– or at least once in the next quadrennium– devoted to being a sanctuary from bullying.

However, I think we need to go further, and this is tough. I believe that as a church, as members of the global body of people called Christian, we need to take a long, hard look at how our words, actions, and lack of action have contributed to a culture that allows bullying.

We are not the only ones to blame, by any means. Perhaps it is part of human nature, going back to our pack/tribe instincts, to pick on or ostracize those “not like us” or those who we think represent weaknesses or characteristics we would rather not see. While the most obvious cases of bullying these days are against persons who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, people get bullied for every reason and no reason. I have no idea, really, what made me such a great target in middle school– Was it being a bit, er, pudgy? Hitting puberty a little earlier? Loving school, learning, and teachers to the point of being a “nerd” and a “geek” long before those things were cool (they are now, I promise)? Having less than zero skill at kickball? Was it that I stood up for others, thereby allying myself with the rest of the “losers”? We didn’t even have a glee club to join together (not that I sing).  In any case, I was on the receiving end of vicious, demeaning, dehumanizing gossip and joking, often sexual in nature. In sixth grade.

None of what I experienced fell within the purview of the church per se. None of what I experienced, I would also argue, was anything like the scope of what some of my glbt friends endured and endure. While I would say I was teased and harassed and shamed and bullied and degraded, it was kind of generalized. The bullying and harassment directed at individuals who are glbt have a sort of organization about them; they spring from a shared narrative. I was teased because I was uncool. I believe that glbt individuals are bullied because people believe they are unnatural.

It is my strong belief that the mistreatment of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender in our society arises from a narrative about “those people.” They are somehow broken, wrong, vile. They are not natural. They are inherently less than “us” (although of course, recent studies show that the “us” doing the bullying are often not so different from the “them” selected as victims).

Here is my challenge: the Christian church needs to seriously examine our role in supporting and perpetuating this narrative.

I won’t go further into the narrative. We know how wrong it is, how fatally brutal. I won’t go further into our support and perpetuation of it. We know what churches, denominations, and movements have historically said about gay and lesbian people, what we say now, and how we “justify” our words. But I will say this: unless we seriously examine and repent of our role in perpetuating a narrative that dehumanizes glbt persons, we cannot wash our hands of the bullying, harassment, shame, and torture unleashed upon them.

We have to admit that we have been wrong– wrong to label people as unnatural, wrong to build a narrative of immorality around loving actions, wrong to keep silent when people have been “gay-bashed” in the name of Christ. I will admit that I don’t exactly know how we do this if we are going to hold on to the claim that homosexuality is unnatural or immoral (nor do I think it’s my job to do deep theological reflection for positions that I feel are wrong and untenable). But for those of us who believe that bullying, harassment, and dehumanization are wrong, we’d better find a way to say that any part we have played in them is wrong too. I call for a call to repentance for our complicity in the narrative that supports bullying.

Then, and I do believe only then, can we model zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, create safe spaces for those who have been the targets of bullying and harassment, and say with any integrity that we are committed to combating this evil in all its forms.

11 thoughts on “Diary of a Delegate: Who are the Bullies? (a call for repentence)”

  1. I am neither L,G,B,or T. I am 65 years old and white and college educated. Yet, I have been bullied in my own UMC until recently! Mainly because I still exhibit some external signs of severe injuries incurred some years ago in surviving a murder attempt and because I stand up for all the aspects of Jesus’ teachings by His example and His words. I actively support the Democratic Party and walk instead of drive for the benefit of the earth and have friends in many ethnic and faith groups. I am NOT a typical boomer white Southener! So I totally support your positions here with what the UMC ought to be doing regarding bullying.

    1. God bless you in your witness from your own life experience and on behalf of the earth and those whose voices are silenced! It’s not easy being “different,” but we have the assurance that when we live before God with integrity, we are blessed by God, even if we feel we are reviled by others.

      Courage for the journey,

  2. Obviously bullying is wrong, period.

    Attempts to cause pain in others for amusement or pleasure is evil and continues the work of Satan.

    I am confused on one point in your post, which is perhaps the central point.

    Is your position that believing that active homosexuality is sinful and contrary to inspired scripture itself is bullying?

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that bullying is wrong and vile.

      I am not saying that *believing* that homosexuality (or homosexual actions) is sinful and contrary to scripture is bullying. I don’t think a belief is itself violent. Prejudiced, maybe, but that’s another topic. For example, thinking or believing that people who are not white are inferior is not bullying. But acting on that thought/belief is racist, harassing, violent, etc.

      What I am saying is that we need to take a long hard look at that belief, yes, but much more importantly, at how those who hold that belief articulate it and live it out, making others within the denomination or church body (in my case the UMC) hold it too.

      Much much more importantly, what I am saying is that holding this belief and teaching this belief– even if one personally never does anything harassing, violent, demeaning, etc– just the act of holding the belief and teaching it to others *contributes to a culture* that enables bullying. By holding and teaching that homosexuality is a sin, one perpetuates a narrative that persons who are glbt are wrong, unnatural, and/or evil. This narrative, I contend, is responsible for the environments that allow for bullying. Now, if one can hold a belief without contributing to a culture or narrative of inferiority around that belief, I’d be interested to see that in play, but I argue that we as a body need to take seriously what our words and actions– and silences and inactions– have done to contribute to this narrative. A narrative that claimed another life today, at least that the media took note of, and who knows how many others we don’t know about.

      Seeking peace,

      1. I know this isn’t a direct parallel, but since you’ve made the indirect connection to racism, I’d like to make the connection to gluttony.

        You and I probably agree that healthy living is our design and being overweight has negative impact on persons and those around them (through increased insurance premiums and other additional costs.)

        Does it necessarily contribute to bullying of overweight kids (and adults) to encourage healthy living, exercise and abstinence from “junk food?”

        1. Hi John,

          Let me push back with a few questions.

          Would we be encouraging that people who are prone to overeating abstain from all eating, ever, because the way in which they eat is inherently wrong?

          Would we state that the practice of overeating is incompatible with Christianity? (it may well be…) Would we list it alongside five other things that we name as incompatible, all of which have to do with violence and abuse?

          Would we consistently refer to people who overeat as “overeaters” or “gluttons” or maybe even “fatties” and refer to them as “them” rather than as “people who”? Would we reduce them to the label of their eating, er, orientation?

          Given that some people may be genetically predisposed to certain body mass indexes, would we argue that they just got a bad deal, an extra challenge in the life of faithfulness?

          Would we repeatedly and consistently use the term “sin” to refer to overeating, preach sermons about its dangers, and spend 40 years of church political strategy arguing the gluttony “issue”?

          Could pastors deny church membership to people who are overweight since clearly they are unrepentant sinners?

          Would practicing overeaters be prohibited from being appointed as pastors, accepted as candidates, or ordained as clergy in the UMC?

          If the answer to most or all of these questions is yes, then yes, I think we would be contributing to a narrative of stigma and dehumanization, which in turn creates a culture that permits the bullying of persons who are overweight. That, and given the last one, I submit that we would have very few United Methodist clergy left– and I say that with the deepest love and self-deprecation.

          And again, the inherent logical flaw I have with your metaphor is that I do not believe that practicing ones sexuality in loving, faithful, consensual ways harms the person living out their sexuality, or anyone else.

          Grace and peace,

          1. I understand you don’t like the premise of my question and chose to answer a different one. That is okay.

            I was directly responding to this quote “just the act of holding the belief and teaching it to others *contributes to a culture* that enables bullying” in seeking to expand the question to cover sin more generally.

            I do not advocate starving overweight people. I do oppose normalization of obesity. I was hoping you would at least comment on the second.

            My conference addresses clergy health (without calling individuals out) publicly addressing productivity of clergy, cost to the conference and longevity in ministry among other issues. I’m sure this makes some uncomfortable. Is my annual conference bullying?

            For the sake of any others who may read this, I clearly oppose bullying, which definitely includes using derogatory “names” to ridicule anyone no matter what it they may or may not be struggling with.

            I’ve never heard homosexuality (or sexual sin generally) preached against in person. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard gluttony addressed either (with the only exception being in a preaching class where the assignment was the 7 deadly sins and a few of the virtues).

            My underlying question I guess is to ask is it always bullying to hold an uncomfortable position when it relates to other people? When is it not?

            1. I think I’ve answered this question already, John. It’s not bullying to hold the position. It creates and supports a culture of bullying to weave shame and guilt and shame and so forth into that position.


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