Friday, September 23, 2011

Don't Push Me!


I read a very disturbing story this morning of an 11 year old boy who committed suicide after being bullied. I'll let you read the article yourself rather than regurgitate it all here. But the story raises, once again, the subject of bullying and what can be done.

I was one of the lucky ones. Though I was a smaller kid, and did get beat up once in high school, I was blessed with friends who were bigger than I was and I was somewhat athletic. I tended to hang around with those people because it was not good to be a loner in school.

I remember seeing different kids in my neighborhood get picked on because they couldn't fight back. They would have their books knocked out of their hands, or have snow balls thrown at them or be forced to endure demeaning taunting. I'd like to say that I stood up to the bullies and forced them to change their ways through my powers of persuasion, but the truth is, I usually tried to avoid the situation, even feeling relieved that it wasn't me.

I remember the fear that I felt when I would turn a corner and see those bullies, not knowing if I would be their next target. I cannot imagine what it was like for those for whom this was a daily occurrence. I have had family members and friends bullied and I've seen the pain and even shame in their eyes. It's a very helpless feeling and it's so hard to know what to do.

Looking back from adulthood I think I can see with a lot more clarity some of the reasons that people bully. The bullies I knew usually had horrible self-esteem issues themselves. They came from homes where they were neglected and often abused. I'm not looking to excuse this behavior, but rather to see some of the reasons behind it.

We're all social creatures. We were created for community, and much of our lives are spent trying to find our place within society. It's human nature to want to belong, and all of us know what it's like to walk into a room and immediately begin to scope the crowd for where we might feel welcome - and conversely, where we're pretty sure we won't be. Even as an adult, there are times when I've walked into settings and got that horrible, sinking feeling that I did not "belong."

One easy way for kids to move up in the social order is to pull others down - make someone else the target so that we are not targeted ourselves -almost a pre-emptive strike, if you like. It doesn't only happen with individuals, but with people groups as well. Look at the history of immigration in this country for an example. At different times in our nation's history derogatory terms were hurled at the Irish, the Chinese, Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Arabs, and many others. There is a stigma attached to not fitting in. This has been the case throughout human history.

All of this makes the words and actions of Jesus remarkable. If you want to see an effective pattern for inclusivity, look at what Jesus modelled. In a culture with clearly divided lines of status, Jesus broke all kinds of cultural barriers. At a time when children and women were considered second-class citizens, Jesus gave priority and validity to both. He also declared that, for anyone who wanted to be a part of what he was doing, they needed to accept people the same way. (Luke 18:15-17)

In another story we see Jesus reaching out across cultures and social boundaries. In a time when respectable Jews would not travel through Samaria because the people there were seen to be unclean half-breeds, Jesus purposefully travelled through. He stopped at a well and sent his disciples into town to find lunch (and probably to keep them from getting in his way). A woman came to get water. She came at a time when she knew the other women wouldn't be there. Her reputation wasn't the best and she likely wasn't up to hearing the gossip and put-downs. Jesus, knowing her reputation and knowing her Samaritan roots, engaged her in a conversation anyway (John 4). She became the first Samaritan evangelist, immediately calling all of her fellow villagers to come and see this extra-ordinary man.

The church which Jesus began has a call to be just such an inclusive community, and it is to our shame that we haven't always lived up to the high standard set for us. The Apostle Paul, writing in Galatians 3:28, said "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." No matter who you are, no matter where you've been or what you've done, the message of the Gospel is that you can find a home and family in the church. I've seen it happen and it's a beautiful thing.

It is this kind of acceptance that needs to be modeled in our schools and elsewhere. We are all valuable because we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). We can love one another because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Because we are secure in our identity as God's children, we do not feel the compulsion to drag others down, but instead we can build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

This is the kind of community we strive to build with church. We all need to feel like we belong because God made us for community. What are you doing to build community? When was the last time you reached out to someone who was not in your circle? Chances are, most people you meet are facing a challenge of some sort or another. Do your best to greet them with a smile and an open heart. You never know, you may be saving a life.

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