faith bullies


calvin and moeMost of what I know about bullying I learned first-hand in the seventh grade. From the hands of a kid named Michael S. This was back when schools actually held students back for not doing well, and this kid had not done well a lot. All this was before my own main growth spurt (which came several months too late to help me with this), and the shadows of memory tend to grow longer, but his shadow was a lot bigger than mine. We rode the bus together to Marshall Junior High, which had been the all African-American high school in town before integration, but by then only held seventh graders. Helen C. rode the same bus. I was told later that Helen was Michael’s girlfriend (whatever that means in seventh grade) and apparently at some point she told someone she thought I was cute (whatever that means in seventh grade) and he overheard. From which point his mission was clear – beat all the cute right out of me.
He spent the better part of that school year tormenting me. Twice a day I was his punching bag and there was nothing to be done about it. I never fought back (futile gesture against such a giant) and I didn’t tell anyone (though the bus driver had to have known). My parents found out eventually, but the bullying kept on anyway. Finally one day, he was sitting behind me boxing my ears and I snapped. I jumped up, yelled something, and punched him square in the nose. This had three results. His nose began to bleed. He swallowed his Skoal (gave him a nice green color). And he at last lost all restraint and began to hurt me in earnest.
The bus driver awoke from her year long trance and responded by driving us to the police station (driving was apparently the only action she was capable of). Someone carried me in and set me next to a desk, gave me a damp towel to deal with all the blood I was spilling and proceeded to ask me a lot of questions. I never saw Michael S. again. I never learned his story, but studies suggest he was most likely the victim of abuse, acting out what he had learned from some evil mentor. I hope he got help, but again, studies suggest he probably remained caught in a broken system that only knows how to meet violence with violence, where one cycles between giver and receiver, doomed to misery.
What in the world am I doing down memory lane? The subject of bullying came up this week in quite a different context, but the dynamic really is the same. I made this statement on Facebook Tuesday: “Just so you know, it’s okay to be a Christian and still think evolution is true. Really it is. Despite how some go on, divine truth and scientific truth are not opposed. There is only one truth. And it does not involve Adam riding dinosaurs.” My point wasn’t to argue any particular point of view regarding the issue, but only to make sure people don’t feel pressured into accepting a point of view they don’t agree with, just because someone tries to make them think a certain point of view is religiously necessary.  As I explained in a follow-up comment, “I am only stating that a person is completely free to be both a Bible-believing Christian and a person who thinks evolution occurred. There is no necessary contradiction in the two views. Rejecting evolution is not necessary to have faith in Jesus. Your salvation or relationship with God is in no way contingent on your views regarding how life developed on this planet.”
If my point seems obvious to you (and on this, even the pope agrees), then maybe you have never been the target of faith bullying. One person responded (in a comment I deleted), that Darwin was unimportant and unoriginal, that the theory of evolution had been thoroughly disproven, and that those who promoted it were under demonic influence, working with Satan (wittingly or not) to undermine the Christian faith. That, my friends, is what faith bullying looks like. It tries to render the target, just like Calvin in the cartoon or me on the floor of that bus, unable to hit back. If a demon is the source of what you think and say, then you are completely discounted. Rendered mute. Sadly, some Christians have come to understand the entire field of apologetics (once a serious endeavor to understand and present Christian thought as reasonable, self-consistent, and not logically self-defeating) as nothing more than training for pseudo-intellectual street fights. The intentional strategy in such an approach is to enter in under the guise of a serious intellectual discussion and then instead to use sloppy logic and ad hominem attacks to ambush the other person, argue them into a corner, and get them to give up what they think. It might sound strange, but these people think this is a legitimate path to conversion.
But it’s not. It’s just bullying. Christians have been prone to this sort of nonsense since at least Galileo’s time and if anything some of us have gotten worse. And I’m done with it. You can’t bully someone into faith. You should not be bullying people of faith into thinking what you think they should think. Such tactics are out of bounds for followers of Jesus. But no honest pursuit of truth is ever out of bounds for anyone, including followers of Jesus. Jesus isn’t fussed about your worldview. Jesus cares about you. Jesus does care what you think, because he cares about you. You should find that following Jesus challenges what you think and deepens it. But Jesus is never a bully.
His followers shouldn’t be either. The way we engage with other people has to communicate that we care about them just as Jesus does. Instead of bullying them, we need to let them in on how what we think and how we live is being challenged, deepened, and yet respected. Of course, this presumes that as people of faith we are still being challenged by Jesus, which is impossible if we smugly think we’ve got the whole thing figured out. Don’t be a faith bully. And don’t passively tolerate faith bullying either. If you come across a faith bully, it’s okay to make them swallow their theological dip.

Red Letter Year: 9/12

Luke 22.31-46

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. 32 But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

33 Peter said, “Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you, and even to die with you.”

34 But Jesus said, “Peter, let me tell you something. Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.”

35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”

“No,” they replied.

36 “But now,” he said, “take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one! 37 For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among the rebels.’ Yes, everything written about me by the prophets will come true.”

38 “Look, Lord,” they replied, “we have two swords among us.”

“That’s enough,” he said.

39 Then, accompanied by the disciples, Jesus left the upstairs room and went as usual to the Mount of Olives. 40 There he told them, “Pray that you will not give in to temptation.”

41 He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. 44 He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

45 At last he stood up again and returned to the disciples, only to find them asleep, exhausted from grief. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation.”


As we have seen, Luke paints the apostles in a more favorable light than Mark and Matthew do. Luke is the only one to include this statement about Satan wanting to sift them. The NLT does a good job here of distinguishing the first plural you – Satan wants to sift all of them, from the second plural you – because of this, Jesus has prayed for Peter, who will need to encourage the others after his own recovery. Peter is also less vehement in his protest.

Luke is also the only one to include the part about making sure they had swords. He quotes Isa. 53, where the Messiah will be included with the lawless. Like the accusations that he was a drunk and a sinner, this accusation by association is false, and as such is a precise fulfillment of the prophecy. Of course, Jesus is making a prophetic statement, not a literal one. There is no time to go and sell or buy anything. But the support the 12 and then 70 received before is not something they should expect now. They are moving into dangerous times. The apostles take him literally though, and much like the religious leader who had one of Caesar’s coins in his pocket, the apostles already have two swords at hand. Which should lead us to ask – what were they doing with swords? They were having the Passover Meal with Jesus, why were they toting swords around?

Another change Luke makes is in shortening the Gethsemane account and making it less of a struggle than it seems to be in Mark and Matthew (John won’t have this scene at all). You sometimes hear preachers go on about the medical condition of Jesus sweating blood, but look closely, that is not what the text says. It says his sweat was in big drops “like” drops of blood. Luke is using a simile here, not making a medical claim. Luke also records an angel coming and attending to Jesus in his travail, no other Gospel has this. And Jesus only goes off once and comes back to sleeping followers, not three times as in Mark and Matthew. This continues Luke’s theme of emphasizing the death of Jesus as the will of God that Jesus freely chooses to obey, not something done to him against his will.

Shortening the Garden account also makes the apostles seem less sleepy. The sorrow that Mark and Matthew assign to Jesus, Luke gives to the apostles and describes it as the source of their fatigue. Instead of telling them to “wait” (as in Mark and Matthew), here Jesus tells them to “pray” but they are unable to do so. They have prepared for the wrong thing (battle), have misunderstood Jesus’ message, and have proven unable to pray. Their failure and disillusionment is as much a result of their wrong expectations as anything else. Kind of like us. We gear up to do something big and active and effective for God, but we don’t get so excited when all it involves is “just” praying. Except that is the work of the kingdom. How do we overcome temptation? We pray. How do we advance the kingdom? We pray. How do change both what is inside our hearts and the external reality around us? We pray. There is nothing more foundational to following Jesus than praying. And we just don’t do enough of it.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.