Most 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.