Cultures of Bullying

Bullying is a strong word, with negative connotations.  It is almost impossible to say that someone is bullying another person and do so with affection or admiration. As the new school year begins, Facebook and other social media will have a lot of posts about how young people can avoid being bullied, how they can help peers who appear to be the victims of bullying, and what parents and teachers should be doing to reduce and (ideally, but not realistically) eventually eliminate bullying behaviors in the children for whom they have responsibility.  Unlike decades ago, when a victim of bullying was chided by parents, teachers and peers as being “too sensitive”, “weak”, or “a baby”, we’ve (finally) gotten to a place where we’ve realized that repeated intimidation and degradation (physical, social, verbal) is unacceptable.  It’s become such a problem in the schools that, at least in the United States, there are national campaigns against bullying at the school level.

I’m happy to see this–but it’s too late, and focusing only on school-aged kids is too little.  Because we have become a culture of bullying.  Adult bullies may not resort to shoving other adults into the lockers lining the hallway, or stealing their lunch money, to control those in their work and social environments.  But almost no activity, whether the workplace, volunteering, or amateur sports, is devoid of people who seek power over others, and use tactics of intimidation, guilt, shame, and exclusion to get it.  As we grow up–individually and as a species–we may rely less on physical force, and more on the psychological games that Cheryl Dellasega describes so well.

Not all power imbalances between adults are bullying, but the ones that aren’t tend to have more formal structure:  a line manager and employee are not equal in power in the workplace, but if a line manager abuses his or her authority, there are various modes of recourse (including legal) that the employee has to re-establish an appropriate relationship.  A doctor-patient relationship is not one of equals, because of the differential in knowledge; nor is an adult student returning to university after an absence from the classroom “equal” to the instructor; but both these imbalances have structures that protect the rights and dignity of the person in the power-down position.  State medical associations, university review committees, peer observation by educational colleagues–these sorts of things make sure that power imbalances do not become abusive. 

Where power imbalances tend to devolve into bullying are in those sectors of human activity where review and evaluation are lacking or entirely absent, where in-groups form around a particularly strong personality, and so long as goals are achieved (even if the goals aren’t particularly good ones) methods go unquestioned.  Dellasega recounts stories of voluntary associations–everything from organizing a community tennis tournament to work on the PTA–where strong adults (often women) get their way by intimidation, exclusion (or threatening to exclude), and gossip about those with whom they disagree or who might threaten their position.

The church is not immune to bullying.  Mary Koppel and Laurie Brock tell their own stories of being bullied in the church, and sadly I have my own.  Recently, I was speaking to an older woman who had received a phone call from a relative’s pastor’s wife, berating this octogenarian for not driving over 50 miles a day to take care of that relative’s needs–when the help needed could have been supplied by a few members of the relative’s congregation (and the church building is in walking distance of the relative-in-question’s home).  When my conversation partner explained to this pastor’s wife that her own health was not such that a hundred-mile round trip on a daily basis was feasible, the caller excoriated her for not being a Christian (the woman is, she’s just not the right kind of Christian).  Obviously, the pastor’s wife–and I don’t know if the call was at the behest of the pastor–believed she had the “right” to call my friend, make demands, try to evoke a sense of guilt/shame/failed obligation, and then threaten her with eternal hellfire for not acquiescing to the desires of a near-stranger.  And this was not an isolated incident.

That’s bullying. 

But guilt, shame, evoking feelings of inadequacy, and threats of everlasting punishment have been Christian stock-in-trade for about 1700 years–ever since the church unexpectedly found itself in the position of no longer being persecuted, but being in a position to do some persecuting of its own.  The Crusades and Inquisitions are obvious examples, and (fortunately) they’re largely in our past, and we have a pretty good handle on how to keep them from being repeated.  But on the micro-level, of congregations, and relations between the staff of Christian institutions, we are much less able to root out bullying.  Numerous blog posts and articles filter through my social media feeds each week on clergy who bully lay people, lay people who bully clergy, clergy who bully clergy, lay people who bully other lay people. 

And yet, the churches will, as summer vacation draws to a close and students go back to school, we will hear the churches chime in about how bad bullying is, how to deal with bullies if you are targeted, and how not to become a bully yourself; now adults should watch for warning signs that particular kids are bullies or victims.

Perhaps there should be some anti-bullying training in the churches–not about kids in their schools, but about how the institutions themselves operate as graduate-level educational institutions in the art and techniques of bullying.  Because right now, we do not prevent or cure our own bullying, but we encourage it. 

Much of “congregational development” is about bullying.  Earlier this summer, I objected to much that was said on a blog post about reversing church decline. And what a good deal of what I find abhorrent is bullying.  Checking up on people, demanding that they do what you want in the way you want and when you want (and calling it “ministry”), making them take a class to be sure they believe as you do–it’s repeated, systematic control with the threat of exclusion if they don’t meet your standard.  That’s bullying.

As long as churches insist on telling people they are damned/lost because they don’t believe in Jesus/God, as long as churches are interested in making people good congregants rather than good disciples, as long as churches insist that good people conform to the churches’ concept of goodness–as long as all that happens, the churches have no business thinking they are credible voices in anti-bullying campaigns. Because as long as they continue in those attitudes and behaviors, the churches’ principle method of “evangelization” is, in fact, bullying.


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