I’ve had a lot of conversations about bullying lately. I talked to some young people who told stories of being called names because they are perceived as “different.” They’ve even been pushed into lockers on occasion. They tell stories of witnessing fights between their peers that take place on the street outside the school while cars whiz past them.
I also read an article in The Lutheran about the bullying of clergy — individuals within congregations who attack their pastors over differences in opinion about the direction a congregation should go. Or, more subtely, I’ve heard many stories about church battles over new hymnals, adding air conditioning to the building or even something as simple as putting in new carpet.
My heart breaks when I hear these stories. Not only do I think that abusive speech and behavior are unacceptable for people who profess to be Christians, there is much collateral damage from these church fights. Most profoundly, youth and young adults (and other strong church members) get disillusioned by these situations. They begin to wonder if this is ALL church is about. They wonder if ALL Christians talk a good talk, but do not walk the walk. With these questions pressing at the forefront of their mind and soul, the walk away from the church, often never to return. Though I have never read a research study that supports this theory, I believe this dynamic has fueled the decline of the Mainline church.
In The Lutheran article Susan Neinaber, a senior consultant and mediator for the Alban Institute, comments on how she’s seen an increase in incivility in churches in the same way it seems to be on the rise in all of our public discourse. One of her most striking comments, at least to me, was, “The healthiest congregations have the lowest tolerance for inappropriate behavior. Unhealthy congregations tolerate the most outrageous behavior.”
The way I’ve observed this playing out in congregations (at least in the Upper Midwest), is that when there’s a church fight brewing, too often we want to be “nice” or “keep the peace” at any cost. And, the costs can be enormous if people are allowed to continue their bullying behavior. It’s no different from the situation I described earlier among high school students. When these students are called demeaning names or pushed into lockers, they and their peers, brush it off and don’t say anything. When a fight erupts on the sidewalk, people simply walk away, fearing what might come to them if they stand up to the abuse.
We may disagree about the meaning of Jesus’ teachings, but I think that most people will agree that Jesus was willing to say and do things that didn’t always make people happy. He was willing to stand up to religious and governmental authorities in order to profess the vision he had for a world governed by peace, love and hope rather than money, power and greed. If we are to follow Jesus’ example for leadership, then we (especially those of us with some power and influence) must stand up to these inappropriate behaviors, regardless of personal cost.
Perhaps this is why Jesus mentions peacemakers in the “Beatitudes” during his Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NRSV) To become children of God, we must recognize deeply the humanity of all people. If we are attuned to the inherent dignity of other human beings, we will not be able to as easily sit on our hands when others are being harrassed, even if we risk harrassment ourselves. If we do not tolerate the ‘outrageous behavior,’ then the behavior will begin to stop.