catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 12 :: 2013.06.07 — 2013.06.20


Fight the power

Michael and I stood side-by-side panicking. We were in third grade. Sam was about six inches taller than I was and about a foot taller than Michael. He leaned in toward us with his shoulders back and his jaw stuck out in an affected under bite. Between us and him was my little red bike — banana seat, gooseneck handle bars, a pathetic barrier, not much better a line in the sand. As I recall, the dialogue was one-sided, and it ran like something from The Little Rascals. “This is my playground. I didn’t say you could be on it. So I’m gonna make you pay.” Sam had a pocketknife and he toyed with it and flashed it around like West Side Story. “What should I do to you? Hmm, let me think.” He tapped his chin with the flat of the blade and continued to ponder his own question. To my horror, he put the point of the blade on my red banana seat and pushed it through the plastic. I mustered up enough courage to rasp out one word through my constricted throat. “Don’t!” I was even more surprised when he stopped. “Alright. Here’s what I’m gonna do.” He gestured as if he had found and acceptable pathway to detente. “I’ll let you go. But first you have to kiss my feet.”

Michael and I weren’t close friends. I had seen him around, but we just happened to be on the secluded neighborhood playground together that day. Sam chose Michael to go first, and then he hiked his foot up on my bike frame. “Kiss it.” Michael scrunched up his face, bent down, pecked the toe of Sam’s sneaker, and then stammered away spitting and wiping his mouth. “Alright. Your turn.” But I stood there in fear, starting to ball up. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kiss Sam’s foot. I knew that it meant paying homage to him, it meant something like worshiping him. And deep inside I felt that if I kissed Sam’s shoe it would be like denying Christ, and the words of Matthew 10:33 bubbled up inside: “Whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” The moment of had come when all my ingrained Baptist fears were brought to bear, fears that prepared me against the day when I might be ordered to bow the knee to the Anti-Christ. It was like the persecution of the latter days. I started to cry, fearing martyrdom. And at that moment, Sam realized he had gone too far. He saw my tears. I guess he was afraid I might seriously tell his parents. His posture changed and he started to kick the ground with his hands in his pockets. I stood there desolate, humiliated, but he thought I was calling his bluff, and he left the playground to Michael and me.

Flash forward 35 years. I do not present above the cry-baby approach as normative. It worked for me in that situation. Perhaps the eschatological coupling in my mind gave it external power. But when I talk to my kids about bullying, I don’t struggle with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s non-violence quandary (which apparently even he himself couldn’t live with when he undertook to assassinate Hitler). I say, if you can’t simply walk away — and most bullying can be handled that way, preserving non-violence and taking the high road — if you are pursued and attacked, then fight back. And fight back better than the bully. Not with the same weapons, but just show you’ve got a pair. Even if you don’t.

Bonhoeffer got caught up on a literal application of Matthew 5:39: “Do not resist an evil person.” But I like what Simeon and Levi said to their father Jacob when they returned from wreaking vengeance on Shechem for his defiling of their sister Dinah. Jacob said, “You have brought trouble on me.” But they answered, “Should he treat our sister like a harlot?”

This approach shows a number of useful things for today’s bullying issue. First, it shows indignation at injustice. Second, it shows a defense of the weak and helpless. And although today we view Levi and Simeon as overwrought murderers, at least their family enjoyed a community that stood up for one another. No one was left alone to endure mistreatment.

We need to cultivate two things to help with bullying: a sense of valor in the face of injustice, and a tribe, a community, to which to belong. The victim of bullying should engage the conflict — stand up and fight back if you can’t assuage the situation. And any victim will be immeasurably better off if they take refuge in their tribe. That could be a protective parent or sibling, or a group of friends, or a church or social group.

Perhaps the answer to the bullying problem is better community, better child-rearing and a revival of an old world virtue that is lost. Call it ass-kickery. Call it self-respect. Call it expectations of civility and intolerance of brutality.

Like the poor, bullies will always be with us. We should not expect to eliminate bullying. The problem is deeply lodged in every human heart. It is an aspect of human nature, not simply an artifact of lingering social intolerance. All the public service posters and LGBT-acceptance seminars in the world are not going to bring an end to bullying.

But I think we do well to follow the worldview, if not the methods, of Simeon and Levi: to stand up for the helpless, to risk everything for justice. Koheleth tells us, “There is a time to tear down…a time to throw stones…a time to hate…a time for war.”

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