ShameBullying is an act of emotional violence intended to cause shame to another person.
Last week I mentioned on facebook/Twitter that I was wearing pink as part of Pink Shirt Day, a movement to help raise awareness about bullying (here’s one article that gives a little background about why pink shirts). At the time I wrote that wearing a pink shirt was not all I planned to do to combat bullying.
As a member of the Church and Society B legislative committee at General Conference (convening in one week +1 hour, but who’s counting?), I will have the opportunity to discuss a few pieces of legislation seeking to update the UMC’s resolution, “Prohibition of Bullying.” There are some strengths to the various proposals offered (naming the often fatal consequences of bullying, encouraging a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying, expressing the church’s stance through sermons and printed materials). However, I feel that across the board, the resolution could be stronger.
I’d like to see our denomination have a special Sunday devoted to combating bullying. We have a Creation Sabbath (this Sunday!), and a Children’s Health Care Sabbath; I’d like us to have a Sunday once a year– or at least once in the next quadrennium– devoted to being a sanctuary from bullying.
However, I think we need to go further, and this is tough. I believe that as a church, as members of the global body of people called Christian, we need to take a long, hard look at how our words, actions, and lack of action have contributed to a culture that allows bullying.
We are not the only ones to blame, by any means. Perhaps it is part of human nature, going back to our pack/tribe instincts, to pick on or ostracize those “not like us” or those who we think represent weaknesses or characteristics we would rather not see. While the most obvious cases of bullying these days are against persons who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, people get bullied for every reason and no reason. I have no idea, really, what made me such a great target in middle school– Was it being a bit, er, pudgy? Hitting puberty a little earlier? Loving school, learning, and teachers to the point of being a “nerd” and a “geek” long before those things were cool (they are now, I promise)? Having less than zero skill at kickball? Was it that I stood up for others, thereby allying myself with the rest of the “losers”? We didn’t even have a glee club to join together (not that I sing). In any case, I was on the receiving end of vicious, demeaning, dehumanizing gossip and joking, often sexual in nature. In sixth grade.
None of what I experienced fell within the purview of the church per se. None of what I experienced, I would also argue, was anything like the scope of what some of my glbt friends endured and endure. While I would say I was teased and harassed and shamed and bullied and degraded, it was kind of generalized. The bullying and harassment directed at individuals who are glbt have a sort of organization about them; they spring from a shared narrative. I was teased because I was uncool. I believe that glbt individuals are bullied because people believe they are unnatural.
It is my strong belief that the mistreatment of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender in our society arises from a narrative about “those people.” They are somehow broken, wrong, vile. They are not natural. They are inherently less than “us” (although of course, recent studies show that the “us” doing the bullying are often not so different from the “them” selected as victims).
Here is my challenge: the Christian church needs to seriously examine our role in supporting and perpetuating this narrative.
I won’t go further into the narrative. We know how wrong it is, how fatally brutal. I won’t go further into our support and perpetuation of it. We know what churches, denominations, and movements have historically said about gay and lesbian people, what we say now, and how we “justify” our words. But I will say this: unless we seriously examine and repent of our role in perpetuating a narrative that dehumanizes glbt persons, we cannot wash our hands of the bullying, harassment, shame, and torture unleashed upon them.
We have to admit that we have been wrong– wrong to label people as unnatural, wrong to build a narrative of immorality around loving actions, wrong to keep silent when people have been “gay-bashed” in the name of Christ. I will admit that I don’t exactly know how we do this if we are going to hold on to the claim that homosexuality is unnatural or immoral (nor do I think it’s my job to do deep theological reflection for positions that I feel are wrong and untenable). But for those of us who believe that bullying, harassment, and dehumanization are wrong, we’d better find a way to say that any part we have played in them is wrong too. I call for a call to repentance for our complicity in the narrative that supports bullying.
Then, and I do believe only then, can we model zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, create safe spaces for those who have been the targets of bullying and harassment, and say with any integrity that we are committed to combating this evil in all its forms.
The Rev. Rebecca Clark is an ordained elder in the New England Conference, serving in Montpelier Vt.