Bullying is a hot topic for bloggers, social workers, school officials, parents, psychologists, and even the government! The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) defines “bullying as any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” Say again?
The statement from the CDC implies that bullying is negative behavior limited to youths who are in no way related to or in relationship with the person they are bullying. Is that true?
Today, the author led a women’s group in a discussion about family life. One of the participants intimated that family get-togethers were getting more and more difficult for her mother because the mother’s siblings were becoming increasingly hostile to the mother’s religious and albeit political beliefs. The adult siblings would gather at family functions and, as if pre-planned, gather around her mother and goad her with obvious, anti-Catholic questions, sentiments, and statements about obvious issues. They appear to sharpen their axes to grind in unison for these occasions. Unfortunately the mother no longer feels welcome or respected at these family functions. Her own immediate family remains faithfully Catholic while her extended family including her siblings and their offspring have chosen to step off the religious grid.
While the questions and topics are fair to debate and bring up for discussion among honest and open brokers, the siblings don’t appear to be of that mindset. Neither do they try and keep it fair, balanced or sensitive to the social or mental wellbeing of their orthodox sister. The unified front by the siblings causes the Catholic sister to feel as if she is under attack.
But, the CDC tells us that adults and/or dating partners do not fit the classification of bullies; so what types of foes are they? Merely domestic aggressors? I disagree. If anything feels like and looks like bullying, the shoe fits and so does the name.
Is the mother’s docile approach the best one to take is the bigger question? Acting indifferent certainly falls within the psychologists’ recommended actions to take against bullies; but, does it work? Normally, a victim of bullying has two basic choices: Fight or Flight. In this case, flight does not seem to be working. In fact, the mother’s anxiety increases prior to extended family gatherings out of concern that it will re-occur and it almost always does. Is there anything else she can do short of cutting off ties with her siblings?
When resolving situations like this, it is always helpful to ask ‘what would Jesus do’? While this may seem like a trite answer, let’s consider what he did do. We read in Luke 23:9-11 the following:“When Herod questioned Jesus at some length, Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priest sad scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod and his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him, then he put on an elegant robe and had him sent back to Pilate. That same day, Herod and Pilate became friends with each other, before this they had been enemies. “ Is it possible that the siblings have grown closer together because of their collective harassment of their Catholic sister - much like Pilate and Herod?
Consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his Letters From Prison: “Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is of no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved - indeed the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel, we shall never gain try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.”
Are the siblings fools to treat cautiously or simply ones to feel sorry for because of their lack of sympathy and awareness of their sister’s discomfort because of their own insecurities? What exactly should the sister do? Even Jesus remained mute when the questioners were obviously not interested in the Truth. What are in the cards for this woman? Avoidance, ostracism, or remaining angry and anxious whenever the situation reoccurs? What?
A father recently shared this story to me. Let me tell you about the son’s situation before resolving what the sister ought not do and what she ought to do. The son was being bullied in school by his peers some years ago. The father’s advice to his son was to ignore the harassment; but, that obviously wasn’t working very well for anyone. The bullies kept bullying and the son was feeling worse about his own situation every week that went by. The father turned to a book entitled Engaging the Powers by Walter Wink for good counsel. Wink argues in the third chapter [entitled Jesus’ Third Way] [http://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus'%20Third%20Way.pdf] that Jesus showed us a third way to respond to aggression (neither fight or flight). His Way included: He seized the moral initiative; He stood His ground; He made the powers to be make decisions for which they were not really prepared for; He obviously recognized his own power and restrained himself while facing the humiliating circumstances without resorting to violence; He was willing to suffer the humiliation for a greater good; He forced his oppressors to see Him in a new light by the words He used and the postures He took; He asserted his own humanity and dignity as a person within the encounters; He met force with opposing, equal non-force; He exposed the injustice of the situation; and He shamed some of his oppressors into repentance. Wink includes other points in Jesus’ Third way and you can read about them at the previous link. Rather than discussing the effectiveness of each one (that is for future essays), let’s look at the overall effect on His oppressors. It sent most of them into situations and decisions from which they never again had the upper hand.
After reading Wink’s book, the father realized that he needed to teach his son the Third Way. They approached the parents of the bully; forgave the bully (before being asked) and laid out additional steps toward a peaceful resolution. This effectively changed the tides for both families. The bully never did become good friends with the son but at least he stopped bullying him.
Perhaps this is the solution for the Catholic woman as well. Perhaps she should call up each sibling individually, ask to meet with them, forgive them for their mistreatment of her (before they ask) and set the record straight about how she feels about their bullying, her faith and her beliefs. Then she could ask if they have questions about her beliefs and ask for time to discuss it with the individual sibling - then and there. While forging a mutual agreement on all matters of faith and morals is unlikely, it may at least give them the chance to see her in a completely new light. It should prove to them she is willing to stand her ground going forward. It may force a few of them to make different choices when getting together at family functions. They will likely not be prepared for this new found courage from their sister. It will prove to them that she has taken control of the former power dynamic and turned it upside down. It could also end up with various offers of repentance. At a minimum, it will probably take some of the wind out of the coalition of bullying.
Perhaps I ought to take my own advice. It is way too easy for me to act completely the opposite of the docile sister. Perhaps, I have offended others in my own defense of faith and morals. It is easier to see the log in my brothers eyes than in my own that is for sure. May the Lord have mercy on all of us blockheads.