Friday, May 7, 2010

Verbal Bullying - Not just a schoolyard thing...

Over time the sting has lessened. God is an amazing healer. But I remember the words, if not the burn. And I wish it had been an isolated incident. But these things rarely are.

I was in a church board meeting. One of the church lay leaders was accusing me of something, a moral misstep that would have had severe repercussions in my life and the lives of others if it was true. It wasn't true, though. I said that it wasn't true. In a moment of utter disrespect and rudeness, the lay leader flippantly referred to me by using the name of a "celebrity" who had committed the same sin that I was being accused of, and who went to great lengths to hide it. It was one name, two words, pregnant with meaning and accusations. Flippant so as to be passed over as the flow of discussion continued with no reactions at all from a group of people that I had always called friends and family in the faith. It even took a moment to sink into my head. What had he said? Did he mean...? Really? And this is okay with everyone?

The truth is, I will never know if it actually was okay with everyone else, that this person had said these words. One of the primary results of verbal bullying is that it silences not just the victim, but those listening. Who wants to end up on the radar of someone who speaks like this? Some of the people in the room were working towards the same goals as this lay leader, and whether or not they agreed with his methods, they seemed willing to accept them if they led to the desired end. What they may not have realized is that verbal bullying and abuse never result in anything positive. It is especially abhorrent when these methods are employed in the church. We are never...NEVER... to use Satan's tools to accomplish God's will. It just does not work that way. What we end up with is a semblance of godliness that disguises a whole lot of ugly.

A truthful witness gives honest testimony,
but a false witness tells lies.
Reckless words pierce like a sword,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue lasts only a moment.
Proverbs 12:17 - 19

So, what is verbal bullying? It is the use of ridicule, insults, name calling, a raised, aggressively forceful or angry voice, labeling, mocking or otherwise using words to hurt another person, especially in response to their opposing opinions or point of view. It is using words to shut down someone, to deter them from speaking their minds, to try to defeat their arguments by defeating the person as opposed to addressing the facts. The term bullying tends to apply to a power inequality. Two equally opinionated, wildly tempered people going at it over coffee at the local coffee shop may not be bullying. A married couple having a spat and saying things they will regret later may be hurtful and inappropriate, but may not necessarily be bullying. It may also not always be verbal. I have seen cold, dismissive stares shrink the spirit of someone trying to share an opinion. It is not always loud, and it can even sound civil to anyone who is standing on the outside looking in. Most of us are quite schooled in the fine art of crumpling another person's spirit. It is a heart issue. It is a desire within us to win, to defeat an opponent, to burn a person while the issues get tossed in a pile as mere kindling to our flames. It is bullying when the victim is caught off-guard, is intimidated, is unable to defend themselves. When there is an authority inequality, as with a teacher and student, pastor and parishioner, parent and child, verbal aggression almost always equals bullying.

Most of us are much more aware of the times we have been bullied, and much less aware of our own propensity for bullying others. Freedom from both being a victim and being an aggressor lies in a deepening, personal relationship with God, who is passionately in love with us and every other person we meet. As we enter into His Presence, find rest in His ways and His love, His passions become our passions and we become sensitive to the pain we cause others, and strengthened in our positions as His beloved children. I am much less easily bullied than I used to be, because bullying implies a power inequality, and I am filled with the power of the Holy Spirit of God and secure in my place in His heart. It is difficult to over-power the gentle, strong, compassionate, peaceful, joyful power of God in one of His children. I am also becoming less likely to bully others, as my heart is softened by God's love for others. When I am tempted to use anger to force my daughter into a place of obedience, the hurt in her eyes and the whisper of God's spirit in my heart remind me of the wrongness of my actions. God gives us the freedom to express our feelings and opinions, to fully experience our sorrows and pain, and to be at peace with the feelings and opinions of others even when they do not match ours.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5 - 11

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