(Photo credit: Got Questions)
I grew up in a time and place when bullying was just a part of regular life. That didn’t make it right or OK. It was just a fact. It still is, despite all the good intentions, laudable efforts, and zero-tolerance policies.
For me, living in a “tough” neighbourhood exacerbated the presence and activities of bullies. I have always have been small in stature, and, when it came to school, I was very early labelled as one of the smart kids. While this was positive in some respects, it made me a target for the bully-types who resented and even hated “sucks” and “TPs” (Teacher’s Pets). The last ingredient that fed into my target worthiness was that I came from a religious family.
For some years at school, I had the protection of a tough and respected big brother. In my last years of elementary school, big bro had gone to High School and I had to learn to hold my own. “Fight or Flight” was front and center when confrontations happened. Regardless of my pint-size, flight was rarely the choice I made. Normally, sooner or later, the fight would have to happen anyway.
Two things happened: (1) I learned, with some helpful lessons from big brother and a friend who showed me a few self-defensive Judo moves, that I actually could fight. (2) I learned that most bullies don’t like to be confronted by someone willing to call them out – especially when they’re not backed up by an admiring clique. I didn’t fight often, but I never lost when I did. “Reputation” set in and they left me alone. At age 13 I beat the worst bully in the school, a 16-year-old who had been to reform school, in a very public fight in the school yard. Thereafter, pint-size and all, and unknown to me, I became a lone alpha, a sort of rogue element. I had no clique and wanted none, just a few good friends who, like me, just wanted to be left alone.
Contrary to those “bad old days” of the early and mid-sixties, it is not only bullying which is now frowned upon, but, in our inimitable ultra-progressive fashion, anyone who resorts to violence for any reason, even self-defense, must become a project for reform, a misguided soul. Thus, self-defense is just another form of violence to be lumped in with the bully aggressor’s.
The wisdom of this day says that the victim should not retaliate or adopt a combat defence, but go to the authorities and report the bully. The bully/bullies are to be pitied at least as much as the victims. Rehabilitation is the primary goal for both, regardless of the issue of justice. Hopefully (and I share the hope), the bully can be redeemed and kept out of the dreadful land of prison, which, it is widely recognized, is too often really just Crime University. However, victims need to give up the right of self-defense and rely on the protection of the authorities, of the big-brother State rather than the family or local community. Unfortunately, the State authorities are rarely on site when the aggression occurs, so victims almost always just have to take their lumps, and occasionally much worse. Learning by experience, most of them never report their woes for fear of reprisal.
God is all for rehabilitation and redemption. While I am all for rehabilitation and redemption, I also understand the redemptive value of a good left jab and a solid right hook, or a surprise judo chop or flip when the situation requires it. Sometimes the only language bullies finally understand is the one that answers them more strongly in their own dialect and perhaps gives them serious pause for reflection about where their path is taking them. Admittedly, there is the danger of the escalating scale of retaliations, but that most often comes in group contexts.
Victims can always choose to grovel and plead with the bullies. Many do. The problem is that that response only leads to escalating episodes of the bullying wherein the bully needs to up the ante to get any thrill out of making the hapless victim grovel. Once again, the victim is highly unlikely to resort to the progressive playbook of running to the authorities to get protection and have the bullies brought into the light for rehabilitation. More often, they run to hide and avoid rather than “squeal”.
Back in the ‘hood of my day, we understood that, in dealing with the bullies, the authorities were mostly useless to change much until something really serious happened. Until that serious thing happened, we were better off learning to fend for ourselves. Some accepted the groveling posture and gave in to being used and manipulated. Some, like me, decided to “take up arms to resist the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare once put it. If you could pull it off, even moderately well, it often meant being left alone, especially if you had a few like-minded companions who would help you now and then. I was fortunate enough to find such “a few good men”. We called ourselves “the Non-Gang” and refused to participate in anything untoward but watching one another’s backs. The local Bike-Gang President thought this was so original and “clean” that he ordered his toughs and enforcers to leave us strictly alone.
There is one more method. It has been dubbed the “turn the other cheek” strategy. Contrary to first impressions, it is not groveling. Most everyone alive thinks it belongs in idealist la-la land. Neither is it the same as run-to-the-authorities-and-hope-for-best.
I was once targeted by a new kid in the ‘hood who decided that, to be recognized and accepted, he needed to pick a fight with me because I had an established “reputation”. I had never met this kid till a couple of weeks before the incident now to be described.
He stopped me on the way home from school late one spring afternoon and proceeded to do all he could to provoke me into fighting. I refused. He insulted me and called me nasty names, and pushed me and taunted me. I still refused. He slapped me in the face. I looked him straight in the eye and I told him I was not afraid of him, despite what he might think, but that I had no quarrel or grudge with him and felt no need to fight him to prove anything. With a final insulting gesture, he shook his fist in my face, then wheeled and left, calling me more nasty names. He declared that the next time I saw him he’d punch my face in whether I’d fight him or not.
We had had an audience for this display. Those who knew me were incredulous of my out-of-character behaviour. “Why didn’t you fight him?” said one. “You could beat him with one hand tied behind your back.”
I replied, ‘I probably could, but I have no reason to.”
“Sure you do! He insulted you and slapped you.”
“You won’t understand, but I’ve been thinking about what Jesus said.”
There were several looks of amazement. “Jesus? What’s he got to do with it?”
“Remember when he said, “If your enemy slaps you on one cheek, then turn the other for him to slap too”? That’s what I was doing.”
They were speechless. As I moved on with the shocked close friend with whom I had been walking, I explained to him that I was trying to be a better Christian.
Jesus seems to ignore our current wisdom about “how to deal with bullies”. Jesus’ way seems to say that, on the one hand, you don’t stand up to them with force, and on the other he leaves out running to the authorities for protection. Neither does he recommend or condone groveling.
I suppose I could have groveled or said I’d report the kid to the school principal, but that was not how I was built. I was taught at home never to grovel. That was not how we resolved things. At the time, having decided to actually try putting that particular verse of the New Testament into practice, I felt like a fool in a shark-tank.
Fear had not blocked me from fighting, but momentary conviction. I had resolved to try an experiment in doing something radical which Jesus had taught and seeing how it turned out. In fact, I’d been thinking about it for quite some time before this event happened. When the kid accosted me, it immediately entered my mind that this was the time to put it into practice.
For several weeks after, I suffered acutely from doubt about my conviction as having been secretly motivated by fear. I hoped I wouldn’t meet the kid in the street to have this business renewed. I also knew that my friends had talked about it and I wondered if they now secretly despised me, but no one accused me of fear and no bullies resurfaced to try to renew the effort to turn me into a victim.
Then one Saturday I was walking home from visiting s friend and I saw the new kid coming towards me. I decided not to avoid him. I resolved that if he tried to pick a fight this time, the experiment had failed and I would give him a hiding he would not forget. To my surprise, as he drew near, he broke into a wide smile and came up to me in a most friendly fashion. He then proceeded to apologize for his previous provocation and asked if I would forgive him. I answered, “Of course! What changed your mind?”
He looked sheepish, “Well, some of the guys around here told me how stupid I’d been in trying to pick a fight with you and said I had no idea how lucky I was not to got my butt kicked. So, I just want to ask if we can be friends, OK?” He offered his hand, and I shook it, saying, “No hard feelings, OK?”
“For sure!” he said. “And if you ever need someone to back you up, just come and ask, OK?”
We both went about our business. We remained on friendly terms thereafter.
Obviously, any lessons that are found here are not universal truths. Situations vary, and so will the necessary answers and actions, depending on the context and characters involved.
“Back in the day”, when the odds were too uneven, I was not beneath running. I was fast and elusive enough to escape. Even now I prefer to avoid bullies. Back then, when the odds were reasonably even, I usually confronted them. After all, it would come to that sooner or later. Confrontation usually meant calling a bluff, but it might, on occasion, mean actually resorting to battle. On the occasion described above, I found that the Jesus method resulted in short-term anguish that later turned into long-term gain.
I never won the 16-year-old’s friendship by humiliating him in public. Some bullies will wait for another chance when they have back-up to even the score. On that note, months later this guy threatened me with a switch-blade, but he had a more sensible friend with him who talked him out of using it on me by tugging him away and telling him, “It’s not worth it,” whatever “it” might be.
From some people, taking a stand won their respect and even admiration, but not friendship. Looking back on it, I can see that some of those people were now afraid of me and what I might do to them. But I had no desire at all to cross the line from victim to being a bully myself.
The Jesus way, was, overall, the most difficult one, but the one that changed something destructive into something positive and even downright good – not just for me and my new friend, but for my other friends who eventually saw and understood what had happened.
I am very far from a “saint”. But one time back then, something amazing happened because of a saying of Jesus being planted in my heart, and a resolve and strength I didn’t know I could carry through on actually working out for me.