In our current high school series, our students have been engaging MTV’s shows in a redemptive conversation. One of the shows we tackled is called Bully Beatdown. Our Middle Schoolers had a similar conversation around the release of the new film The Karate Kid.
The show’s promo statement says this: Ever wanted help getting a bully to back off? When it’s time to even the odds, it’s time for Bully Beatdown. In each episode of Bully Beatdown, victims reach out to the host, professional mixed martial arts fighter Jason “Mayhem” Miller, to enlist his help. After learning why this guy needs a beatdown, Mayhem will “ambush” the bully. Calling him out in front of others, Mayhem will give him a choice: accept the challenge of fighting a MMA fighter or look like a coward.
What seems to be the case here is that bullies are corrected by being bullied themselves. This sounds okay, almost like “giving them a taste of their own medicine.” However, I wonder if Jesus would provide another way. This is a slippery slope and is dangerous. This is the question – Does might make right?
The problem of bullying is getting a lot of attention right now. 2 girls in Minnesota just hung themselves at a sleepover in response to bullying. Millions of people have seen the viral video of a 15 year old named Casey body slamming his bully. George St. Pierre, the UFC fighter, talks openly about how badly he was bullied as a kid. This isn’t just a physical issue; it is a social issue as well. The psychological torment we inflict on each other is a serious thing.
Bullying is a complex problem without an easy solution. The standard answer from youth workers and school officials is that a bullied person should “go get help” or “tell someone.” Certainly safety is an issue and school officials and other adults want to protect kids and teens. At the same time, this approach oversimplifies the problem. This is a complex issue, because sometimes what you need back is not just your safety but also your dignity. Sometimes “telling” just makes the problem so much worse. If your mom ends up trying to fight the battle for you, it doesn’t help you get back your dignity. Bullies know this and it gives them power. It is also not always realistic solution to just stand up to some bullies. There is always a bigger dog on the block, but you might not be that dog. In the movies, you stand up to the bully and they back down or you gloriously win because you get trained by an old Japanese handy man/karate expert. In real life, sometimes standing up means you end up getting pounded.
This issue becomes especially volatile because of the mixed messages teens here from people in authority. Some argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and that the only God-honoring response to bullying would be passive submission. Others advocate fighting back, an action that can lead to more violence and serious consequences (like being expelled from school). Is there such a thing as “redemptive violence,” or is any act of violence abhorrent?
Many people have heard the famous teaching of Jesus about “turning the other cheek.” This is found in Matthew 5:38-48. Some people argue that Jesus was a pacifist, and to follow Jesus means that you have no right to self-defense or resistance. The troubling phrase is: “Do not resist an evil person.” Does following Jesus mean a person cannot or should not engage in self-defense? A better translation of this phrase, one more faithful to the common use of the Greek words would be: “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” We certainly are to resist evil. Jesus is not saying we should lie down and do nothing. A passive response would not accomplish anything but to embolden the bully and maintain the power imbalance. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run contrary to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. I do not think Jesus is teaching people to do nothing. To do nothing when you see someone else getting bullied or mistreated is also far from the heart of Jesus. This is the root of the problem with a lot of bullying. Bullies have power not just because they are big or strong, but often because they have been given social power by the crowd. Unchecked and unrestrained evil just leads to more evil. We understand this when it comes to governments, police forces, authority figures and so on, but what about the average person? What responsibility do the powerful have to protect the weak? Jesus’ goal here is introducing a different way of handling violence, offense, and mistreatment. He is talking to Jews in occupied Roman territory, people that were very familiar with being bullied by someone much more powerful than them. He uses three examples that illustrate his point, all of which would have been understood and maybe even experienced by his audience. Jesus is introducing a different perspective on the problem.
Others argue that the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching has been lost because of historical distance. The original audience would have understood Jesus differently than we do now. To them, all of Jesus’ examples are not examples of passive submission, but of resistance. Jesus gives an alternative to passivity and violence. For example: Jesus instruction to “turn the other cheek” might actually be a creative way to turn the tables on your attacker. Think about the physics of striking someone on the left cheek. Most people, now and then, are right handed. The only way to strike the left cheek would be with a back-handed slap. In the ancient world, this act was less about inflicting injury and more about insult. It was the way a man slapped a woman, or a slave (prejudice that betrays the backwards thinking of the ancient world, not of this author!). It was a way that social inequality was communicated and enforced. The goal of such a slap is to humiliate and degrade. If a Roman punched another Roman, the fine was equivalent to about $40. If a Roman back-handed another Roman, the fine was $4000. The backhand slap was that offensive. (There is no fine for a Roman to backhand a non-Roman, like a Jew, which is the point.) Of course, you could always slap someone with your left hand on the left cheek, but that would be an insult as well because the left hand was used for toilet purposes. By turning the other cheek, you are taking away the ability of the other person to insult you. Yes, they could punch you – but a punch has a different meaning. If they do punch, the oppressor has been forced against his will to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The act of turning the other cheek denies the aggressor the power to humiliate. It is an act of defiance, one that says: “I will not cower in the face of evil, but I will not accept your insult. I refuse to let you demeans me.”
This all goes beyond fight or flight. It is about meeting force with ridicule or humor, asserting humanity, and exposing injustice. Responding in this way, you are forcing the oppressor to see you in a new light and to think about their actions. The goal here is to defeat a bully not by destroying him or her. Your true enemy is not the person; it is the evil present in their actions and attitudes. To seek the destruction of your true enemy is to seek the transformation of the person. Remember that this teaching of Jesus is delivered in the context of the command to love your enemies.
That being said, the hard reality is that we live in a world filled with evil, where people can dominate, exploit, and take advantage of one another. It is a world where the strong deprive the weak of dignity and justice, where the powerful rule over the powerless with violence and oppression. The problem with violence is when only the evil or unrestrained people are capable of it. I am not convinced that Jesus would never support or recommend any kind of violence. Should you not restrain a violent person from harming others because you are afraid of violence yourself? If everyone took that attitude, evil would run unrestrained. In my opinion, there is a certain kind of evil that you cannot reason with. It needs to be brought to heel, even if this means some show of force. Again, the goal is always the disarming end of violence, the restoration of dignity, and the transformation of the other. Could this ever require violent resistance to achieve?
*Questions for discussion:
-Do you think bullying is a serious problem? Why or why not?
-What do you think about Casey, the 15 year old that body-slammed his bully to the ground? Do you think he should have reacted differently? What would you do if you witnessed this event in the hallway of your school? What do you think your parents woudl expect you to do?
-When, if ever, is violence justified?