Dirty Green Paper – The Dark Side of Money

Before we wrap up this series, we need to address a very important truth: Money has a “dark side.” You can see this in the unhealthy way our culture relates to money. It seems like we constantly hear stories about people mistreating one another or exploiting one another for money. We hear stories about corporate greed, political corruption, and dishonest gain. Many of us are guilty of forgetting how rich we are because we are a part of a system that constantly tells us we do not have.

The Bible understands this tendency in our hearts. Paul wrote to his protégé, a young pastor named Timothy, trying to protect his heart from this lie of lack. Some false teachers at the time had fallen into the trap, and they began twisting God’s word to support their lifestyle of greed and exploitation. 1 Timothy 6:6 – “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Money isn’t evil. It isn’t the root of all evil. The love of money, however, is the root of all kinds of evil. What are some dangers we need to avoid?

Hungering for Money: Greed – Greed is listed in scripture right alongside sins that generally get a more severe treatment from people – like sexual immorality, lust, idolatry, and evil desires. Even if it is such a common trait in our culture, the Bible does not find it acceptable. Greed is a dangerous thing. It has a numbing effect on your heart. What used to satisfy you cannot satisfy you anymore. Ecclesiastes 5:10-15 states this so poetically: when you love money, it will never be enough! As goods increase, so does consumption. This is the story of our culture – more, more, more. Everyone always feels like they don’t quite have enough money, no matter how much they have. We tend to just live right up to (and even beyond) however much money we have. So, there is an insatiable desire for more. It seems like in the eyes of our culture, success is the same as how much you have! Stuff is nice! We live in a world that values its stuff! We are a little bit backwards, in that we work so hard to be able to buy and upkeep all are stuff that we don’t have any time to use any of it…like we water our grass so it will grow just so we can cut it down again. A huge percentage of the gross national product is stuff. Not food, resources, materials, even labor. It is “consumer goods,” which is a fancy name for smart phones, video games, blue jeans, and other stuff. They need to sell you this junk, so they need to convince you that you need it. And we buy the lie all the time. What Paul taught Timothy here is so important: contentment. It is a choice of the heart that declares: what I have is enough. Listen to this: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said: ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.'” (Hebrews 13:5) FREE is the right word there. FREE as in not ensnared, not trapped, and not controlled by our desire for more.

Slavery to Money: Debt – Debt is very simply something that you owe. It is a tough spot to find yourself in. We have enough money for what we need, but not always for what we want, and this is where they get us. If you want something you cannot afford, you will buy it with “credit.” That is how money works: if we get it, it gets us. If we don’t have it, our lives are spent trying to get it. When we do get it, we don’t own it as much as it owns us. Check out Proverbs 22:7“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Another word for debt would be obligation. It is especially troublesome when your obligations or debts prevent you from going after what God wants for you. Debt takes away your choices. You might want to give, or to change something about your career or your life, but you can’t because you have someone else calling the shots. Whoever you owe has a claim on you. Even the stuff you have on credit actually has someone else’s name on it. According to Dave Ramsey’s FPU, the average college student has $2,200 in credit card debt and will graduate with $20,000 in student loans. Can you imagine starting your adult life with no job and $22,200 of debt? That’s a terrible way to enter adulthood. That debt will just hang around your neck like a boat anchor, always dragging you down and limiting your options. We are called to excellence, to lead the world and not be in bondage to it. Don’t buy something if you cannot afford it. Remember our vision for money: to be blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Hard to do when you are broke or in debt. People used to talk about “good debt:” debt that will later make you money. This includes school loans and mortgages. I wonder if there is any such thing as “good debt.” Home mortgages are not always good investments and the same is true of college loans. The prevention for debt is simple wisdom. No one really thinks it is a good idea to spend more than we have on stuff we don’t really need, but we do so little thinking, if we really stop to think about it. Thinking didn’t get us into debt – lack of thinking did. We have to think! This involves discipline and vision. It takes courage to do something different.

Questions for discussion:
-Do you feel rich? Why or why not? Why do you think we have a hard time recognizing our own wealth?
-What are some examples of why greed is so dangerous? Can you think of an example of people being mistreated for money?
-Why is debt dangerous and dumb?

Dirty Green Paper – Why to Save it Wisely

The Echo students have been exploring this idea: our relationship with money is closely linked to our relationship with God. The truth is this: we have problems with money that have spiritual roots. This week we talked about two important things you can do with money: Saving and Investing.

This may seem a silly thing to talk to teenagers about, who may believe savng money is something they’ll just take care of later, when they’re older and have a steady income. However, if we can help them learn good principles about saving now, they’ll be prepared to build wealth like crazy once a real income starts rolling in and have the character and skills to do something great with it. Besides, aren’t there some things teens need money for now? What about saving for a car, your own computer, or college, or a mission trip next summer?

The practice of saving gives you peace of mind in emergencies and the ability to make smart purchases. By faithfully learning God’s principles for saving money, you’ll be prepared to handle whatever opportunity or surprise He brings your way. No matter how old you are or how much money you make, being broke severely limits your ability to serve other people and take care of yourself. To avoid this trap, we need to understand Scripture’s wisdom on why and how to save money.

Proverbs 21:20 – While the wise man saves and plans for the future, the foolish man lives for the moment, spending and wasting every dime he gets his hands on. This is what we talked out:

FIRST, Saving is not hoarding.
Luke 12:16-21 – tells a parable about a man that was hoarding things for himself, but was not “rich toward God.” Hoarding is about selfishness and excess. It is about the pursuit of more. Hoarding is a closed fist, it is holding on to your money and possessions with inordinate affection. The heart that clings to and trusts in money is not aligned to the Kingdom of God. Sometimes people confuse hoarding with saving, and because they fear this attitude or have been taught wrongly, they act like accumulating any wealth is sinful. They spend or give away everything as soon as they get, sometimes talking as if that is a lifestyle that honors God because you trust in God alone and not your savings. I have a hard time believing that this attitude of irresponsibility is a reflection of deep trust in God, it seems reckless and unwise. The same people are those that end up needing help in a crisis, while the ones who save and invest wisely are the ones able to actually give help. Remember, our goal with money is to be blessed by God to be a blessing to others. It’s hard to do this if you are always broke! Saving is about security and availability to the plan of God. It is a way to protect your goals and give you peace of mind.

Second, We save to prepare for the future we cannot expect. We save because the future is uncertain! When you save and invest, you need to keep your mind not only on this world, but also on God’s Kingdom. You have the ability to avert crisis or to help others through crisis when you have managed God’s resources responsibly. This is the theme of several stories in scripture: the blessing or favor of God spills over on others from God’s people. Joseph averts the crisis of the regional famine through revelation, wisdom, and good planning. Nehemiah loans money at no interest to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. And there are others – examples where people who were blessed by God were a channel for the blessing of God to flow to others. Look at how Joseph did this in Genesis 41:34-36. With savings, it is about knowing that emergencies and calamities happen, so we need some security against it. It is about positioning yourself in such a way that you will always be prepared to do what God’s Kingdom requires of you, and that you won’t have the excuse of being under-resourced.

Third, We save to plan for the future we do expect. Saving is about thinking long term. We are not very good at this! We tend to live in the moment and sometimes in doing so, we rob the future. Saving is the opposite of debt. Larry Burkett said once: “Saving is making provision for tomorrow, but debt is presumption upon tomorrow.” We have a “play now, pay later” attitude that our culture encourages steadily, but sometimes we are not prepared to pay the cost we incur. Opportunities come: a mission trip, a special project, a need in a friend’s life, an act of mercy – and sometimes we cannot respond because we have lived with so little margin up to that moment. The American way is not the way of the Kingdom of God in this regard. Our culture encourages us to live right up to the level of our means, and sometimes even beyond it. Margin is a concept that could dramatically change our stories. The Kingdom of God would demand that we live well below our means, with margin, so that we can give and save significantly. It would employ simplicity and humility to keep us from running after stuff or the temptation to “keep up with the Jones’s.” With this concept, thinking about the future, time matters.

• Pay yourself first. This is a principle of smart financial planning. It says basically that we not to be trusted! If we wait until the end of the month and save whatever is left over, we will have spent it on things that really don’t matter to us. If you save right away, that temptation is removed. Every time you get $10, give one of them to God’s work FIRST. Then, immediately put one of them in savings. This makes sure that you prioritize what matters most. ALWAYS SAVE some of every dollar that comes to you! This makes the choice to save responsibly easier, because you make that choice right away. Otherwise, you are standing there looking at the new paintball gun and saving just doesn’t seem very fun!

• Start Early! Many teens think something like: “I am just a teenager, I can’t save now.” I think they control more money than they know, but they spend it and so quickly they don’t recognize the amount. One survey showed that American teen spending exceeded $169 billion in one year. While their income may be limited, they do have a greater amount of one resource now than you will ever have: time! Even small amounts of money can grow SUBSTANTIALLY over time. Because of something called “compounding,” investments generate more earnings as they increase in value. Albert Einstein was so impressed by compounding; he called it “the most powerful force in the universe.” Compounding depends on two things: time and the rate of return. This is where the difference between saving and investing really becomes important. Saving is normally for short term goals (I am setting aside money to buy a computer) and you use a savings account for that. Investing is about LONG term goals (like college or to buy a house or retire) and this is where you take a bit more risk to get a better interest rate. Buying shares of a stock is an example of an investment. You have time now, and you need to take advantage of it! Even if you start with just a small amount, get into the habit of saving now because you are giving yourself the gift of a better future. The amount doesn’t matter nearly as much as the habit, and the amount matters less and less the earlier you start! The earlier you start, the more powerful savings becomes. Look at the difference between Ben and Arthur in this chart made famous by Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. When you are dealing with investment interest rate of 12% (some would say that is unrealistically high), time matters BIG. Ben started early, and Arthur never could catch him even though he invested far more.

Many people criticize the example of Ben and Arthur because of the unrealistic rate of return. Even with more modest numbers, like 7% instead of 12%, starting early is astonishingly effective. Imagine you start investing $2000 every year when you are 18. You put it into a mutual fund making 7%, and you do this for 10 years. Ten years later, you have a baby and you stop feeding the investment because you have to buy diapers or something. Your sister, who sees that you always seem to have money and she is always broke, decides to do the same, but she doesn’t start until she is 31. She puts $2000 a year into the same mutual fund that you used, and does it for the next 35 years. So, you have invested a total of $20,000, and your sister will have invested $70,000. Who will have more money at age 65? Believe it or not, you will. She will never be able to catch you because of the compound interest over time! You will have $361,418, and she will have $276,474. That is a difference of $84,944! That is the power of time! If you kept investing and didn’t stop, you would have $706,000 by age 65!

Surviving Middle School – What Captures your Heart?

We wrapped up our series Surviving Middle School this week talking about surviving in faith. After almost a decade in student ministry, I have come to recognize that the strength a student’s faith boils down to one thing: What captures his or her heart? Answer this question and I can tell you whether or not you have what it takes to survive in faith. The kind of people that can face the tests and difficulties life brings and survive with faith in tact might be called “obsessed.” So what are you obsessed with? What captures your heart? What are you in love with – what gets your thoughts and your time and your devotion? The ancient Hebrews knew that centering your heart on God was essential to faith. They would start each day with a prayer they called the “Shema.” This comes from a passage in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the secret to surviving Middle School with your faith in tact. It is the one thing.

Thriving faith is really about having a heart that is captured by God. Everything else seems to be less important when your give your heart to something or someone. I am talking about being passionately in love with God – worshiping Him with all your heart, soul, and strength. This is the one thing. If God has captured your heart, if you have seen and experienced the Love of God, you will be able to see through everything else.

There are many rivals for the attention and affection of a teenager: fashion, cell phones, iPods, boyfriends, x-boxes, sports, school, pride, vanity, and so on. None of these are inherently evil, but they can still mess up our priorities. There are some great things out there that we can love and be passionate about, but when these things become the center of our lives, we will find that they are inadequate. Many of the things that demand our attention and affection are good things, but they are not supposed to be central things. Inordinate affection has a corrupting and decaying affect on the object and the giver of love. As creatures we have been designed to keep God at the center of our lives. This is a truth that sometimes gets diminished because of fear.

We hear God demanding our love with heart, soul, and strength, and sometimes we feel guilty about loving other things. The secret is that loving God with everything does always not subtract from the love you can display for other things, in many cases it amplifies it. When you center your life on Him, even your passion for other things can be better and healthier. The best way for me to love my wife is to love God with all my heart, and then I learn to love her more. Love is an infinite resource in God’s kingdom.

I learned this in a powerful way when I became a father.
I love my wife intensely, and when our first daughter was about to be born, I wondered how I could make room in my heart for another. So, when she was born I dutifully took the love I had for my wife, cut it in half, and gave half of my love to her and half to our daughter. Of course that is silliness! That isn’t how love works. The truth is that when Arabella (my daughter) was born, I loved Jamie (my wife) MORE than ever, not less. Love can do that – it can grow in capacity infinitely! The more you love, the more you have the ability to love. The same thing was true when my second daughter was born. It was not a challenge to find enough love for her as well, as if I had to make room in my heart for her. In reality, my heart just grew bigger and my love for each member of my family grew as well. Our love for God is much the same: when we direct our attention and focus our affection on Him, our passions for every other good thing in this world become more pure, more refined, and more intense.

So do it! Unlock the secret to thriving faith: receive love from God and return it to Him with everything you have.

Questions to ponder with your teen:
*What does it mean to love God with all your heart?
*What about with all your soul?
*What about with all your strength?
*Does this mean that you cannot love anything else? Why or why not?

Surviving Middle School

I love watching the “survival” themed shows that are always invading the Airways. Man vs. Wild, I Shouldn’t be Alive, and Survivor are probably the most popular, but my favorite is Survivorman. The Canadian Les Stroud amazes me on every episode. Not only can he survive in the most hostile environments imaginable, but he does so while filming everything himself. No camera crew to give assistance (like Bear Grylls recieves), no tricks (like Bear Grylls employs), and no “dramatization” or theatrics (did I mention Bear Grylls real name is Edward?).

Some people would classify Middle School as a survival scenario. Students leave the predictable environment of elementary schools to roam the labyrinth of middle school hallways and deal with the dangers within. They are faced with social pressure and social changes as cliques are formed and friend groups are tested and established. They are slammed with physical changes as puberty complicates the scene with unwelcome hormones. As a youth pastor, the range of exposure in middle school is hard to navigate: some girls are tucking their stuffed animal collection in at night while other girls are dealing with sexual attention from their boyfriends. This month, Echo has been talking about strategies for survival in middle school. Our goal is that all of our students do more than survive these turbulent years and they actually thrive: growing in wisdom, maturity, and influence.

Survival experts will talk about the Rule of Three, which is a way to establish the order of priorities in a survival situation. A person can live for:
three minutes without air,
three hour without shelter,
three days without water,
three weeks without food,
and three months without love.

When it comes to Surviving Middle School, the rule of 3 looks a little different. These are the three areas that every adolescent needs to address if they are going to survive:

1. The Challenge of Identity – Who am I? One of the things students soon discover in Middle School is the amount of labels that are tossed around. People want to categorize other people: are you going to be a jock, a skater, a hip hop boy, emo, preppie, goth, glamor girl, punk, geek, brain, lax bro, or whatever. So much energy in Middle School can be spent trying to maintain your reputation or enforce or define you label. The danger is when students stop being themselves in an attempt to be who others want them to be. Middle schoolers need to be reminded that they are not what the crowd says they are; not unless they choose to become that. No label or reputation really defines one’s identity. Some students will rise above this pressure and refuse to defined by anything but God. These students know that first and foremost they belong to God and what He says is most important.

2. The Challenge of Belonging – Where do I fit? One of the biggest challenges students face in Middle School is LUNCH. The questions that troubles many in the first weeks of school are: where will I sit? Who will you sit with? Do any of my friends have the same lunch that I have? Remember, they are in the uncharted wilderness of the Middle School social system; the last thing they want is to be the person that has to sit alone! The question “Where do I sit?” is really about a deeper question: “Where do I fit?” Never before has who you choose as your friends mattered so much. Here are a couple of survival tips that we offer to new middle schoolers: figure out before hand which of the friends you already know have the same lunch as you, so you know what to expect. We also give our students this challenge: be on the lookout for people who are sitting alone – it is your job as a follower of Christ to not let that happen. Never underestimate how much friends can affect your future.

3. The Challenge of Purpose – Do I matter? Do my choices matter? Every student has to deal with the challenge of establishing autonomy. This is the source of much conflict between parents and teenagers. As they search for independence, they often do so by pushing back against authority figures, especially mom and dad. They start desiring greater levels of freedom without necessarily demonstrating greater levels of responsibility. Here is the good news: everything I have seen and everything I am reading is still confirming that students values and choices are MOST influenced not by media or their peer group, but by their families. As parents, you still are the most important voices in the lives of your students. They will listen to you, and they do listen to you. This can be tough to believe during the times of one-word answers and ipod earplugs, but it is still true. The time you spend with your teenagers and the input you give them will have the greatest affect on their values formation.

One of the mistakes that I see parents make is assuming that the “stiff arm” of their teenage kids actually means they want “space.” They are struggling with the challenge of autonomy, and how they express their independence from you while still feeling that they want to be close to you. Push through the stiff arm and know that you are the most important voice in their world. Your affirmation and guidance will always carry more weight than anyone else’s. We have to learn to hear what they mean past what we think they are saying. It is easy for us to misunderstand the language of adolescence (largely because it is always in the dialect of sarcasm with an accent of attitude), but let me try to translate a few things I am sure teenagers are looking for:
-They long to belong. (They say: “You don’t know me.” We hear: “I don’t matter to them.”)
-They long to be taken seriously. (They say: “You never listen to me.” We hear: “They don’t want to listen to me.”)
-They long to matter. (They say: “I can do it!” We hear: “They don’t need me.”)
-They long for a safe place. (They say: “I’m fine, okay?” We hear: “They want to be left alone.”)
-They long to be uniquely themselves. (They say: “It’s my life – you can’t tell me what to do.” We hear: “They don’t care what I think.”)
-They long to be wanted. (They say: “Nobody cares about me.” We hear: “They don’t care about me.”)

Tips for New College Parents – How to handle your freshmen

Many of our parents are just now discovering a new rhythm of life after sending their kids off to college. This is a very difficult transition for many, especially when so much of life revolved around your kid for 18 years. One of the things we have found to be true of early college students is that they still need the voice of youth ministry – and more importantly they still need the guidance of their parents. Still, the conversation needs to shift as students enters greater dimensions of autonomy. Our youth leaders do their best to keep the conversations about faith going with students, even after they have graduated from our program and head off to college, but the conversation looks different after high school. This is often a hard transition for parents and students alike.

Echo has been following the research of the “Sticky Faith Project” for a few years now, and listening carefully to their recommendations and findings. They have just published a great article on stickyfaith.org about the tough transition for college freshmen and their parents.

Check it out here: http://stickyfaith.org/articles/out-of-the-nest

How to say friend – Conflict

Inevitably, every true friendship will be tested by conflict. Conflict makes people uncomfortable, and it isn’t fun, but it happens. At some point, you will disagree with or misbehave against or get wronged by someone you call a friend, and how you handle this conflict will determine the fate of the friendship. There are all kinds of subtle realities that feed conflict in relationships; we are fallen creatures that look to our own interests and sometimes neglect the interests of others. One conflict that is dramatically narrated in scripture happened between two prominent leaders in the early church.

Acts 15:36-41Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas have been traveling companions and partners in ministry. They have been a missionary team. At first, Barnabas was the “leader;” he took the young recent convert Saul of Tarsas under his wing and invited him to minister alongside him. As time went on and they endured challenges and achieved success, Saul (Paul) distinguishes himself as a powerful teacher and becomes the more prominent of the two. There is actually a moment where the text notes that Paul is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and after that, instead of listing the team as “Barnabas and Saul” (as it had) the story starts referring to “Paul and Barnabas,” or even “Paul and his companions.” There are several things that are at play here:
1st, there is the fact that Barnabas was willing to take a chance on the newly converted Saul of Tarsas. Saul had a very sketchy past in that he was the most zealous opponent of the Jesus movement. This is a testimony to Barnabas’ character – that he believes the best in others.
2nd, the dynamic of power shift had to be a difficult thing for any relationship to endure. The leader becomes the follower, the 2nd becomes the 1st. You can see this on sports teams and it can make for some tense moments. As Paul begins to get more and more attention and prominence, what does Barnabas feel?
Finally, there is the issue of Barnabas’ cousin, a man named John-Mark. (Have patience with the double name thing!) John Mark was a traveling companion of the missionary team, but when they entered a particularly hostile region, he decided to skip out and head back home. We are never given a reason, but Paul takes this as abandonment.

So, how is this conflict a model for us?

1. In many conflicts, there is not a clear right and wrong position – just differences of perspective. Note that Luke (our author) doesn’t give us any judgment as to who is right and who is wrong. I can see the issue from Paul’s side – this was going to be a hard road, you don’t want to have to risk depending on someone who has let you down before. I can also see Barnabas’ side – everyone deserves another chance, this is about grace after all. So often we become so entrenched in our position that we focus on the winning an argument and we can end up losing a friend. Conflict happens and friendship can flourish when we learn to be wrong some of the time, and we learn what battles need to be fought and which ones don’t. You can save yourself a lot of grief if you can learn to consider the point of view from across the aisle. Can you see the reasons in the other person’s argument? Can you understand why this person is passionate about this issue? If you can gain another perspective in addition to your own, everyone grows. You are never as right as you think you are.

2. Comfortable or not, conflict needs to be dealt with. You might be surprised that such a disagreement happened among these Godly men. Sometimes we imagine that everything in the Bible should be stained glass and sacred, and this just seems ugly. It is easy to imagine raised voices and passionate debate. Here is deal – raised voices and passionate debate are not bad. When your relationships are strong enough to create a safe place to disagree, then you are finally in the realm of true friendship and teamwork. No functional team exists without conflict. Face conflict, don’t run from it. Tell the truth. Fight fair. Deal with issues openly, don’t hide it, don’t stuff it, and don’t avoid it. We often hope a problem will just go away if we ignore it. It will not go away; it will just get worse and the longer you wait to talk about the more awkward it will be to have the conversation.

3. God’s Kingdom wins when we chose to look at other people through the eyes of hope. What I love about this story is that God still managed to find a win for his Kingdom. Instead of a great missionary team breaking up, two great ministry teams were formed and the Gospel went out to new places. I also love that somewhere down the road, Paul did learn to see Barnabas’ perspective. Their conflict basically came down to John-Mark and whether or not there was potential there. Barnabas by his very nature is the kind of person that sees the best, gives the benefit of the doubt, and believes in other people. He is known as a “son of encouragement,” which is what his name means. He saw the potential in a young and passionate man named Saul – who later became Paul the Apostle. He also saw the potential in his cousin John-Mark, who later became a pillar of the church and wrote the Gospel of Mark. Late in Paul’s life, when he is in prison for the Gospel in Rome and Ephesus, he asks several times for John-Mark to be sent to him. Paul ends up finding two young men named Timothy and Titus, and just like Barnabas modeled for him, he mentors them and believes in them and brings out their gifts. This is a huge lesson – we need more people with the eyes of Barnabas, the kind that can see the potential in others and believe the best and fan into flame the gifts of God.

So here is my challenge: What conflict have you been putting off that are keeping you from healthy relationships?

MTV’s Bully Beatdown – Jesus and Violence

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?