Sin, Bullies and Saints
One of the four markers of Reformed education emphasizes that it is covenantal. This refers first of all to the relationship God has with his people. God established this relationship despite their total depravity and promises salvation through Jesus Christ. It also was his pleasure to include the children of believers in this covenant. This gives great reason for gratitude, and in his Word God gives direction for expressing this gratitude as the demand of the covenant. In covenantal education, parents seek to thankfully acknowledge and act upon God’s promises and instruct their children – or have them instructed – in the doctrine of salvation. In order to have this accomplished to the best of their ability, parents will seek teachers and establish schools that acknowledge this. They want the nurture of the covenant relationship with God to continue at school, in order that children may learn obedience there, as well as at home and in church.
In addition to loving God as the foremost command, the other important part of living a life of covenant obedience is to love one’s neighbour. There are various places in Scripture where this is explained, but key characteristics of being in line with what God demands are summarized by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” The opposite, he points out, is the acts of the sinful nature, which include, among others, “idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy ... and the like. I warn you, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Now, within the communion of saints, not all is love and joy and peace and gentleness all the time, as our depraved nature is still there. This article is concerned with what we commonly identify as bullying.
In their two-volume intervention and prevention program, Arthur M. Horne and others list several common elements in definitions of bullying. They include: harm is intended; there is an imbalance of power; there is often organized and systematic abuse; it is repetitive, occurring over a period of time, or a serial activity randomly applied by someone feared for this behaviour; and hurtful experiences can be physical or psychological (Bully Busters – a Teacher’s Manual for helping bullies, victims, and bystanders. Champaign, IL: Research Press, 2003. pp 68 ff.) Of many definitions, I only quote Barbara Coloroso’s and Ken Rigby’s. Coloroso:
Bullying is a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity, intended to harm, induce fear through the further threat of aggression, and create terror. It is not about anger or conflict, but about contempt. Contempt comes with three apparent psychological advantages that allow kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion, or shame: a sense of entitlement, an intolerance toward difference, and a liberty to exclude. The bully, the bullied, and the bystander. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2002
Rigby: Bullying is repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons1996. Quoted in Ronald Hecker Cram. Summer 2001 Memories by Christian adults
of childhood bully experiences: implications for adult religious self-understanding.
In: Religious Education.
Contempt, as stressed by Coloroso, leads to treating people as non-persons. To use other examples of this: Nazi Germany did not recognize Jews as persons and justified the Holocaust; in Canada, unborn children are not regarded as persons and over 10,000 are aborted each year. Bullies dehumanize their victims in similar ways. People made in the image of God are treated as though they are not. Sadly, it also happens among us.
Scripture is not aloof to realities in which some people are treated as less than others. The Pharisees were blinded by their ill-advised rules about keeping the Sabbath. John 9 tells the story of the man born blind, whom they thought must therefore have sinned. In the end, they chose to shun the healed man and kicked him out. They bullied in the name of God. The Corinthians claimed superiority one over another. “I follow Paul,” one claimed. “I follow Apollos,” another bragged. Their focus had shifted from relying on the salvation received in Christ, to their own smarts, prowess, choice, and ability. In the process, they took each other to court and condoned wickedness. Paul agreed that they all had different and excellent gifts, even of faith and hope, but maintained that the greatest gift was the one they neglected: love (1 Corinthians 1, 3, 12-13).
In the Old Testament, several Psalms speak of poor treatment of God’s people by God’s people, but we read of contempt elsewhere also. Ezekiel prophesied around 590 B.C., just before the destruction of Jerusalem. He portrayed how Israel’s departure from loving the Lord led to poor treatment of the weak among them. Turning to self-willed worship, they showed contempt for God and their neighbour: they ignored God and bullied the weak. In Ezekiel 22, we learn that Jerusalem had become a wicked city that committed and condoned systematic bullying. They had become dross to the Lord, for which the people would be dispersed or be gathered for God’s fierce wrath. Common vices included princes who devoured people and made widows; priests, who profaned the holy things; murderous abuse of power; contempt for parents; oppression of the weak; mistreatment of orphans and widows. To top it off, certain prophets whitewashed such things. Jerusalem despised the Sabbaths and made allowances for slander and lewdness. Incest and rape, bribes, usury, extortion, and denial of justice were common. Jerusalem had a culture of contempt, of oppressing the weak, of hostility, aggression, and terrorism by God’s people against God’s people. This persistent bullying was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem (chapters 4 and 5), the punishment of the people (chapter 7), and the departure of the glory of the Lord from the temple (chapter 10). They forsook God; He forsook them. Forsaking God leads to bullying and God’s covenant wrath follows.
Later on, during the exile, Ezekiel saw the vision of the valley of dead bones – God’s people. He learned that dead bones can live when God’s Spirit makes them alive (Ezekiel 37). He also saw a vision of a new temple and the return of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 40 ff) implying the message of hope that God would again dwell amongst them. In the New Testament, it got better yet. John reports that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. With a reach and significance far beyond earthly bullies, the believers’ relation with God is restored in Christ. He is with them: Immanuel. Bullied Psalmists could cry to God, because of Christ. Bullied Christians, too, look forward to the day when He will wipe every tear from their eyes; the day when the old order of things has passed away and all will be restored to the glorious state God intended. (Revelation 21:4)
The Old Order
Bullying belongs to the old order of things. It is not normal, because it did not belong to the original order of things, but it is very common. It is not limited to public schools and unbelievers, either. Rather, in the covenant community, saints have a joint calling to resist and address all sin, including bullying, and to seek the perfection God asks of them. That perfection is the original good order of creation. When God created us in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24), the intent was that we would rightly know God our Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him (LD 3) Indeed, we confess that man “was adorned in his mind with true and wholesome knowledge of his Creator and of all spiritual things; his will and heart were upright, all his affections pure, and therefore man was completely holy” (CoD, III/IV:1). Man was made in the image of God.
How different it became immediately after the fall into sin, when our total depravity did not take long to manifest itself. Adam and Eve’s marital relationship became strained with strife and a search for power, dominance, and revenge. The bond with God was broken. Cain killed his brother, Lamech bragged about his revenge, and every inclination of the thoughts of man’s heart became only evil all the time. The flood ended the first world, but man’s depravity remained. We are still made in the image of God, but today’s reality is a far cry from the intended glory.
Our Form for the Baptism of Infants acknowledges that the children God gives to believing parents are, by nature, also children of wrath. They are no better than others, and have no entry in the Kingdom of God unless they are born again. The form speaks of the impurity of their souls, which cannot obtain salvation or be cleansed in their own strength. They are caught up in the old order of things also. This would be devastating if it were not for the deliverance of which the form speaks as well, for just as they share without their knowledge in the condemnation of Adam, so are they, without their knowledge received into grace in Christ.
Covenant Image Bearers
More so than the fact that our children were made in the image of God, the fact that they belong to the covenant compels us to do something about bullying. True, because all men are made in the image of God, and because God says so, we ought to treat others well. But even humanists will call for respect, dignity, human rights, and keeping the golden rule. We should not just treat each other well because God Almighty directs us to do so as his image bearers, but because in his mercy He has established a life-giving relationship of love with us. It was in his mercy that God saved us from eternal condemnation and rejection. Whereas we in fact do deserve to be bullied for ever, God punished his Son in our place. He was treated with contempt, so we could be set free. For this reason, we and our children have every justification to be humble and grateful for that deliverance and to not bully others or treat them with contempt. We should rather love our neighbour like ourselves, as God loved us first. To not embrace this and to bully others is to ask for the covenant wrath of God as Ezekiel experienced.
Secular approaches to bullying will try to bring out “the good” in every child, work on “behaviour modification” and “character education.” Our Heidelberg Catechism takes a different tack, as it exposes the wrong of bullying in its elaboration on the meaning of Ten Commandments in Lord’s Days 40-44. Even though covenant saints know that Christ died for them all, some grieve God by treating them as if they are not included (cf. Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalm 17:8; Zechariah 2:8). While God calls his people to love Him with their whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbour like themselves, people ignore God (cf. Psalm 14) when they place themselves on his throne to make proud and foolish judgments about others and mete out punishment. Here indeed is cause for much and profound grief. With a reminder of our undeserved status before God, and in the context of admonishments concerning how we treat others, Paul exhorts us not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4).
Some years ago, Covenant Christian School in Flamborough dealt extensively with the issue of bullying and developed a policy that we should consider. It states, by way of introduction,
Covenant Christian School does not tolerate bullying in any form. We believe our students are covenant children, created in the image of God. When a student is made fun of, bullied, or abused physically, verbally, or emotionally then we are doing the same to God. All members of the Covenant Christian School community will work together to create and maintain a safe learning environment for all his children.
Our Heidelberg Catechism identifies saints as people who are members of Christ, have communion with Him, and share in all his treasures and gifts. The communion of saints calls us to use our gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members. We need to discuss how we do that in examining ourselves. We need to do that in dealing with bullies. We need to do that in dealing with the victims. We need to do that in dealing with the bystanders. We need to do that seriously, in and with the communion of saints. We need to do that in a spiritual way, according to Paul’s instruction: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently (Galatians 6:1).
Realizing that we ourselves are engaged in this struggle should also make us patient with the weaknesses of our students (cf. Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 6:4). We are called to forgive, as Christ forgave us (Colossians 3:13). At the same time, we will have to place the horror of the sin before the students and teach them to abhor it.
The policies developed by Covenant Christian School of Flamborough (2004) and Maranatha Christian School (2006) have several elements that make them well worth considering. Covenant was probably the first Canadian Reformed school in Ontario that had a policy. Maranatha’s spells out in more detail how to deal pedagogically with bullying, using the five key notions of repentance, restitution, resolution, reconciliation, and reinforcement.
How do we deal in a Christian pedagogical manner with situations of bullying? Do we give a lecture? Do we listen and try to understand? How do we present the promises and the obligations of the covenant in this context? Is our response punitive, pastoral, or discipline-oriented, or all three? It is well for schools to consider whether their discipline policy is adequate and sufficiently thought-through to deal properly with bullying. Considering human nature, we should not expect to eradicate bullying with a policy, but we can resist it, fight it, and deal with it.
I know of One who was bullied by being spat on, beaten, bound, insulted, cursed, condemned, humiliated, and shamefully executed for our sake. He gave his life so bullies who turn to Him could live. “Today,” He said to the criminal hanging on the cross next to Him, “you will be with me in Paradise.” He gave his life and rose again, so victims, too, can live. He gave his life, rose, and ascended, so bystanders will know who their helper is when they jump into the fray. Thank God.