I got some interesting feedback on a devotional I recently wrote for our region (the Disciples of Christ in northern CA-NV). It appeared in the same e-news where a woman in our region asked for prayers for her son, who has been bullied (about orientation and race) so much that he shared with his therapist his suicide plan; he is on constant watch and his family is trying to undo the brutal damage rendered by his classmates. I thought I would share my reflection here:
DEVOTIONAL by Sandhya Jha
Missional and Reconcilation Minister
This past year has seen a major campaign take off in a lot of public schools-an anti-bullying campaign, but directed at the victims of bullying, many of whom have been driven to suicide because the bullying has become demoralizing or even mind- or life-threatening. It’s called the “It Gets Better” campaign. Even the President of the United States did a commercial as part of the movement.
This week on Glee, one of the main characters overcomes his fear of being beaten up for being different in order to show up at Prom. And he’s not beaten up. But he’s publicly humiliated, the same way he would have been at my own high school 17 years ago. And as I watched the show, knowing that most of the youth in our region were watching it, too, I found myself wondering, “Does it? Does it get better?”
This is a tricky subject to pick up in the e-news because the “It Gets Better” campaign is predominantly focused on growing suicides among gay youth as a result of bullying. I know that our spiritual tradition leads us to very different understandings about the issue of homosexuality. And I know that this region strives to be open and inclusive while honoring the diversity of understandings of how the bible speaks to this issue, allowing congregations to do our own discernment about our interpretation of the scripture and how we carry it out in our churches.
But one thing that I know every person in this region believes is that no child should be physically, emotionally or verbally harassed until they feel they have no option but to end their lives. And all of us know that bullying is scarring too many, many youth because of race, class, gender, orientation, or for the sheer simple reason that they don’t fit in.
I recently visited a UCC church in Tehachapi, California, located down the street from the park where 13-year-old Seth Walsh had recently ended his life to just that type of harassment, and his sense that things weren’t going to get better. The church found itself thinking, “If only we had been in relationship with the youth of this community so that they knew there was a place they would receive love. If only we had been a place that said ‘Hateful language is never okay.’ If only we had been a place that publicly proclaimed God’s message that Christianity means never spewing toxicity.” Because the youth taunting Seth were almost invariably Christians.
Seth didn’t die just because those kids’ churches rejected homosexuality. Seth died because those churches remained silent about how we treat people when we’re part of the body of Christ. Those churches didn’t say “We can disagree fiercely, but we will always disagree in love.” Those churches didn’t proclaim that triumphalism has no place in the realm of God, even when we are 100% sure that we are right and they are wrong.
Triumphalism may be a new word, but it’s something we’ve all experienced, no matter what our political or religious beliefs-it’s that attitude that a group believes they have the God-given right to be obnoxious and aggressive and possibly even violent in the way they let you know how right they are, how moral they are, how superior they are, and how wrong, bad and inferior you are. It usually applies to a whole culture or community-like Rome’s triumphalism over the Israelites when they demanded that all citizens of Rome declare “Caesar is God,” even printing it on the money the Israelites had to use.)
Those churches didn’t say “We never act superior and we never shut people out when they are in pain and struggling.” When television and politics and adults modeled bad behavior, those churches didn’t say anything at all.
Jesus died rather than let the voices of triumphalism or of hatred win. He died rather than accept complicit and covert silence. And he rose again, proving that triumphalism and hatred would not win. He rose again in loud proclamation, so that his followers could not dream of being silent, even if their voices cost them their own lives. He rose to let people know that it does get better when we are in relationship with a divine and loving and right-there-next-to-us God.
There are Seth Walshes in all of our communities. And they don’t automatically know the taunting is wrong in the midst of their own internal wrestlings. Neither do their taunters. Neither the Seths nor the taunters see anything in the world around us that says “the Christian life is not a life of triumphalism.”
Our denomination is trying to stand with Jesus with its upcoming General Assembly resolution against bullying:
. It’s an inspiring step in ending our silence and creating a culture of respect and love even when we don’t agree with someone else.
A resolution won’t get rid of bullying. But a church proclaiming its commitment to ending bullying CAN get rid of it. Will our churches share the good news of our divine and loving and right-there-next-to-us God who tolerates neither silence nor meanness? Does it get better? I pray that our answer is yes, and that our actions speak to that truth.