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Rev. Emily C. Heath Headshot

Jesus, Bullies on the Bus and the Rest of Us

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Nearly all of us by now have heard the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of seventh graders taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she's a widow and has lost a child. Another student then posted it on YouTube. Apparently this has happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breath-takingly cruel.

As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as "kids today" or as much as we might want to speculate on parental failures of discipline, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn't wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who bully around this country every day, for whatever reason. It's not an issue of "kids will be kids." They don't come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

The bullying crisis is finally getting our attention. What always surprises me is not that
bullying happens (I grew up gay in the South -- I knew that). It's that it's taken so long for it to get to the level of being noticed. That's a miracle considering the way we have consistently rewarded radio personalities who degrade women, engaged in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, and even cursed out the umpire when he called our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was OK, adults threatening 13-year-olds with death isn't either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very same kind of behavior as those kids.

Now, for those of us who are Christians, this poses a particular challenge. It would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren't bullies. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness and respect. It's little wonder that many young adults in our country think that Christianity is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the bullying, hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ's teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the ones Christ healed in his ministry. Broken down, bleeding out, full of pain, haunted by the demons of their lives. I think that they came to Christ as a sort of last resort. They came after they'd spent all their money looking for cures, spent all their energy fighting off unknown enemies. They'd come to him when there was no where else for them to go.

I think they have something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we pray to stop being bullies? And, more importantly, how do we stop America from becoming a nation of bullies?

I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. But what I'm saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13-year-old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that's possible. We can create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still don't resort to bullying. I'll give you an example. I know the congregation I serve pretty well, and I know that when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down recently, many of them had strong reactions. A segment of them thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But another group of them thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet, last Sunday, there they were. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. They weren't calling each other names. They weren't calling one another un-American. They weren't yelling at each other with red faces. They may disagree, but they pray for each other's families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick.

I'm not naive. I know that this country will likely never resemble that. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to pledge to fight bullying in ourselves first we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time.

In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and becomes an agent of Christ's healing?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most.