(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

Polling by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that nearly two-thirds of all primary school teachers say their students were very afraid of what would happen to them and their families during and after the 2016 election.  The poll is consistent with a Penn State University study showing that children are significantly affected by adult bullying they witness.  Seeing politicians, who act as bullies, get away with name calling, lying, blame shifting and rumor mongering causes many youth to lose faith in society and in their personal safety.  It can also lead some children to mimic the adult bullies they see.

The Human Rights Coalition, in a survey of 50,000 young people ages 13 to 18, found that 79% of them said incidents of bullying in their schools have increased since the 2016 election.  

Bullying of immigrant children, youth of color, and youth perceived to be gay, lesbian or transgender are increasing – says HRC.  Many bullies call out the President’s name as a way to taunt others.  They threaten to call immigration authorities even against brown or black youth who are US citizens. 

  Today’s youth see, and then sometimes copy, our President and other politicians who actively engage in bullying tactics like name calling, smearing an opponent’s reputation with unproven rumors and behind-the-scenes gossip, and making veiled threats that can be denied as misinterpretation.

These actions are rarely questioned by many adults – some of whom eagerly support politicians who bully an opponent.  Children are thus left with the idea that bullying is both OK and a way to become popular.  

Like many people, I am alarmed at the increasing pervasiveness of bullying in our nation.  It has reached a point where many people don’t see it as antisocial, but as a normal way to treat others.  Bullying happens in our homes, workplaces, churches, and on social media.  While it has been increasing in our culture for many years, it has markedly worsened because of our current President.  

Please understand, I do not say that, or anything else this morning,  as a political statement.  No matter your or my beliefs about our President’s policies……..how he demeans, threatens, and bullies those he dislikes is an offense against basic decency.  

From making fun of multiple women’s physical appearances and bodies, to attacking a fellow Republican politician for having been a prisoner of war, to recently accusing a woman who has been dead for twenty years of adultery – and without any evidence, to calling peaceful black protestors thugs who should be shot – and threatening to swarm our nation’s streets with our military, it’s not a political statement to say the President’s words are often immoral.  It’s instead a spiritual and human rights statement.  Our President is a bully.

Bullying is an activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual or individuals, physically, mentally, or emotionally.  It takes the form of psychological, physical, verbal, or cyber abuse against another.  A bully is usually motivated by one, or several, perceived differences in the victim – his or her social class, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, behavior, body language, beliefs, personality, reputation, lineage, strength, size, or ability.

Most of us have personally known bullies.  Some of us have been their victims – past and present – and suffer post-traumatic issues for a lifetime.  I have been – and still am – affected by bullying.

People either turn a blind eye to bullying, or else they eagerly endorse it.  Very few people are courageous enough to confront and denounce a bully.  

Bullying has profound consequences that go beyond someone’s emotional trauma.  People are being killed – directly or indirectly – by bullies.  From teens who commit suicide after enduring harassment for being perceived gay, other abled, unattractive, overweight, or socially awkward, to workplace adults who stifle their thoughts, change their actions, and suffer in silence, to peaceful protesters who just this past week were gassed, shot at, and killed by police who felt empowered by the President’s threatening words, there is tremendous human cost we pay for the actions and words of bullies.  

The Anti-Bullying Institute in Dublin, Ireland says victims of bullying, of any age, gender, or race suffer long term psychological problems including feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and diminished self-esteem.  Bullying, the institute also says, increases feelings of stress which directly leads to a weakened immune system and vulnerability to disease.

…A few weeks ago in research for my message on Michelle Obama and James Baldwin, I was touched by the confessions of Mrs. Obama who said bullying of her as First Lady deeply wounded her spirit and influenced how she acted.  She was bullied in multiple ways.  She was called un-American and angry.  She was made fun of for her body shape and her clothing.  It was said she did not look like a First Lady – whatever that means.  She was called a baboon in high heels, and she was stereotyped as an arrogant black female who displays, what one bully said of her, “too much uppityism.”  She was depicted on the cover of a national magazine as someone with a large afro holding a machine gun.  One cable news network referred to her as Barack Obama’s “baby mama.”

Her bullies did not respectfully critique the policies she promoted like improving school lunches.  Instead, they resorted to what bullies usually do – they attacked her without facts and they intentionally employed hateful words targeting her race, gender, and appearance.  As Mrs. Obama asked in her book Becoming, which part of her mattered most to the bullies – that she was angry, black, or female?  Indeed, even as she says she knew she should tune out bullies and rise above them, their words still stung and linger.  They have a way, she says, of wounding a person’s soul.

Verbal bullying takes several forms, but experts say it is mostly identified by fitting into one of several categories.  Those categories are: derogatory name-calling or nicknaming, spreading rumors or lying about someone behind their back, threatening someone, yelling at or talking to someone in a rude or unkind voice, or, mocking and making fun of someone.

Based on those, I have maliciously and wrongly made fun of our President and his appearance, weight, hairstyle, and way of speaking.  I rationalize my words by thinking he has said far worse about others – even though by making such personal attacks I have joined a bullying culture I despise. 

What I must do instead, when disagreeing with the President, is constructively criticize his polices – and not do so in ways that demean, insult, or verbally attack him.

Many experts say that while the difference between bullying and constructive criticism can be subtle, there are nevertheless very clear intentions on the part of a bully.  Bullies repeatedly intend to attack and hurt another.  They do not peacefully intend to improve or change a person with observations and suggestions that are respectful and fact based.  Constructive criticism is never anonymous, it is not spread by gossip, or behind a person’s back, and it is never intended to in any way harm the other person.  Indeed, respectful criticism is always intended to directly empower and help a person grow and be better. 

Bullies, on the other hand, act with arrogance and narcissism.  Because they think highly of themselves, experts say, they bully others in order to boost their inflated self image and dominate anyone perceived as weak.

Dr. Clayton Cook, a psychologist who has written a book on characteristics of bullying, says this: “A typical bully has trouble resolving problems with others.  He or she usually has negative attitudes and beliefs about others, feels negatively toward himself / herself, comes from a family environment characterized by conflict, and is negatively influenced by peers.”  He adds that adult bullies have authoritarian personalities with a strong need to control and dominate.  The magazine Psychology Today says that bullies have a distinctive cognitive feature: they are often paranoid and misread the intentions of others as negative toward them.  Because of their fragile egos, they impute hostility in otherwise neutral situations.  Many of their peers do not like them – but bullies, instead, believe they are well-liked.

Sadly, most bullies lead downward spiraling lives.  Their bullying interferes with their education, personal growth, holding down a job, and maintaining close interpersonal relationships.  In this respect, it is incumbent for our culture not to accept bullying – but to also empathize with and try to help the bully.   They too are wounded souls in need of healthy self-esteem.  Indeed, many bullies were once bullied themselves.

While bullying is common in schools, it is also prevalent in adult work places.  Bullies in offices and organizations often operate within workplace standards but their attacks are persistent and, again, characterized by mean spirited intent.  The desire is to hurt another’s career so they, themselves, can feel superior.

What I find most troubling about bullying – and sometimes see it in myself – is what psychologists identify as the bystander effect.  Otherwise caring people often do nothing to stop a bully.  This effect was first noted in 1964 with the murder of Kitty Genovese – a crime that happened in full view of dozens of bystander neighbors who did nothing.  America recently saw the bystander effect in the murder of George Floyd – one bully cop smirking as he smothered the life out of Mr. Floyd – while multiple other officers stand by.

One cause of the bystander effect is what psychologists say is diffused responsibility.  The more people who witness a bully’s actions, the less likely it is that one individual will act to stop the offense.  Bystanders think it is not their responsibility to do something since others are there too.  A recent example was when Vice-President Pence visited the Mayo Clinic that has a prominently displayed rule that all who enter its facility must wear a face mask.  In full view of everyone present who wore a mask, Mr. Pence did not.  Perhaps he is bullied by the President such that he too is now a bully.  Not a single bystander at the Mayo clinic asked Mr. Pence to comply with its rule – even as he put himself, the Mayo patients, and all others at risk.

To confront bullies, experts suggest bystanders consciously tell themselves they are the first to recognize bullying and are thus responsible to act against it.  It is also suggested bystanders say relatively mild things in a bullying situation like, “Stop!” or “Help is on the way.”  Such words often prompt other bystanders to also act – and they sometimes startle or confuse a bully.

Most important, bystanders must summon their empathy.  They must see the patients endangered by someone not wearing a mask as their own parent or child.  They must see bullied victims as themselves or as someone they love.  As I often say, we can and must empathetically feel other people’s pain – and then do something to help.

I sometimes speak of my admiration for the historical Jesus – a man most historians believe truly lived and taught timeless truths.  Over and over he is said to have expressed concern for, and solidarity with, the weak and suffering people of this world.  He himself was repeatedly bullied by elitist critics, and his execution was their ultimate act of bullying against him and the people of ancient Israel.  It is profoundly moving to me how hideous, cruel and humiliating crucifixion was – to be publicly nailed naked to wooden beams – and then left to die a slow, agonizing death.  

That act stands in stark similarity to the bullying death of George Floyd who was forcefully arrested, thrown to the ground face down, handcuffed, and then literally had his airway crushed so as to suffocate him for nine long minutes – all on a public American street.

Just as Rome learned when it was eventually conquered by the people it had long bullied, so too will racism, hate and bullying be conquered by people long oppressed.  As Jesus taught, good will eventually prevail over evil, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the seemingly weak persons of this world will prove to be the very, very strong.

That timeless truth is coming to light as I speak.  Just two days ago, a Monmouth University poll reported in the New York Times showed 76% of Americans, including 71% of white Americans, now say racism and discrimination are big problems in our nation.  78% of Americans agree with recent protesters, and 61% of Americans say they now support Black Lives Matter as a movement.  As one civil rights analyst said, this is apparently a seismic shift in our nation.

That data certainly does not mean racism will soon end, or that we, as spiritual people who deeply believe in the dignity, value and equality of people of color, that we can now rest easy.  But it is a glimmer of hope in the midst of our shock and despair.

We can also hope that such polling indicates a shift in attitudes about bullying – especially that of our President and other leaders.  I pray it is evidence of American hearts and minds finally opening up to the reality that verbal violence and bullying is a pervasive force in our culture and even ourselves.

Right now, I resolve myself to try and eliminate implicit and explicit bullying by me – toward anyone.  I pray my speech and my actions will be respectful and constructive to everyone.  In just a moment, we will have a time of reflection and perhaps confession – and I sincerely ask each of us to consider making such a silent pledge.  

If we want a world free of bully leaders, free of bully Police officers, free of bully white supremacists, free of gay bashing bullies, free of male bullies who abuse women, and free of bullying in all its ugly forms, we must first stop it in ourselves, and then we must actively renounce it wherever and whenever we see it. 

I thank you each for listening…