You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity…Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.
~Martin Luther King Jr.
A wounded spirit. That’s how I described my inner life after being bullied as an adult, and it’s a term used by bestselling author Frank Peretti to describe his torturous experience at the hands of school bullies. He writes, “A bruise or a cut is visible, but a wounded spirit can remain buried deep inside a person unless you provide the environment that will bring it out and heal it.” Cruelty is a destruction George Bernard Shaw saw as possessing inherent evil: “To break a man’s spirit is the devil’s work.”
Peretti’s personal account was shared on a Focus on the Family broadcast in October 1999. Focus then received more than 3,000 telephone calls, surprising both Peretti and staff members. The topic clearly resonated.
In a private conversation with Dr. James Dobson before being his radio guest, I commended him and Focus for being the only faith organization in my awareness to regularly speak out against school-based bullying. Dobson leaned back in his chair and accepted my compliment with warmth and humility. Then he told me about a huge regret from his childhood. One of those moments you wish you could take back. A moment your conscience won’t let you forget.
He called a classmate “Jeep ears,” because the ears stuck out so much they resembled large fenders. The young James thought it was a funny remark, sure to get a laugh. But “the boy heard what I said and was so hurt that he ran out of the room.” Dobson doesn’t remember the kid coming back, and his face, sixty-some years later, still showed remorse. “The teacher should have pulled me aside and made me apologize to that young man. She should have protected that boy.”
With time, many bullies and their targets regret the whole ordeal. They wish they could grab the big hand of life’s clock and turn it back. Like my friend, now in his fifties, who grew up in a devout Christian community where church attendance was obligatory. “I was teased throughout my school years for being overweight.” He still battles his weight and his emotions, and perhaps he always will.
His eyes water when he recounts feeling humiliated and small, shaking with fear and anger before his tormentors. Feeling like no one, nowhere, so scared his bladder was ready to empty itself all over him. Forming a small, tight fist yet keeping it sheathed at his side, knowing it would do no good against his more powerful oppressors. Having his young mind filled with rage and receiving no tangible help—being told to “just ignore them,” the most common piece of worthless advice in “protecting” a child’s young spirit from harm. The paint on his house of horrors just won’t dry. It still colors his future in ways only God really knows. He’s a warm, loving, yet wounded man today. I care about him deeply.
Like many victims, he can’t remember one child in his community who tried to help. He was publicly ridiculed off and on for fourteen years, and the public was mute. A public of children and adults who went to church and Sunday school yet didn’t say even the one crisp word all knew since toddlerhood: “Stop!” Children who knew inside their God-shaped soul that what they witnessed was wrong but still allowed my friend to be sacrificed like a lamb on the altar of disdain. That altar still drips, and it’s time we, as a faith community, take the lead in destroying it.
The apostle James, brother of Jesus, wrote that faith without works is dead. Faith without a demonstration that you’re a better person for that faith isn’t real. A faith that doesn’t aim to redeem what’s lost is counterfeit. Faith doesn’t demand perfection or even success in doing good. But it does require intent and effort.
In Christianity, this faith is demonstrated in many ways, one profound example being a quest for fairness, or “justice in action.” There is a new opportunity for people of faith to do their part in upholding and enforcing civil rights for all school-aged children.
Civil rights are rights that all citizens of a society should have, such as the right to receive fair treatment from the law. Most people contend that a person should have the right not to be abused, yet we’ve not been adamant enough that our children receive this right in school. We may say they should, but we’ve not mustered the cultural pressure or moral courage to enforce it.
Though Focus on the Family has bravely denounced bullying, there has yet to be a formal program, complete with curriculum, that helps churches and parachurch organizations combat school-based bullying from a Christian perspective. Until now.
The Protectors (theprotectors.org) is a faith-based answer to bullying on school campuses. It provides teachers, ministers, and leaders the curriculum they need to minister to bullies, victims, the parents of both bullies and victims, and bystanders. It provides insight to become redemptive forces for good and to forge courage and self-regard.
It’s clear in light of mounting school violence, with revenge against bullying as a primary motive, that teachers, administrators, and staff cannot tackle bullying alone. Our communities need faith-based organizations to fulfill their moral obligation to combat this cruel injustice and its catastrophic fallout.
This is a key group to The Protectors program because bullies love audiences that won’t intervene—in fact they bank on it. It’s our moral obligation to help others when it’s within our power to act (e.g., Proverbs 3:27). Unfortunately, most bystanders have never received training to confidently and safely address bullying.
Bullying provides an excellent opportunity for peers to exercise courage. Currently, destructive peer pressure stops many kids from speaking out. The Protectors facilitates another form of peer pressure: one that encourages respect for all students, affirming their God-given dignity.
The Protectors helps victims realize that they aren’t alone and that it’s not their fault. Our curriculum helps students take the action necessary to protect themselves in warding off shame, humiliation and self-hatred.
The Protectors encourages empathy and prayer for bullies. Again, most are created by coercive parenting. Most are not born any more aggressive than other kids (a common misconception). At the same time, they must be confronted, both for the benefit of others and for their own good. When possible, bullies should be connected with mentors who can help them move beyond their antisocial behavior.
Few experiences are more crushing than watching your child being bullied and feeling helpless. The Protectors helps parents understand why bullies focus on select targets, shows them what they can do today to help protect their child, demonstrates how to avoid bullying in the future, and teaches how to nurture their child’s wounded spirit.
The Protectors also provides parents of kids who bully with information to help their child become well-adjusted and more compassionate toward others.
The Protectors teaches five core principles, found throughout the Bible, to help children protect themselves and others from the nefarious influences of bullying.
- The Power of Clarity. Clarity produces conviction, and conviction provides strength. Victims need strength and invigoration because bullies are especially good at making victims and bystanders believe that their sense of justice is wrong and that the bully’s view of life is right.
- The Affirmation of Basic Rights. Whether or not you’ve been told otherwise, you have basic rights. Remember, our knowledge of sin is set upon the fundamental understanding that people are separate beings. One person ends and another begins. God expects people to respect that separateness. Bullies do not. When we mistreat our separateness, we sin.
- Clarity through Body Language. Keep in mind that bullies assess our clarity in a situation. They do this initially by reading our body language, which behaves like a traffic light: Don’t Go There. Proceed With caution. Proceed and Walk All Over Me. The Protectors teaches that victims invite or repel abuse by how they hold themselves.
- The Power of Command. Many instances of bullying have been safely halted with words of conviction spoken with boldness, even when the person felt scared while saying them.
- The Power of Two. One person who stands up for a victim has a good chance of defusing the situation with nothing more than a few spoken words. The Protectors helps those who guide youth to teach that success against bullies and toward being good increases dramatically when two (or more) people behave this way. The power of two is not only beneficial to others when it comes to moral courage, it’s good to those people personally.
Jill Carattini, senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, explains why indignities cut deeply and tells how they should move us to oppose them:
Christians, Civil Rights activists, and grandparents take us aside and emphatically declare, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” Comparable, yet all the more disturbed, were the cries of the Hebrew prophets of Scripture. Writes Isaiah, “The envoys of peace weep bitterly. The highways lie waste…Covenants are broken; witnesses are despised; there is no regard for man” (Isaiah 33:7-8). Why do we want to scream “injustice!” when we stare into its cold eyes? Why do we look at darkness…and declare: “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” Perhaps we know inherently something we do not always recognize practically: We were created for far more.
The prophets saw glaringly what we sense faintly. To us injustice is injurious to our sense of dignity. But to the prophets injustice is a catastrophic attack on the very character of God and the intrinsic dignity that God has given us. The spirit of man, said Matthew Henry, is the candle of God. Let us ever be sensitive to winds that try to extinguish life, and with burning hearts remember the significance of life that is made in the image of God.
After Columbine, a popular Christian musician wrote a song commemorating the life and death of a young woman who at the time was believed to have been murdered because of her faith. What we need to hear from the Christian community are songs that encourage Christians to proactively oppose bullying. Songs that make an appeal to common human dignity, that awaken moral courage on behalf of everyone, especially the weak, the persecuted, and the isolated.
A culture defines itself by what it rejects. Or, as G.K. Chesterton wisely observed, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” Liberal or conservative, Christian or not, most of us agree: We need to say no to bullying because it is against your best interests.
Please take a moment and think about bullying you’ve undergone. Did the bully change because he or she suddenly gained empathy and compassion for others? If you’re in the vast majority, the answer is a resounding no. So why do we expect our kids, our most prized possession, to hold out for the exception? Their waiting in vain will bring them down and others down with them.
The Protectors wants kids to get a better education, to learn how to handle conflict redemptively, to make their school a safer place, to know how to avoid abuse, to sidestep or overcome anxiety and depression, and to develop moral courage early in life, greatly increasing their chances of adulthood success. If some or all of these stir passion in you, please join or support The Protectors, and share the opportunities with your pastors, your Sunday school teachers, your Awana teachers, your Scout leaders…anyone who can make a difference.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.