For several weeks now, the news has been following and analyzing a claim by Miami Dolphins player Jonathan Martin that fellow Dolphin Richie Incognito had been bullying him. A recent report from a neutral third-party says that Martin’s claims were accurate and he was being bullied. Incognito initially denied these claims, but recently offered an apology to Martin. While bullying is certainly not something new, we don’t often hear about it happening in such a high profile situation and with adults. That is not because it is not happening, but often because it is simply not talked about.
When I first read this story, I immediately identified with Jonathan Martin. I know what it is like to be bullied. I experienced some significant bullying when I was in junior high and high school. In sixth grade, I was afraid to get in the swimming pool during gym class because a kid had threatened to hold me under. He even tried once. I was afraid for my life and faked illness as often as I could in order to get out of swimming. There was another kid who taunted me every recess and called me names. One time he pushed me down in a puddle and at the county fair he punched me in the face. All of these things we unprovoked. Another kid pulled my shorts down at recess in front of a crowd of other kids. Two others grabbed me and rammed me headfirst into a basketball poll. These are just some of the many times that I was bullied as a kid.
And why was I bullied? Because I was small? Because I was passive? Because I was smart? I don’t really know and, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. There is no good reason to bully someone. The worst part was that I was too scared to tell anyone about it. So I endured it silently…like most do. I spent a lot of time, during those years, running and hiding. It was a terrible existence. I cringe a bit to this day as I remember those experiences. It’s for that reason that I feel empathy for Jonathan Martin and hurt for him. And I am angry toward Richie Incognito and his teammates who were the alleged perpetrators of the bullying.
The more I’ve thought about this situation, the more I’ve wondered if perhaps I am more like the bullies than I would ever want to admit. So, I decided to analyze this further by creating a little “bully test.” You can all take it along with me. I’ve come up with four simple questions to determine if you have any “bully” in you.
1. Do you ever act without regard for how those actions might impact others?
2. Have you ever said or done something for the primary purpose of hurting or embarrassing someone else?
3. Have you ever delighted in the pain of others?
4. Do you ever act in ways that negate the feelings and thoughts of others?
If you answered “yes” to any or all of these, you have at least a little bit of “bully” in you. For me, this was eye opening. I have to confess that I would probably have to answer “yes” to all four of these. I don’t do them often, but I have certainly done each of them from time to time in my life. And that scares me a bit. It means that I could be the next Richie Incognito if I am not careful and diligent. If I ever let my insecurities and selfishness overcome my compassion and love, it would not be a far fall into bullying behaviors.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus talks a lot about how we relate to others. At the very end of chapter 5, we see Jesus addressing some common ideas about how to handle conflict. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” Retribution would have been a common way for people to handle bullying. Someone threatens you, threaten them back. Someone embarrasses you, embarrass them. Someone hurts you, hurt them back. We still encourage this kind of retributive response to bullying. But Jesus tells his audience something different. He tells them NOT to resist an evildoer. But instead, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to them. But Jesus’ advice here is not just for those being bullied. It’s part of a larger message about love.
The reality is that we all have the capacity for either love or hate. All of us could be the bully and all of us could be the victim. Our job is not to retaliate against the bullies, but to stand with the victims in love. And we must always remember our own capacity for bullying and strive hard to act in compassion rather than insecurity. Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That perfection comes through love and compassion…both for the bullied and for the bullies. For we are not far removed from either side.