3.25.2014

Bullying.

One element of Sunday worship that is somewhat unique to Mormons is that the leader of our congregation does not prepare a sermon every week. Instead, members of the congregation are asked to speak on given topics.

Most of the time the topics are pretty run-of-the-mill Christian topics: Jesus, living the commandments, being good people. Sometimes the topics are more specific to Mormons, like exploring church history. And then there are times when a topic comes so far out of left field, it feels shocking.

Last Sunday, I was asked to speak about bullying. My bishop gave me three New Testament scriptures to base my talk on, and that was it. Talk about bullying for 15 minutes. And make it somewhat Godly in tone.

I floated my talk past a couple of friends and one suggested I adapt it for a blog post, so that's what follows. And even though I've cut some of it, it's still long, so you've been warned.

I was 12 years old the first time I was bullied at church. We had just moved to Alabama, and the Southern Belle Beehives didn’t know what to do with this girl who didn’t wear makeup, wore mostly homemade clothes, and watched sports. They giggled when I walked in the room, excluded me from activities, and were it not for the deacons quorum who did not care what I wore or whether I wore makeup, church would've been completely unbearable.

One of my sisters was 12 the first time I discovered she was being bullied at church. For weeks, the young men called her names and made animal sounds when she walked into Sunday School.

My other sister was 16 the first time I discovered she was being bullied at church. Some of the youth in her ward mocked her for living the standards of the church.

My brother was bullied at church during his early years in the young men’s program; eventually it turned into simple silent treatment. Not “cool” by the world’s standard, the other young men in his ward would rather exclude him than try to learn how he might fit within their activities.

For myself and my siblings, the one place we should have felt safe was, for all of us, a place we all hated to be.

The bishop asked me to speak about bullying, and the only direction he gave me was three scriptures, all which basically say the same thing:

“Jesus said unto him: Thou shalt love the Lord the God with all the heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”--Matthew 22:37-40

Milton R. Hunter of the Seventy in the April 1950 General Conference said the following: "If a man says that he loves God and does not love his fellow men, according to the teachings of the prophets, that man is a liar. He is not telling the truth. For example, John made this very unusual and wonderful statement:

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
If a man say. I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?
And this commandment have we from him. That he who loveth God love his brother also (1 Jn. 4:7-8,20-21).

Elder Hunter continues: "Ofttimes you and I have met members of our Church who seem to live all the letter of the law. They pay their tithes and offerings, they keep the Word of Wisdom, and they attend Church regularly. In fact one would think that they were excellent Latter-day Saints. Yet too many of these people have professional jealousy cankering their hearts. They have envy, strife, malice, and even hatred in their hearts. They fail to treat the ones with whom they associate with love and with charity. They don't express the Golden Rule in the way they treat the ones with whom they work and associate. Yet they claim to love God. John declared that such individuals are liars and that they cannot love God and at the same time hate their fellow men. Now to what extent are we guilty?"

Even as an adult, I have been bullied at times—not in obvious ways, but in more subtle ways. Judgments by members of different wards regarding my marital status, whispers that “if only she hadn’t gone to college” or “if you invite her over to dinner, she might steal your husband” or “we can’t have her work with the youth, because her life isn’t a good example” might seem to some like simple application of teachings found in The Proclamation on the Family. And sure, no one is saying these things to my face, most of the time, but they do make their way back to me, and in some wards the silence and ostracism was tangible whenever I walked into a room. It was clear I was not welcome.

In the Book of Mormon, one chapter describes people have been kicked out of churches—people who want to worship—for rather superficial reasons. These people were cast out because of their poverty and lowly station in life.

The people who cast out the poor, “had had the word of God preached unto them.” They knew the gospel. But, in verse 9, “they had fallen into great errors.” And one of those most egregious errors was the construction of the Rameumptom. This was a stand on which the wealthier church members would climb and pray to God.

They see themselves as “separated” from the rest of the people, because they have been “elected as holy children” and they thank God  that they “are a chosen and holy people.”

I seem some parallels to how we treat our neighbors, both LDS and not LDS. We often see ourselves as “separated” from the rest of the world. But this does not mean to circle our wagons and keep out those who are not of our faith or those who hold differing opinions. 

In fact, Elder Ballard taught in April 1989 General Conference, "‘Be in the world.’ Be involved; be informed. Try to be understanding and tolerant and to appreciate diversity. Make meaningful contributions to society through service and involvement. Second, ‘Be not of the world.’ Do not follow wrong paths or bend to accommodate or accept what is not right. …Members of the Church need to influence more than we are influenced. We should work to stem the tide of sin and evil instead of passively being swept along by it. We each need to help solve the problem rather than avoid or ignore it”

Or to sum up in a more succinct internet meme I saw this weekend, “Promote what you love instead of bashing what you hate.”

The irony of the word Rameumptom, is that it means holy stand. I’m going to employ a double meaning for the word “stand”—yes, it probably means an actual physical stand but it can also mean an immovable opinion or belief.

I see many holy stands within members of the church that do not unite, but rather divide, and in some cases, indeed resort to bullying. Some holy stands might include Sabbath Day observance, entertainment choices, church attendance, politics, marital status, return missionary status, number of children, whether grown children are active members, homemaking skills, parenting techniques, clothing choices, how someone chooses to mourn the loss of a loved one, even whether someone served a mission stateside or internationally. I have seen firsthand forms of bullying among members of the church about these and more topics. How on earth are we any better than the people in the Book of Mormon when we gossip about or ostracize our own brothers and sisters in Christ over such trivial things?

Just because someone attends church every Sunday does not necessarily mean that person is any more of a believer than someone who does not. Just because one family chooses to have two children does not mean they are less “Mormon” than the family with eight children. Just because a missionary comes home early from his or her mission is not an indictment on his or her righteousness.

Elder Uchtdorf taught in his wonderful conference address “The Merciful Obtain Mercy”: "But when it comes to our own prejudices and grievances, we too often justify our anger as righteous and our judgment as reliable and only appropriate. Though we cannot look into another’s heart, we assume that we know a bad motive or even a bad person when we see one. We make exceptions when it comes to our own bitterness because we feel that, in our case, we have all the information we need to hold someone else in contempt. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, said that those who pass judgment on others are “inexcusable.” The moment we judge someone else, he explained, we condemn ourselves, for none is without sin."

Bullying other members of the church because they live their faith differently is one of the most infuriating things I see. Bullying can take many forms--actual face to face name calling or shoving--but the electronic bullying is what I see many church members engaging in.

As I pondered this topic, I wondered if I should have spent a little more time thinking about bullying and the youth. Every week I read articles about bullying at schools—just this week, a school told a student he could no longer bring his backpack to school, because it was a My Little Pony backpack and the school felt that banning his backpack was an easier road than policing the bullying that the backpack might provoke. This, unfortunately, is an all-too common approach in American culture. Let’s ban the backpack or the t-shirt or the hair dye or the piercings. Rather than educate and preach love, kindness, and acceptance, our secular leaders impose limitations on those who are different, thinking that will fix the problems.

But here’s the thing: as go the adults, so go the youth. They are not born knowing how to deliver the silent treatment. They are not born knowing how to call people names. They are not born knowing how to inflict emotional pain on others. Bullying is a learned behavior, and it is not of God, no matter if you think you have the moral high ground. Furthermore, you cannot say whatever you want and follow it up with just kidding. This is one of the habits I'm most concerned about I'm my students, because it shows that they recognize what they are saying is hurtful, but choose to say it anyway, thinking that a flippant tag of just kidding will make it all okay.

So to all of us, I say: if you are being bullied at church or at school, tell someone you trust. Do not deal with it on your own. Sometimes an adult or a peer can help, and I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s actually hard to find a solution. But the feelings that bullies evoke should not be your burden to bear alone. In the recent video from the church that addresses bullying, an older brother discovers his sister is being bullied. What I love about the video is that it doesn’t really show an “aw shucks” happy ending for the sister, rather just a grateful text message to the brother for being there for her.

If you see someone being bullied, reach out to that person. Do not be part of a silent majority, afraid to rock the boat. Part of loving thy neighbor is observing and filling needs. Offer to listen, to hug, or to support.

If you suddenly realize that you are a bully, follow Elder Uchtdorf’s counsel and “stop it.” In my years as an educator, most of the bullies I’ve encountered have one thing in common: insecurity about their own abilities. If you are feeling insecure about an area of your life that is causing you to behave in a way that creates physical or emotional pain for others, get help. 

Elder Holland’s brilliant and inspired address last General Conference included this advice: "If things continue to be debilitating, seek the advice of reputable people with certified training, professional skills, and good values. Be honest with them about your history and your struggles. Prayerfully and responsibly consider the counsel they give and the solutions they prescribe. If you had appendicitis, God would expect you to seek a priesthood blessing and get the best medical care available. So too with emotional disorders. Our Father in Heaven expects us to use all of the marvelous gifts He has provided in this glorious dispensation."

True, that Elder Holland is here talking specifically about mental illnesses, but it’s been my experience that uncontrollable anger or crippling self-esteem can be improved with professional help.

I love this quote, attributed to Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It actually was not Plato, but the Reverend John Watson, a 19th century reverend. In his book titled “Home Virtues,” published in 1903, he wrote, "This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle..."

Let us be kinder to all we meet, to all we serve, to all we know is my prayer.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think this needs to be published. You are amazing. Love you, mom.

Cassie Rowse said...

Some of my Facebook friends agree with your mom. They suggested Meridian Magazine.