When my wife and I walked into the small, darkened auditorium, we saw something that has been almost as unforgettable as the documentary we had come to see. Scattered and spread out among the many empty seats, a few parents sat with children in a manner that, as I recall, looked more like a visit to a doctor’s office than to a Saturday afternoon cinema.
The film, Bully, a 2011 production about the problem of bullying in US schools, was troubling to watch. It followed the lives of five children who experienced ridicule and physical assault at bus stops, in school buses, classrooms, locker rooms, and bathrooms. Two of them eventually took their own lives.
The film’s writer and director, Lee Hirsch, has a personal interest in giving a voice to traumatized children. He says that he was bullied as a child. But he also speaks for heartbroken parents who want to honor the lives of sons and daughters by telling their story in hope of making a difference in the lives of others. Their pain is intercut by interviews with school personnel and community leaders who say they are powerless to change the fact that children can be cruel to “those who are different.”
My guess is that the parents and children in that darkened auditorium around us had their own stories.
Since then, I’ve thought often about a problem that is far more common than many of us want to admit. By definition bullying is aggressive behavior that uses power, coercion, or verbal abuse to humiliate and exploit the weakness of others. As such, it is not a recent problem. Neither is it limited to school children or from the kind of people you’d expect.
Long ago, the Bible documented many different kinds of bullying. Some examples were obvious as when a giant by the name of Goliath used his enormous hulk and bulk to mock the fearful soldiers of Israel (1 Samuel 17). Other instances had more to do with the abuse of power. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel misused their influence to deprive a landowner of his life and property (1 Kings 21).
Other examples of bullying come from even more unlikely places. The prophet Nathan, for instance, tells the story of a wealthy landowner who callously broke the heart of a poor man. According to Nathan, the rich man owned large herds of sheep. The poor man had only one little lamb, a treasured pet that was not only like a member of the poor man’s family but was loved like a daughter. Yet when the rich man needed to provide a meal for a traveler, he didn’t slaughter an animal from his own flocks. Instead the man of great means used the house pet of the poor man to feed his guest (2 Samuel 12).
The irony is that Nathan used the story to confront the same person who had earlier stopped the bully Goliath with a lowly slingshot. Years later, it was King David himself who heartlessly misused his power to take the wife and life of one of his own generals (2 Samuel 11–12).
How could someone that we now remember as “a man after God’s own heart” have become so self-absorbed as to act like the bullying Goliath he had once stopped?
Even though the Bible doesn’t give us a direct answer, it’s not hard to think of possibilities. As king of Israel, David had the wealth and power of a nation at his disposal. He had a reputation for being a heroic spiritual leader, and his victim wasn’t even Jewish. According to the Bible, Bathsheba’s husband was Uriah the Hittite (Exodus 34:11). Who knows if Uriah’s ancestral ties to historic enemies of Israel might have helped David rationalize his adultery and complicity in Uriah’s death on the battlefield.
David, a man after God’s own heart, had become a royal bully. In the season of his scandal, Bathsheba and Uriah seemed to exist for his own use and disposal.
If he continued to pray, it wasn’t because he was still on speaking terms with the heart of his God. It took a prophet’s wisdom and courage to bring him to his senses (2 Samuel 12:7-14).
Only with the coming of a son of David named Jesus, however, do we get the full picture of how contrary bullying is not only to our God, but to our own humanity as well.
Who can begin to explain the implications of what was happening as the King of kings allowed Himself to be bullied, mocked, beaten, spit upon, and then nailed to an executioner’s cross for helpless people as broken, weak, and needy as us?
Father in heaven, it’s taken some of us a long time to learn that real strength is gentle, and that real authority is found in knowing and expressing the spirit of Your Son. Please help us treat others with the same kindness and patience that You have shown us. —Mart DeHaan