The Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why stayed off my radar for weeks. I heard people mention the show’s title, but I completely missed the show’s premise and thought it was just a movie.
Then I heard my girls were watching it. Cue popcorn and a movie – only I found it wasn’t a movie. It also wasn’t a typical love story. It was 13 hours of heaviness – of taking serious issues faced by students and showing them handled in a disastrous manner.
As the story unfolded, the harsh reality of bullying was one of the main themes that took center stage. Rumors, rejection and being left out resonated with students yet they were left with no guidance as to their options. In the TV series the main character Hannah chooses suicide. If this isn’t the only solution, how do we talk to students about bullying? What do they need to know?
Looking at the Numbers
Even though they may joke about the “no bullying” presentations or the lame posters on the walls at school, bullying is happening and it’s happening to our students. The numbers speak volumes.
- More than one out of every five (20.8%) students report being bullied (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016).
- 64% of children who were bullied did not report it (Petrosina, Guckenburg, DeVoe, & Hanson, 2010).
- The reasons for being bullied reported most often by students were looks (55%), body shape (37%), and race (16%) (Davis & Nixon, 2010).
It is a problem. How then should we as Christians address it? How does the Bible impact how we discuss the subject?
Tip #1: The term “bullying” carries a cheesy stigma. To help students connect, invite them into the conversation of how bullying practically looks (rumors, mean texts, subtweets etc.)
How We Misunderstand the Bible’s Teaching on Bullying
Be the bigger person. Love your enemies. Be kind to them.
Admittedly bullying is a tough subject so sometimes we use cliché Christian phrases like the above to address it. Unfortunately while our intentions are good, we may actually be sending the message: deal with it. It’s just a fact of life.
But it’s not. Bullying shouldn’t be tolerated and it definitely shouldn’t be ignored.
Yet it seems we sometimes get a message of passivity from a misunderstanding of passages like Matthew 5:39. Jesus says to turn the other cheek. So when a girl is bullied she should simply be kind, right? Wrong.
What the Bible Does Teach About Bullying
Jesus is no stranger to bullying. The Pharisees hated him. They criticized, rebuked, and would try to trap him through their questions. And even though the purpose of the crucifixion includes much beyond the sin of bullying, it is indisputable that Jesus suffered intensely at the hands of those who felt threatened by Him and wanted to prove themselves superior.
Yet as we zero in on a scene prior to the crucifixion, we find something very interesting. In John 18:19-23, we find Jesus slapped by an officer before the high priest. According to Matthew 5, one might assume he would stay silent, but he doesn’t. Instead, he speaks up and questions the reason behind the abuse. While he is silent at other moments, it is clear speaking up must not be wrong. Jesus did it! So how do we reconcile turning the other cheek while also speaking up?
Tip #2: Repeat, repeat, repeat. In your lesson or conversation, they need to hear over and over that bullying is never okay.
In examining both texts, it is crucial for girls to realize that Matthew 5:39 is addressing revenge or retaliation – returning an insult for an insult. This is our first instinct: she spread a rumor about me so I share with others something I know she’s done or she sends mean and harsh texts so I respond back in kind. Revenge like this may taste sweet at first, but it is exactly what Matthew 5 instructs us not to do.
Revenge and self-defense, however, are not the same thing. Yes, we’ve all been insulted before and it is wise to overlook minor offenses but bullying is never okay. When vicious rumors are being spread and she dreads going to school, it’s time for an adult to step in. When nasty and unwelcomed texts fill her phone, it is time for a number to be blocked and a parent to be told. Bullying is never okay. It’s time for girls to know they have options and to be empowered to be able to say “enough!”
3 Actions for the Bully, Bullied or Bystander
- Say something.
If someone is being bullied, urge them to say something. Some of the typical suggestions though like having them tell the bully how they feel, walking away or pretending it doesn’t bother them has been reported as having a negative impact.
The bottom line is bullied students need safe adults.
Having an adult listen, follow up and give advice was considered one of the most helpful things an adult could do (Davis & Nixon, 2010).
The girls who are bystanders can also play a major role. Studies estimate that bullying stops 57% of the time when a peer intervenes on behalf of another student (Hawkins, Pepler, & Craig, 2001). If this generation wants to make a difference – what an opportunity! Their words can help cut short a damaging experience that can have repercussions for years.
- Stand up straight and make eye contact.
Bullies love to choose the insecure and timid so encouraging girls to convey confidence through their body language – even when they don’t feel confident – can be a great advice.
As cheesy as it is – I tell my girls that sometimes if you’re facing something challenging “act confident…even if you don’t feel confident yet” I don’t always feel capable. I don’t always believe I am lovable. But God has already addressed that! He has told me that His thoughts are not my thoughts (Isaiah 55:8) so sometimes I have to tell myself to hush and act confident as I grow in my acceptance of what God says about me. This battle begins in my mind, but it does overflow to my body language. I need to watch my posture and communicate confidence even when I don’t feel it.
- Stop with the “I’m just kidding!”
None of us want to think of ourselves as a bully. Yet in each of us there is a desire to be superior to others so we have to be on our guard – especially with our mouths. One of the popular ways we often undermine each other is by dismissing our destructive comments. We say “Don’t be so sensitive! I was just kidding.” when in reality we meant part of what we said. And as one of my girls wisely pointed out, “If you have to say you’re just kidding, you probably didn’t need to say it at all.”
Tip #3: Share your story. Being bullied carries a stigma so few want to admit it. Sharing your story helps them know they are not alone.
For the girls and adults who already carry the wounds of bullying, there is a tender sweetness in the knowledge that Jesus does not simply sympathize, but can actually empathize because he has felt the pain and sting of humiliation. He knows intimately the lies and labels spoken over hearts and the battle to peel those labels off our most wounded places.
He is not intimidated or caught off guard by the damage of bullying. He is not fearful or unsure of what He will do. He has already decided. He will heal the broken (Ps. 147:3). And in a way only He can, He can turn even this wound into a scar and the scar into a story. A story of hope, of bravery, and of the incredible healing power of God.