For some, the paint on the walls of their house of horror due to adolescent bullying just won’t dry, even into their later years. This is true for best-selling Christian fiction author Frank Peretti, whose parents, like millions of other parents, burdened him with the most tortured Scripture in the theater of bullying that also leads to untold miscarriages of justice within Christian education as well.
“I came from a Christian home that believed in nonviolence,” says Peretti, “where I was told to ‘turn the other cheek,’ and where if someone abused me, I was supposed to take it. I remember specifically in grade school, this boy shoved me to the ground. I sprang up and got face-to-face with him. But there was this barrier I wasn’t allowed to cross. I wasn’t allowed to defend myself, so I just glared at him. From then on, he knew he had an easy target because he knew I wouldn’t resist him. He bullied me for years, and it was a direct result of the teaching that I got at home.”
The fruit from this popular, well-meaning but naive prohibition, he says, was devastating. “It actually worsened the problem and opened the floodgates to more bullying, which followed me. Once you get the reputation as a target, it’s like a cosmic vibe where, from grade to grade, you’re the one. Word gets around. The turn-the-other-cheek posture reinforces it. When you aren’t allowed or don’t know how to protect yourself, it projects. Like wearing a sign. It shows in your timid personality. It enhances bullying and feeds the problem.”
TURN TO HIM YOUR LEFT CHEEK
There is no more popular Bible quote, nor more prevalent Bible confusion within Christian education, than Jesus’ admonishment to “turn the other cheek.” Yet when kept in context within the two other pertinent examples that surround this somewhat cryptic phrase, we are better able to minister to the most hurting children among us:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too.
“And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him” (Matthew 5:38–42, GNT).
Jesus, speaking to adults about adult matters, not children, and certainly not children who are being intentionally and serially abused, used three illustrations with legal consequences:
- A blow to the right cheek was a serious insult punishable by a heavy fine. This is likely why Jesus said to turn to the offender your left cheek since the right cheek had already been struck.
- A person’s cloak was protected from forfeiture (Exodus 22:25–27), presumably so the person would not be left naked and completely vulnerable.
- A Roman soldier’s right to commandeer civilian porters was limited to just one mile.
The legal context to Jesus’ three illustrations is fortified by the previous passage (Matthew 5:25–26, NET):
“Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!”
He’s telling us that sometimes it’s best to settle a matter out of court instead of asserting all your legal rights at all times. Avoid legal entanglements, He’s telling us, even if you are on the right side, because you may be saving yourself from unforeseen woes and sorrows.
All three of Jesus’ illustrations involve the possibility of setting aside legal rights as an adult. They have nothing to do with children being intentionally abused multiple times by another child or, for that matter, an adult.
It’s as if Jesus is telling something like this: “You adults, we both know you have the right and freedom to sue that other person, to say ‘no’ when others burden you, to respond harshly when insulted. But should you? I want you to consider showing a generous spirit instead.” I add generous spirit because look at how this section concludes: “When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him.” This is the main point Jesus is making, a point that isn’t mentioned when addressing adolescent bullying from a Christian (or so-called Christian) perspective. None of this falls in the category of physical, psychological, or spiritual abuse since these are single acts, not part of an ongoing pattern of abuse and sometimes terror, as was the case for Peretti and millions of targets just like him.
If you have camped at a public campground, you may have been unfortunate enough to camp next to a person running his RV’s generator till 10 p.m., which is when the no-noise curfew kicks in. But up until that time, he will assert his right, and all the while make everyone else miserable. After all, one of the reasons you go camping is to get away from noise like that. But he does it anyway, garnering the frustration and anger of those around him as he asserts his rights. What Jesus is saying is don’t be that ungenerous guy who is right but also very wrong.
Considering who Jesus is speaking to and what His main point is, here is a hypothetical statement that Jesus might say regarding bullying, “You may have the legal right and freedom to sue the bully and even the school, but should you? I want you to consider extending generosity to the bully and her family.”
So in this difficult situation you might say, “You know what your child did was illegal. We could press charges, but we’ve decided not to in order to show you and your child generosity. We are also considering inviting you and your child to dinner, if that’s something we can agree upon. But either way, we are also telling you that if your child harms our child again, we may take legal action.” To be overgenerous can be as harmful as being under-generous, especially when abuse of an innocent child is involved.
Laws aren’t designed to change the human heart. They are devised to curtail human sin and evil, the kind of besetting vices that appeal to peace, love, and understanding rarely transform. Says Peretti, repeating a conclusion that many counselors at Christian schools have told us for more than a decade: “Can you get a bully to stop by appealing to his or her humanity? I’m skeptical about that. Bullying is animalistic—part of our base nature. It’s sin, of course, and has a spiritual dimension that’s vicious, dark, and violates God’s creation.”
Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, and the best practices found within the anti-bullying movement, legal consequences are the only barriers that protect the innocent. Yet there are many proactive steps that students, their parents, and related guardians can take before turning to the law. They can try to befriend the child who bullies, making sure to give the child who bullies no private information about the target, which can be used against him or her later. If this doesn’t work, they can deploy what we call “Resistance without War,” behaviors that erect strong boundaries, focusing not on what the bully does but how the target responds since we train others how to treat us. And serial targets sometimes do not train others well. As Peretti knows too well, the turn-the-other-cheek posture is a kind of training that can invite aggression from the malevolent. Growing a target’s circle of friends (three to five is good) is proven to help, as are verbal comebacks such as “Whatever,” which is dismissive but does not lower oneself to the forbidden act of revenge. More assertive body language is proven to ward off bullying, as is not providing bullies a public display of pain or anguish, either face-to-face or online.
Instructing a target of bullying to accept abuse as “thus saith the Lord” through this misunderstood Scripture is erroneous and cruel, given what Jesus really said. It’s even harder to justify as we ponder how the word justice appears in the Bible about 130 times (compared to forgiveness, which appears a mere 13 times). Our God is big enough to foster both in our hearts and our Christian institutions. Those of us in Christian education do our part to foster both when we remove the most mishandled Scripture in the theater of bullying, and replace it with more salient ones, such as this from the minor prophet, Micah: “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, CEB).
Paul Coughlin is the founder and president of The Protectors. The Protectors is a ministry partner of ACSI. He has been a keynote speaker at ACSI conferences. The Protectors is the only faith-centered organization helping Christian schools across the world for more than a decade to reduce bullying through its effective and evidence-based program. Coughlin is an expert witness, author of eight books, a writer for FoxNews Headquarters on the topic of bullying, and is a consultant with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens about bullying in professional sports. Portions of this article are excerpts from Free Us From Bullying: Real Solutions Beyond Being Nice (Leafwood Press, August, 2018). To learn more, go to www.theprotectors.org.
Editors Note: We would recommend that you purchase Paul’s book Free Us From Bullying: Real Solutions Beyond Being Nice to take the next steps in preventing bullying. You can find the book on Amazon.