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The Disease of Bullying and the Power of Forgiveness

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Just as Christ also forgave you all, so also you [forgive]. But above all these virtues [clothe yourselves in] love, which is [the] bond of perfection.
— Colossians 3:13b–14[1]

Introduction

October 2018 is national bullying awareness month. Sadly, we’ve become aware of bullying for all the wrong reasons. In the past week, we’ve seen hate-filled headlines about the mailing of pipe bombs to political figures; an attack on a synagogue, which took eleven lives; the seemingly random murder of two African Americans after a failed attempt to enter a “predominantly black church” to wreak havoc;[2] and a high school student who shot and killed another student in my home state of North Carolina.[3]

However, bullying doesn’t always take the form of physical violence. Viral videos dubbed “Apartment Patty,” “Southpark Susan” and “Ryanair Racist” have recently circulated on social media as various bullies berate their neighbors seemingly because they are different.[4] Truly, the disease of bullying and its effects of hatred and violence have pervasively spread like cancer throughout the U.S. and this sin-stained world.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of bullying (especially, during my teen years), I can attest that being bullied is no fun whatsoever. However, God used a powerful short film, All Summer in a Day, to change my perspective on bullying and to reveal my own blind spots toward this important topic.

The film was directed by Ed Kaplan and based on the Ray Bradbury science fiction classic of the same name. As a fifth grader in 1982, I thought I was the proverbial “king of the hill” at my elementary school: captain of the Scholars Bowl team, athlete and class clown. I would never consider befriending a third or fourth grader, and heaven forbid a kindergartner ever touched me—“COOTIES!!!” Yet, God used this film to change my heart toward loving others—especially those who were different from me.

Essentially, Kaplan’s film is a visual exegesis, a commentary on Bradbury’s dystopian classic. Yet, even in dystopia, faith, hope and love are never absent. What struck me most about the film, and left an indelible impression on my life, was Kaplan’s portrayal of bullying and the power of forgiveness—the latter theme being awkwardly absent from Bradbury’s original.

At its core, bullying is antithetical to the gospel.

The Problem of Bullying

Kaplan’s film centers on Margot and her bully, William. Margot has life experiences that no one else in her class has—not even her teacher. For this reason, their teacher regularly dotes on Margot in front of the class, which makes the other children—especially, William—jealous. William strives to be the teacher’s pet, but Margot remains the center of attention in the class. William’s jealousy escalates into hatred and violence toward Margot.

As a dad to five and as a children and youth pastor for nearly a decade, I have seen this jealous, self-elevating behavior too many times to count. Often, in trying to impress their teachers, their peers or their parents, children jealously and selfishly desire to be “first”—regardless of whom they must step on to get there. This was William’s problem in All Summer in a Day: William felt the need to push Margot down, so that he could be “lifted up” in the eyes of his class.

We also see the problems of jealousy and self-elevation in Scripture. First, is the story of Joseph’s older brothers—who, out of their jealousy, anger and hatred for their younger brother—sold Joseph into slavery for a mere twenty pieces of silver ($200–$400 in today’s economy; cf. Genesis 37:18–36). We also see this attitude for “firstness” in the sons of Zebedee—James and John—who, apparently, tried to use nepotism and their mother’s influence to persuade Jesus to give them the best seats in heaven (Matthew 20:20–28; Mark 10:35–44). In his final sermon on Mark 10:35–44, Martin Luther King, Jr. termed this behavior the “drum major instinct”—a showy, peacock-like attitude of arrogance and self-promotion. James’s and John’s “drum major instinct” made the rest of the disciples jealous and angry toward them (Mark 10:41).

Such an attitude of “firstness” is displayed daily on the school playgrounds throughout the world. Children compete for the title of “alpha male” or “alpha female,” and, insodoing, exert their dominance over others who are perceived as “weaker.” They denigrate and humiliate their peers in front of others to increase their social status and feeling of self-worth. Yet, in Mark 10:44, Jesus—the Son given the name above every name—explains that the measure of greatness is found in our capacity to serve others: “whoever might desire to be first among you [the disciples] must be slave [doulos] of all.”

At its core, bullying is antithetical to the gospel. First, bullying elevates self above all else. Jesus explains that we are to love God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40; cf. Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5). Second, bullying denigrates those who are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). When we put down another human being, we are essentially putting down God, who created them. As God’s image-bearer, every person is deserving of our love, compassion, forgiveness and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We can adopt the attitude of Christ—our exemplar of forgiveness par excellence.

The Power of Forgiveness

Kaplan’s film reverses the downward spiral of bullying by placing Margot’s bully, William, in the role of the “outsider”—the children later despised William for bullying Margot. In the final scene of the film, William stands on the outside of the group, weeping. While William had mistreated Margot throughout the story, Margot showed empathy toward William, who now regrets his actions, but is shunned by his classmates. Margot forgives William and leads him by the shoulder to play with the other children.

We all have choices to make in life: we can hold on to bitterness and hate; we can seek revenge; or we can display the forgiveness Joseph showed his brothers who sold him into slavery (Genesis 50:15–21). Even more powerfully, we can adopt the attitude of Christ (Philippians 2:5)—our exemplar of forgiveness par excellence—who cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34).

What Can We Glean from All Summer in a Day?

At its most basic level, All Summer in a Day directly and, perhaps, prophetically addresses the problems we see in contemporary culture of bullying and abuses of power. Kaplan’s film paints in vivid strokes the dystopia of a depressing world where you feel like you have no true friends. Bullying breeds isolation, loneliness, depression and despair if left unchecked.

All Summer in a Day displays the power of forgiveness to transcend pain, sadness and dystopia. At the end of the story, all the children gave Margot bouquets of flowers in asking her forgiveness. This closing scene is what impacted me the most—instilling within me a desire to love and serve all—not just those like me.

Kaplan shows the power of forgiveness in inviting the “other” into our world. William’s jealousy led to hatred and violence as he refused to invite Margot into his inner circle, but Margot forgave William and invited him and the other children into hers. We can all see ourselves as “Williams” and “Margots” at various points in our lives. I know I can. All Summer in a Day is a sobering reminder of God’s love and the need to forgive all who’ve wronged us—even our most hated bullies (Matthew 5:44). Just as Christ forgave you, so, too, must you forgive all (Colossians 3:13).

Gregory E. Lamb is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program. This year’s theme is faith and the arts.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are author’s original translations from Barbara Aland, et al., eds., Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

[2] See the following news story here: https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/us/72-hours-of-hate-in-america/index.html.

[3] The story can be read online here: http://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/charlotte/news/2018/10/29/butler-high-school-shooting-matthews.

[4] See the stories here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/us/hilary-brooke-apartment-patty-st-louis.html; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/charlotte-north-carolina-apartment-white-woman-black_us_5bd514dae4b0d38b588432c4; and https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/ryanair-racist-video-flight-passenger-boycott-black-white-police-a8595351.html.

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Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory Lamb is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in Biblical Studies (NT) at Southeastern Seminary, where he teaches NT Greek as an adjunct professor, and the pastor of Mays Chapel Baptist Church (founded 1802) of the historic Sandy Creek Baptist Association. He is a regular presenter at academic conferences and has published articles on fatherlessness, wealth and poverty, disability studies/physiognomics, and the technical study of NT Greek. Gregory and his wife, Tamara, live in Sanford, NC where Tamara is a STEM teacher for one of the local public middle schools. They have five children aged 21 to 8 (Austin, Brennan, Caitlyn, David, and Elijah).

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