Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Grape #27: The spiritual response to bullies

I'm an easy target for bullies. A lot of people see me as a pushover, or weak, someone who they know won't come back at them with the same intimidation or mean words they throw at me. 99% of the time, that's who I am, and I've always regretted the times I lashed out in response.

Growing up Catholic, we watched the entire Jesus of Nazareth miniseries every year in high school. I got to know Jesus first as the Son of God, and later as my friend and brother. I've realized over time how much his message has been co-opted by the Pharisees of today, but when I look at the man himself, well, he continues to be one of my greatest role models.

Remember the old "turn and offer him your other cheek as well" slogan? Eugene H. Peterson, my favorite biblical translator, phrases it this way:

"Here's another old saying that deserves a second look: 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.' Is that going to get us anywhere? Here's what I propose: 'Don't hit back at all.' If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously." (The Message, Matthew 5:39-42)

How many of us are capable of doing this? But even more important than that, how many of us believe Jesus was right? How many go to church on Sunday nodding their heads, yet support hate-filled political leaders on Monday?

Jesus said this when Peter drew his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Put your sword back where it belongs. All who use swords are destroyed by swords." (The Message, Matthew 26:52-54) Does this sound like someone who believes in putting even more guns into more hands? But I digress!

We're living in a very strange world in which people use their religions against other people instead of fusing their souls with other people as children of one, love-filled God.

Bullies come in every religious cloth and many outside of belief too, of course. On one side there are religious people who bully others into an ultimatum of dogmas set up against the possibility of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone. And on the other side are comedians mocking religious and spiritual people alike for wasting their time on an invisible, nonexistent deity. Each of these are flanks of far too many in the center: folks who are being taught by osmosis from their favorite news network or preacher that hatred is okay now and then, because it keeps us safe.

So what do we do when we're bullied by someone dead set in their love of hatred, or their casual affair with closed-mindedness? How do we spiritually respond to bullies?

By taking a deep breath--or twenty--and calming the storm within us. When someone says something mean or hurtful about us or our black, Muslim, gay, trans, Spanish, or Chinese friends (and so on), we must let the wild waves churning within us be still. We must find that inner peace that we had as children, the inner peace we all had and still have within us. And once we get to that place, we can respond to the person or situation with love.

Is this easy? No.

And I'm not putting myself up on some pedestal either. I'm just the typist here, not the example. I struggle with all of this just like you do. And that's what this is about anyway, isn't it? Realizing we're all in this together?

The elevator filled with all kinds of people and beliefs, religious and political, gets stuck between floors, and we have to decide to either be at peace or be in the perpetual storm that does nothing but hurt us and others.

The spiritual response to bullies is peace and love. It's the solution that requires no fists or swords or guns or bullying words of any kind. It's the solution that may even mean getting punched in the face or the shirt stolen off our back.

Can we defend ourselves and our neighbors from suffering and death? Can we take up arms against a sea of troubles if the sea of troubles is threatening to crash onto the shores of our homes and souls? Well, what did Jesus do? He was arrested, peacefully. He was beaten, severely. And instead of just being killed, he was killed slowly up on a cross for all to see, as the hot sun beat down on his hungry, thirsty, bloody body.

I'm not suggesting you go that far! That isn't my purpose!

I just want you to see how far from that you've gone when you insult someone's race, religion, sexuality, or identity in any way. I want you to see how far from spirit you are when you help bullies succeed, when instead of helping your sisters and brothers who struggle to put food on the table (whether or not they treat themselves to a new pair of sneakers), you instead vote for political leaders who preach vile, evil hatred every chance they get.

Deep breaths, deep breaths, Sean. I'm trying!

I understand now why Jesus lashed out at the money-changers in the temple, but instead of making that one instance of anger the center of my approach, I remember how kind the man was most of the time, how much he preached love and forgiveness. I remember how amazingly, freakin' sweet he was all the time. And it helps me still the storms of anger others have stirred within me.

I continue to pray, as I hope you will too, that we may all strive for greater peace, both in our world, and in our hearts. The storms will keep coming at us all the time, and they'll show up in all sorts of disguises and phrases, even from people smiling and pretending to be good. But when we trust in and swim in the calm waters deep within us, we can better react to the hatred. We can, and we must. This world needs us to try harder.

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