There’s nothing like spending an entire year of your childhood perched on the edge of a sidewalk to put the damper on the boundless enthusiasm of youth.
This particular sidewalk, right outside the hall door from my third-grade classroom and at the edge of school property, represented for me the boundary between the forces of order and the forces of chaos.
I was a victim of bullying.
Now, Carl—not his real name, but the name I’ll use for him—Carl was my bully and stood out in my mind as a Neanderthal. He stood a full head-and-a-half above our third-grade peers, thick-framed with untamed, long hair. Carl, for reasons he never shared, picked me for his target that year. I lived only two blocks away from the school, but Carl would catch me after about a block, day-after-day, to knock me down and shake the contents of my backpack out on the ground. It’s not like I gave Carl a run for his money. I was a scrawny, asthmatic kid. It got to the point where I would anticipate Carl’s arrival and throw myself down and empty my backpack myself to save him the trouble.
My parents approached the school principal about Carl’s bullying and the principal’s response to them was, “We can keep Carl here in the office until your son leaves school property.” And thus began my tenure as a sidewalk-percher. When the bell would ring at the end of the day, I would make my way to the concrete curb which was in a direct line-of-sight to the principal’s office window. There would be Carl with his face pressed against the window, shaking his fist at me. I would finally screw up my courage and take off running for home and the demented game of Fox-and-Hound ensued. The only difference the school’s intervention made was that I was then able to get within sight of my house before Carl beat the pulp out of me.
I pressed my parents for further help, and they presented me with the classic options: fight or flight.
Dad recounted the story of when he sent his younger brother to school with a miniature Louisville Slugger to take care of his own bully. My Dad told Uncle Eric to hide the bat behind his back and when the bully approached, to whip out the bat, whack him in the stomach and then when he doubled over to hit him across the shoulders and to keep hitting him until the principal arrived. Dad offered to send a bat to school with me if I so desired. Mom’s advice was for me to take alternating routes home and to run like hell. Being a slight and asthmatic child, neither option seemed terribly helpful.
This torture went on for the entire school year and the bullying even crept into the school-day hours as well. By the middle of the fall semester I had started wearing camouflage to school so that I could hide in the tall grass beside the playground to avoid being found by Carl during recess.
On the last day of school we had a party in the gymnasium. I saw Carl coming from half-court. He cornered me and started taking jabs at me, his personal punching bag. What happened next I can only describe as a rabid squirrel attacking a moose. I snapped and unleashed all the pent up fury that my scrawny, asthmatic body could muster. It took two grown men to pull me off of Carl.
Carl had winced with each punch from me; curling up into a fetal position. He sobbed and cried out for his mother; not in any kind of comical way, but like a scared little boy. I had taken my revenge and it felt awful. At the end of my rope, with flight an impossibility because I was trapped in a corner, I had defaulted to the only remaining option I knew of: fight.
Many would say that as a victim, I was owed something, some measure of restitution for my suffering.
Whenever we talk about the relationship between victims and offenders we talk in terms of economic transactions; it’s money language. Carl “paid for what he had done” when he received the blows I gave him. I had “repaid Carl in kind” and “taken what was due.” I had “gotten even” with Carl. Many cultures, in many eras, have been concerned with the restoration of evenness between victim and offender.
The Old Testament biblical formula of “an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth” sought exact equivalence, or to put it in terms of an equation A=A. Other understandings sought symbolic equivalence, such that if you steal my ox, you owe me the ox plus the value of lost labor, and likewise for a maimed arm or leg which meant a loss of livelihood. To put that in terms of an equation: A=B. In either equation, the aim of justice was to bring matters between two parties back to a real or perceived zero; an evenness or balance.
As a victim of Carl’s bullying, my only apparent recourse within this economy of justice, was to gain back by fighting the equivalent value of what Carl enjoyed at my expense. Carl’s bullying brought him a sense of power, an outlet for rage, and even the admiration—or at least fearful respect—of our peers, and revenge promised me the possibility of “evening the score” by granting me those very same things.
Well, the payoff, as I recall it, was, in fact, comprised of hyperventilation, nausea, a sense of somehow having failed, guilt for making Carl cry, and side-long glances from teachers and my peers that said “Oh, sweet Lord, the scrawny, asthmatic kid really is crazy.” Not exactly what I’d call equivalent compensation. The great irony of all this is that my being bullied by Carl and my resultant disgust at my own loss of control was one of several experiences that led me to align myself with a perspective of Christian faith, that of Anabaptist-Mennonites, which urges me to take Jesus at his word and calls me to live out a life of radical, Christ-centered nonviolence.
Now serving as a pastor and scholar in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Christian tradition I find myself immersed in a faith perspective that doesn’t jive with the equations of the economy of justice which I mentioned before. When I read Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” I believe he meant it. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” I’m sure he was serious. He said, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.” These aren’t suggestions, but commands! But for me to follow these hard teachings of Jesus means that in terms of the equations of just and equivalent compensation I have to accept a loss don’t I? If I forgive an offender who owes me a debt, then A=zip, zero, nothing! Right? It is easy to make that assumption, but I’m here to tell you that it is wrong.
In victim-offender situations the primary thing that is taken from the victim, by the offender, is the sense of one’s own personal agency, or in other words, one’s own capacity to act or exert power.
Difficult acts of forgiveness or, say, risky confrontations, which are neither fight nor flight but a third-way, do not, in fact, result in a deficit for the victim. By choosing to not allow a perpetrator to continue to hold power over them, the victim regains their agency; their own capacity to act, to exert power, to make choices. Third-way actions do not cover wrongdoing, nor do they guarantee equivalent compensation, but they do bring both victim and offender back to equal standing as regards agency.
Moreover, these third-way choices inject moral capital back into the common economy of justice from which others are then able to make withdrawals to fund their own third-way choices. Let me repeat that: third-way choices—not fight, nor flight, but something different—inject moral capital back into the common economy of justice from which others are then able to make withdrawals to fund their own third-way choices
My own dissatisfying response to Carl’s bullying in third-grade was due, I believe, to a deficient personal repository of stories. There was nothing housed within my imagination to suggest another option: a third-way besides fight or flight. But what if I had possessed a bank of other stories; stories of times when people took a risk and chose a third-way? One such story which I encourage you to listen to is that of Julio Diaz, a social worker headed home to the Bronx whose evening took an unexpected turn–and likewise with his assailant [A Victim Treats His Mugger Right, National Public Radio StoryCorps].
The wonder of third-way choices is that they hold the possibility of transformation for not only the victim, but the offender and everyone else who hears the story.
This is what I mean when I say that third-way choices—choices for peacemaking—supply the moral capital by which others can make third-way choices. Having these stories at hand we are able to borrow the courage, the resolve and the creativity of others. Their stories help to write our own story.
After I fought Carl in the gymnasium he left me alone and about a year later I learned two things about Carl. I learned that his father was abusive and that likely Carl picked on me because he wanted to feel stronger than somebody. I also learned that Carl and I had a common interest in nature. In a serendipitous encounter, I passed by Carl’s house on my bike at just the right moment to see Carl and his mother sitting on a porch swing holding and playing with a baby squirrel.
My wee brain short-circuited and I nearly fell off my bike because Carl wasn’t trying to torture the fuzzy, little squirrel but he was instead petting it, letting it nuzzle his cheek and feeding it peanuts.
In shock, I found myself walking up to their porch and after asking how they came to have a pet squirrel, I learned that Carl’s mother was a wildlife rehabilitator and that Carl often helped her to nurture sick or injured animals back to health.
Carl?! My bully Carl?! Had I stepped into a parallel universe? I have wondered since that day what might have been, had I possessed in my imagination more possibilities for responding to Carl than just flight or fight. Might we have even become friends?
The caveat which I feel is important to state is that what I have outlined here is a mature and adult wrestling with ethical dilemmas in situations of interpersonal violence. I would not go back and lay this on my younger self. I will, likewise, not lay this ethical framework on my own young children today. If one of my children stops a bully with a punch to the nose, I will journey with them through the consequences. I do not wish for them to feel as though they have no power to act of their own accord if they are being victimized. What I will do is try and nurture within them virtues which allow them to make good choices in the moment.
Most of our decision-making occurs inside our imaginations before we are ever faced with an actual choice of how to respond to conflict. Our imaginations are our proving ground where we try on roles and choices to see how they fit. Every story that we file away in our memory becomes for us a potential role or response: every video game session, every sitcom, every movie, every novel, every story from a faith tradition, every story from our family history. What goes in comes out, sooner or later. Abraham Maslow’s old truism bears out here: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.” If our imagination is largely stocked with fight-stories, fight will become our default setting just like it did for me in dealing with Carl.
For further study see these resources:
- Begin with this book: Yoder, John Howard. What Would You Do?: A Serious Answer to a Standard Question. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1983. [Kindle version from Amazon]
- Read the amazing & creative story of Julio Diaz’s peacemaking: A Victim Treats His Mugger Right [NPR StoryCorps; 03/28/08]
- Read about the work of Goshen (IN) College professors Paul Keim and Joseph Liechty in studying vengeance to more fully explore successful peacemaking and true forgiveness: Goshen professors share views on vengeance and forgiveness [The Mennonite; 02/14/08]
- Read a thoughtful essay by Wil Wheaton on personal experiences of bullying: “I haven’t thought about the kid who bullied me in over twenty years.“