Friday, March 15, 2013

Jesus and the Bully

The story from the Gospel this past Sunday was about Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus. It talks about how Judas took her to task for her actions. It was a waste of money, he said, money that could have gone to the poor. Or perhaps as the writer of John hints, into Judas's own pockets. Let's pause there for a moment.

We have a group of people who are an inner circle. They are aware of being an inner circle since they argue frequently about which of them has or will have more power. What they are all sure of is that they will have more power than anybody who is outside their circle; someone like Mary.

So Judas, who is the treasurer of the inner circle, complains, and complains in a way that is sure to make Mary feel terrible. After all he complains after the fact, it is too late for Mary or anyone else to do anything about selling the perfume. I get the sense that this was a common role for Judas, and the other disciples. They spend a lot of time in the Gospels complaining; complaining that other people are infringing on their power, complaining that other disciplines are claiming to be more important, complaining that these people that Jesus insists on talking to are making too much fuss.

If this is indeed the way the disciples were, than they were bullies. Bullying isn't about one fight in a schoolyard, or one mean comment in the lunchroom or on facebook. It is about consistent, prolonged use of power over someone else to push them down while hoisting ourselves up. Bullying comes from a place of power, like Judas, the treasurer complaining that this money should have gone through him.

Bullying seems to be embedded in us. We don't notice it much until we are the victims of it. Sometimes we hear a news story and we wonder how we can stop bullying. It means changing other people, because of course, none of us would ever be bullies. That is hard because we can't change other people, we can only change ourselves. So how do we change to stop bullying?

Like any change, we change in relationship, and most effectively in relationship with Jesus. We will see three ways that we can change ourselves to stop bullying. We need to be welcoming, we need to be family and we need to be courageous.

First we need to be welcoming. Look at how Jesus is. He talks to everyone. Even the Pharisees and the scribes and others who plot against him are welcomed to the conversation. The disciples themselves are an odd bunch and include fishermen, tax collectors, zealots and others. For Jesus, no one is excluded unless they exclude themselves.

This diversity of the people of God is reflected in Paul's letters. In First Corinthians he talks about how everyone is different and everyone is needed. There is no place of power in Christ's Church, because all are equal under Christ. The hymn to love in First Corinthians 13, you know: Love is patient, love is kind? We read it at weddings a lot, but Paul meant it for how we treat each other in our church communities. The only command that Jesus gave the disciples was to love one another. To be patient with each other, kind with one another, to not keep a record of how were wronged.

It doesn't matter how good we are, how special we are. If we don't have that love, we are lost. It is that love that allows us to welcome everyone into the circle, no matter how different they are. One challenge of our world is that we love to draw lines in the sand. We're Roughrider fans, or Bomber fans, we drive Ford, or Dodge, or Toyota, we vote NDP, or Conservative or Liberal. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, until we use our beliefs as a reason to exclude someone else. Just as Judas excludes Mary from really understanding what Jesus is about because she doesn't sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It is sad how often Christianity is seen as a bully. Hardly a day goes past when we don’t hear of another person telling another group of people that they are terrible people. Far too often we just let it pass. We may not believe that, but we don’t speak up to say that all people are loved by God.

So Judas cuts Mary’s gift of love off at the ground but Jesus doesn't allow that to stand. He doesn't call out Judas, or get angry. What he does is affirm the love behind Mary's actions and turn it into something of beauty and power. There are no insiders and outsiders in this Dominion of God. All are welcome, all are loved.

Next we need to be family. There is something called the bystander effect. This is the sad reality that people who are alone are much more likely to stop and help someone than people in a crowd.  Bullies know this. They count on it. They can push people around and do all kinds of terrible things and be certain that the people in the hall will continue their way through their day.

We know that calling people names or destroying their belongings is wrong. We get angry at people who abuse others physically, emotionally or sexually. But in a crowd, we are most likely going to walk on past. This is because when we are in a group, it isn't our problem. It is someone else's problem. We might feel sorry for the victim; we might even wish that someone would intervene. But it will probably not be us.

We don't have enough relationship with each other. That other person might not be part of the right group. They don't look like us, pray like us, think like us. So their problems aren't our problems. 

For Jesus, everyone is family. We are all brothers and sisters. Paul uses this kind of language too. He makes it even more intimate. We are not just family, we are one body. The suffering of one person is the suffering of the whole body. If that person being yelled at, excluded, smeared is part of our family, then the situation is changed.

When people are our family we are going to step in. It is our responsibility. When we expand the borders of family to include everybody, we will act differently. Notice that Jesus doesn't single out Judas and berate him. Judas is family too. He just affirms Mary and corrects Judas's narrow view of what the world is about.

The people who have the most power to stop bullying are the people who see it; the peer group of both bully and victim. One person stepping forward and saying  "This is wrong. We shouldn't treat each other this way" has immense power to stop the bullying. Some studies suggest that it will stop bullies about 75% of the time. But it isn't easy. Not even for family.

So we need courage. Courage is hard. It means being afraid and acting anyway. What if we challenge the bully and we become the next target? Will anyone speak for us? What if we step outside of the circle, will they let us back in?

One of the reasons the bystander effect is so powerful is the anonymity of the crowd. Nobody knows, nobody cares, and we’re safe. When we speak up, we are no longer part of the crowd. We are exposed. Maybe we're wrong. None of the other disciples speak up for Mary. That doesn't mean that they didn't feel for her.

They were still learning welcome, still learning family. They didn't get it yet. They wouldn't get it until after Jesus hung on that cross; the ultimate victim of power and cruelty. They wouldn't get it until after that morning when the tomb was empty and Jesus showed them that the real power in the world is not with the powerful, but with the loving.

Courage comes from knowing that we aren't alone. We will never be the only person to speak about love. We won't be the only person to say that cruelty is wrong. Jesus will stand with us, speak with us. His marked hands will rest on our shoulder. Our courage will come from the same place our welcome does, the same place that family does. It comes from our love. As we love God, as we love each other, as we love ourselves we gain the ability to speak and change and challenge.

The more we love, the greater our courage. That doesn't mean that is gets easier, but it means it becomes possible.

There are bullies everywhere that there are people. Each of us has the potential to be bully as well as victim. As I researched anti-bullying strategies, I found that many of them bullied the bullies. It was a puzzle; until I realized that too much of the time we are trying to force change on other people. We try to reach out and change the bully. If they don't wish to change, we push harder. We become what we hate.

Whenever we make the other person the focus of our efforts, we may become bullies. Jesus spoke to everyone. Some he spoke to gently and kindly, some he challenged in words that we may find harsh. Yet Jesus left each person to decide for themselves whether they would follow or not, just as Jesus gives us a choice to follow or not.

The call to make a better world begins with allowing God through Christ to make a better me. In this season of Lent, that is our goal. To be shaped by God for the purposes of Love. It is in Easter that we find to our joy that Love triumphs. It is astonishing to follow the disciples after Easter. It is as if they are a different bunch. They still argue, but their arguments are about how to bring people in instead of how to leave people out.

Love has won the day and though they fall short, still their goal is that there are no lines to separate, no walls to divide. All people have a place in the Body of Christ.

So may your days be filled with love and courage, welcome and family, through the Grace of Christ.

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