Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

February 19, 2017: “Strategies for Life: Bullies and Bystanders”


With gratitude and grace 
we come forward to answer the call of our faith, 
we move happily together into the unknown, 
we open ourselves to growth, 
we seek fortitude to begin the change to our corner of the world, 
to transform the world through love.

Following the examples of our greatest presidents of these United States,
Accompanied by the leaders of our faith in the worth and dignity of every person,
Girded by our belief in the power of the democratic process,
May we be moved by Spirit to accomplish good works with compassion and love for all.
Beginning right here,
In this circle
Under this Beacon.

Please remain seated for responsive hymn #1023 in the blue hymnal…

Reading Statistics on Bullying Daisy Moles

According to the National Education Association, PACER Center, and

1 in 7 students in grades K – 12 are either a bully or have been a victim of bullying.

An estimated 160,000 U.S. children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.

83% of girls and 79% of boys report experiencing harassment.

Six out of 10 teenagers say they witness bullying in school once a day.

35% of kids have been threatened online.

One out of every 10 students who drop out of school does so because of repeated incidents of bullying.

57% of boys and 43% of girls reported being bullied because of religious or cultural differences.

Bullies often go on to perpetrate violence later in life: 40% of boys identified as bullies in grades 6 through 9 had three or more arrests by age 30.

75% of shooting incidents at schools have been linked to bullying and harassment.

Nearly 70% of students think schools respond poorly to bullying.

When bystanders intervene, bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time.

Sermon Rev. Denis

The bully story is as old as the ages. It always starts with a kid who’s goofy and lovable, but a bit of an outcast. Not too far out there, but just enough to appeal to the sense each of us has that we don’t quite fit in.

Then we meet the tough guy, the one who is bigger than his peers and not very bright, even though he seems to think he’s brilliant and hilarious. Of course he thinks he’s funny because he’s surrounded himself with yesmen, who are always smaller than the goofy lovable outcast, but the yesmen all have chips on their shoulders…something to prove, and mouths that never stop.

The bullies and yesmen, at least when they are playing their roles, couldn’t care less about being nice. They are the epitome of rudeness.

A couple weeks ago, I talked about the death of old-school niceties in a world that I have come to think of as being “post-etiquette.” Tim Ray read an excerpt from Judith Martin’s book Miss Manners Rescues Civilization from Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing, and Other Lapses in Civility (1) in which she pointed out the ways in which words had come to mean different things.

“Sincere” has come to mean going around being unpleasant to everyone, without apparent regard to the consequences for one’s advancement in life.

“Unassertive” morphed into refusing to start a fight, especially with people who have no real power over us.

The label “Weak” is applied to those considerate of persons one is in a position to hurt, such as underlings at work or supermarket clerks.

In the new vocabulary she outlined, to be insecure is to have a mild manner and a modest life; and to be hypocritical is to always be polite.

In the twenty-plus years since its publication, the world has become even less concerned with politeness, even toward newcomers, even in situations where their presence is encouraged, and that’s what I tried to tackle in that sermon two weeks ago.

I was pleasantly surprised this week by Miss Manners, as The Atlantic magazine published her list of behaviors that are now considered morally good or desirable in a person. She calls them “Alternate Virtues (2),” five of which I’d like to share with you now.

Discrestion has been replaced by Frankness.

Speaking one’s mind has come to be considered praiseworthy, regardless of the quality of what is expressed. Sincerety of expression is more respected than prudence.

Scholarship has been replaced by Open-Mindedness

The concept of context has been demeaned as moral relativity, which has strangely given rise to the belief that emotional power has more authority that facts.

Discernment has been replaced by that which is falsely called Humility.

Exercising Judgment is no longer acceptable but “Being Nonjudgmental,” is highly praised. Of course, people keep judging one another. We just give a pass to the people we agree with.

Overcoming Obstacles has been replaced with Achievement.

The common hope is that prosperity is pleasantly infectious, so the ideal life story is one of rags to riches, in which the ideal ends always justify the means.

Due Process has been replaced by safety.

Or at least the promise of safety.

And while Miss Manners didn’t say so herself, I believe this alt-virtue poses the biggest threat to our democracy. Since no one really knows how to combat terrorism, we are now to believe that we can only be saved if we fight as despicably as our enemies, even to the point of no longer having opponents….just enemies.

Frankness, Open-Mindedness, false humility, achievement and the promise of safety are all facets of a way of being in the world that add up to acting like bullies. And for Miss Manners, a centrist if ever there was one, both the left and the right have something to answer for.

Bullying is a tough concept to pin down. It’s a lot like pornography in that you can’t easily reach consensus to define it, but generally speaking, you know it when you see it. The problem is that we label actions as bullying the same way we label opinions as political: we apply the term when we don’t agree.

One person’s thug is another person’s freedom fighter, in a world where the public arena looks like a non-stop stream of World Wrestling Federation bouts. The guy I like is always the good guy, even if you think he’s evil incarnate.

Except the stakes are higher here in the public arena.

I use the phrase public arena intentionally here.

Typically, in the past, I’ve used the phrase “public square” because that’s where I’ve imagined us being metaphorically: On the town green, surrounded and supported by the institutions that make us who we are: The democratic city hall; churches and public school as separate entities, the library and the newspaper office. Even a gun shop. The public square is a place to share ideas as we exchange goods.

But now, it feels like the public square has been paved over and replaced by a public arena.

The labels of hero and thug are being applied to the same people, equally.

Thursday I had lunch with Rev. Ian Lynch from Old South Church and Murat Gurer from the International Community Council Worldwide Intercultural Network’s west side chapter. Murat told me some terrible stories of ways in which folks from his Muslim Turkish community have been accosted in the last few months, and how their response has been to draw on the pillars of Islam, the duties of their faith, to build bridges into communities where so many have been judging them without really knowing what they’re about.

The mass of Islam, in all its breadth and depth, rests securely on the Five Pillars, Shahadah, Salat, Zakat, Sawm, and Hajj; practices of devotion to God, faith and humanity, expressed through prayer, pilgrimage and charity.

Islam literally, means surrender.

It is about humility, and the Five Pillars of Islam are the structural elements that build up and support humility. Not the alt-virtue of humility, but real humility, when you know your own strengths and weaknesses because you practice them daily.

On Friday, a few of us from East Shore went to the Muslim Association of Cleveland East..MACE, in Richmond Heights. The moment I heard about the executive order that attempted to put into place a travel ban on Muslims from 7 countries, I feared a repeat of what has happened whenever Muslims have been portrayed negatively, especially when laws have been proposed to limit their rights. Without knowing a thing about Muslim practices or theology, thugs – yes I’ll use that word to name the bullies here — thugs lash out, often violently, often against Masjids.

So, I reached out to MACE and learned that Brian Rice and Dee Beacham, who already have a relationship with MACE, were planning on being there Friday, as an act of caring and solidarity. 
I figured I would join them, and we quietly invited others on the Social Justice listerv. (As an aside, if you want to know about this kind of social justice event in the future, please sign up to be on this listserv, which is different from the main one intended for announcements and such.)

Friday afternoon, as the Imam loudly recited the Adhan, the call to prayer, we got to see humility in practice. The crowd poured in during their lunch breaks from school and work, and gathered shoulder to shoulder, without worrying who they were next to, prostrating themselves in prayer and submission.

The Imam, in deference to the thirty or so of us who came from outside of the Masjid in order to bear witness, talked about the duties of Islam. Their duties aren’t just to the Five Pillars, Shahadah, Salat, Zakat, Sawm and Hajj. Their duties aren’t just to one another and their Muslim community. Their duties are to all humanity, all creation, including their non-Muslim neighbors.

Their duties are to righteousness and virtue and to uphold the laws of the land in which they live.

“We must remember,” the Imam said, “We must remember our duties before we demand our rights.”

How’s that for virtue in a post-etiquette age? We must remember our duties before we demand our rights.

We must make sure we are adhering to our commitment to something larger than ourselves, to charity, to justice. That’s not to say the demand for rights should be put aside, just that the demand for rights should be in the context of duty to all humanity, all creation. In Humility.

Duty before demands is the basis of religious authority for Muslims, as it is for Unitarian Universalists, Christians, and Jews. Any faith.

Duty before demands is the foundation of our work for justice, the way it was for our ancestors. It’s what made them strong, and made their faith proliferate. Duty before demands is what made them move toward greater freedom and democracy in this republic. Duty before demands.

In the book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, in the lengthy quote that has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins with the Beattitudes: the litany of people who will be blessed after suffering or blessed for following a difficult path of selflessness. He goes on to unpack and rethink Levitical codes of behavior from the Torah, codes on murder, adultery, oaths, and divorce. Then he says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.'[h] But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. … Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (3)

Duty to charity before demands for property rights.

The thing is that the codes of behavior in Leviticus were instructions for forming the identity of a unified group out of 12 disparate tribes of wanderers in a time when justice was death as repayment for the slightest infraction. An eye for an eye was how the Jews would set themselves apart as practicing the mercy of their God: for the first time, the punishment would fit – not exceed – the crime.

But by the time Jesus was teaching, Jewish identity was well-formed and many laws had become entrenched, their enforcement cloaked in self-righteousness. That’s why the most shocking thing was what Jesus said at the end of the sermon: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (4)” The Sermon on the Mount, as Brian Pinter says, “models compassionate solidarity coupled with loving outreach that acts as a shield around the vulnerable one. (5)” Jesus pointed out to them that they were putting demands before duty.

Kenneth Bailey, a biblical Scholar who spent decades in the Middle East, writes, anyone who “has seen and experienced the verbal cruelty of a village gang, with its scoffing and derisive choruses…almost delights in reading that once, long ago, they were dealt with. (6)” The Sermon on the Mount, and countless other passages of the New Testament in which Jesus silences rowdy crowds, were meant, according to Bailey, to teach us how to stop bullying.

Middle eastern culture was 2000 years ago, and to some extent still is today, one where public shaming and taunting is common, across religions. We see the practice of taunting lot in stories of the Bible, with the crowd jeering at the one who was accused of being an abomination, of going outside of the norms of the culture, either by choice or circumstance. A blind man, leper or a foreigner could be taunted as much as a turncoat tax collector or serial adulteress.

Right now, It feels like we’re in that kind of world. In the US, we have a history of some shameful events like the Salem witch trials, vigilantism, the internment of the Japanese and McCarthyism. Maybe I’m just deluding myself, maybe none of that has ever gone away.

Right now, KKK-style white supremacists have taken off their hoods to present themselves like well-groomed, stylish hipsters – very brown shirt – and call themselves the alt-right; and the culture of calling out – publicly shaming someone to show how their words have hurt – are indemic. And I’m sorry, but they’re both bullying, even if one is more phsycially threatening.

A bully, I assure you, is one who demands you do something – usually shut up or go away – without ever questioning what kind of duty he or she may have to you, your family, people like you, or to the community we live in.

So, what can we do about bullying in a world of alternative virtues and rampant taunting in the public arena? How do we put into action duty before demands?

A lot of schools across North America – in the anti-bullying campaigns the first lady has pledged she’ll lend her authority and notoriety to – have began using the “Upstander” model.

Yes, I know. The name uses ableist language, implying that the people who will take action against bullies are those who can physically stand up. But. Let’s not publicly shame them, and just try to understand what they mean by the concept. We can talk with people directly about the language.

Being an upstander is the opposite of being a bystander. It’s literally removing yourself from the crowd of active taunters or passive onlookers, and making your presence known, in any combination of three simple tactics.

The first tactic of an upstander is to physically be with the person being bullied. 57% of all bullying stops within ten seconds of another person showing up. Chances of ending the bullying go up rapidly if you can be calm – or better yet use nonjudgmental humor – to neutralize the situation.

Because 70% of those getting regularly bullied feel that the officials don’t care to respond, it’s best if peers use their own moral authority to show up.

The officials – political leaders, the press, the clergy – the people who have real power to make change get maligned by the bully as oppressors.

You’ve seen this practice, and heard it in phrases like 
The press are lying scum who can’t be trusted.
Religion is at the core of every genocide in history.
That politician is a crook, a psychopathic narcissist, a philanderer, a monster.
And they will use those phrases over and over and over again until the power of the pulpit, press or political office mean nothing.

See what happens there? The bully does the naming, the bully attaches the judging labels to the behaviors and intentions of others.

That’s why it’s important for each of us, even in fear or frailty to practice the second tactic of the upstander: show up. That’s it. 
Even if you aren’t there for the initial act of bullying, show up in the future whenever you can, in order to use your moral authority to name the bullying and practice the third tactic of the bystander: demonstrating solidarity, making it known to the people being bullied that they are not alone. Making it known that you will not be part of the circle of taunters, that you are living up to your duty to your community and humanity.

Those are the three steps to being an upstander against bullies:
Be present physically
Show up afterward
Demonstrate solidarity

Being an upstander is “Modeling compassionate solidarity coupled with loving outreach that acts as a shield around the vulnerable one.” Being an upstander is putting your faith into action.

The great thing is that all of these practices work anywhere: school, church, the public arena.

Though physical presence is more like written presense, it works online too.

May we, with the authority of our faith, have the kind of presence and solidarity that neutralizes bullying, everywhere we go.

(1) Judith Martin, from her book Miss Manners Rescues Civilization from Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing, and Other Lapses in Civility. Crown Publishers, 1996. P. 12.

(2) Judith Martin, “Alternative Virtues for the Trump Era. The Atlantic Magazine, February 16, 2017.

(3) Matthew 5:38-42, NIV

(4) Matthew 5:45, NIV


(6) Kenneth Bailey. The Cross and the Prodigal.