The NFL, the Church, and the Bullies

With the news regarding the Miami Dolphins players, bullying has reared its ugly head again in our culture. Lots of experts and not-so-experts are offering their insights and opinions, but a couple of things caught my attention.

One, the shock that so many seem to have that a grown man who plays professional football could be bullied; and two, the long history the alleged bully has of inappropriate behavior that has seemingly been ignored for decades.  Check out the timeline graphic on this article from ESPN, which does not include the latest allegations of the investigation of sexually inappropriate behavior at a golf tournament.

I hope - I hope - people realize that being the victim of a bully has nothing to do with physical size or mental and emotional toughness or lack thereof. In fact, research shows that most bullies target their victims because they are, quite honestly, threatening to the bully through their competence, personality traits, or other qualities that trigger the need to damage another. Anyone can be a victim of bullying. Anyone. And I suspect most people have been, at some point in their lives, a victim of bullying.

Our image of bullies is sadly limited to the ruffian on the school yard shaking kindergarteners down for lunch money, but my experience as an adult is that adult bullying is far more pervasive than we'd like to admit. Bullying exists in the workplace, in the NFL, and sadly, even in the Church. Bullying is generally any act that intentionally causes harm to another through verbal harassment, physical harassment, or (most commonly) subtle acts of manipulation and intimidation. While bullying can be difficult to identify, a hallmark is when the person who engages in this behavior is called on the carpet, s/he will diminish the act ("It was just a joke" or "Oh, he knows I'm kidding"), diminish the person (She's so oversensitive; he has emotional problems; he just needs to "man-up"), or diminish the system ("This vestry is stupid"; "People are mad at me because they're jealous") and then double down on the intimidation.

Most bullies are generally people who use their own charm, power, and position to promote themselves because they are so often obsessed with their own authority and power. Psychological studies show that most, if not all, bullies have experienced emotional or physical abuse and have chosen to deal with their wounds by hurting others - by transmitting their pain instead of allowing and engaging in the healing to transform it. As they saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Since we all have wounds in our souls, we should all also be aware that we are also all capable of bullying.

Again, what is so telling about this current incident in the news is the history. The alleged bully has a history of inappropriate actions, and these are just the ones that have been documented. Past behavior is the best indicator of future performance. So, why, then, do so many people who have engaged in bullying behavior get continuously excused, thus being allowed and even encouraged to repeat?

I suspect there are many reasons, but the most prominent seems to be the need to sweep it under the rug. After all, eventually the bully will leave, right? And, well, the victim will be okay, right? And it won't happen again, right? And it's not really my problem, right?


Bullies, like all of us, will only modify their behavior when they must deal with the consequences of the behavior and are offered the help they need to change their behavior. The systems cannot continue to act as if it's all just "personality conflicts" or "oversensitive people" or whatever label they give these situations to avoid their own responsibility.

One of the saddest reactions from Where God Hides Holiness have been the number of stories I've heard from all over the Church, from men and women, from laity and clergy, new members and long-time members, about how they have been bullied by people in the Church. Some of the stories are accounts of comments that got a bit out of hand to outright criminal behavior. And the common theme is this: I shared my story, and nothing happened.

Nothing happened. A child of God was wounded, and we just watched her or him bleed.

What can we do? What are we as Christians called to do?

Because let's be clear, we ARE called to act in light of the dignity violation of bullying behavior. To ignore bullying behavior is to be complicit in the violence.

I wonder what would happen if we believed the victim when we heard about this behavior, believed that something happened that was upsetting and troubling, instead of dismissing it. Believing the victim's experience does not mean ignoring another's experience; it simply means trusting that we all have experiences that are real to us. Perhaps when someone hears that comments he made in jest about the shape of a woman priest's curves were instead offensive and demeaning to her, he has the invitation to reconsider his comments in light of her experience instead of dismissing her. When we hear how we hurt another and believe it, we are offered a way to allow God's transformation.

And what might happen if we began making people aware of what constitutes bullying behavior, maybe even calling people to identify times they've engaged in this behavior?  What if people who have been accused of being a bully repeatedly were treated with dignity and love as their actions were addressed and helped to be transformed? What if dioceses began addressing this and if bishops began addressing clergy and laity who have been repeatedly accused of this behavior instead of waiting for the lawsuit (which, odds say, will inevitably come...because bullies repeat and increase their abuse)? Some dioceses are having these conversations. Hard though they may be, they are also seeing remarkable growth and health in their congregational systems and in the clergy who serve in these dioceses.

And what might happen if we did a better job of being aware of people's wounds and pain. Again, as distasteful as I find the actions of the Dolphins' player, I am also filled with pity about whatever wounds he's likely wound in barbed wire and buried deep within himself. So deeply, in fact, that he, like most serial bullies, seems completely unable to see his actions as anything but acceptable. What might happen if we took the exploration of one's grief and wounds as seriously as we do the exploration of how to make the Church really, really big? What would happen if we as a Church expected, supported, and appreciated clergy mental health and healing in the same way we do physical health?

What might happen if we, as the Church, realized that what happened in Miami is happening each and every day in our holy spaces, looked at the ourselves and owned our own bullying problem...then decided to stop transmitting our problem and to start transforming it?

For a good starting place on bullying, both child and adult, check out PBS's This Emotional Life


LTD said…
A while back, I wrote a post for the Confirm not Conform blog on Making Your Youth Group a Humiliation-Free Zone. It seems to me that a lot of churches honestly don't know when something is designed to humiliate because that kind of behavior is in the DNA -- and because different people have different reactions.

One person I know actually used this post to help train camp counselors and they couldn't see anything wrong with it. "It was fine for us," they said. "Why shouldn't it be fine for these kids?"

I think these can be translated into what we do to adults as well: requiring more sharing than is comfortable, using our power from the pulpit to shame or blame, or allowing committee heads to do so. And of course priests are bullied themselves by lay leaders or their higher ups.

I suspect we often don't know when we are entering bullying territory. Bullying is what other people do. The first step, as you say, is looking at ourselves -- and recognizing the bullying within us.

Karen said…
Excellent thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

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