A 317 Pound Bully In Church? (A Mustard Seed Musing)

When did bullying, or hazing, or harassment become okay?

We seem to have a heightened sense of it, thanks to the tragic deaths of teens and children who succumbed to the hate poured down on them. But we can’t seem to stop it. Maybe that’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to hear stories about the situations and assume, “well, that’s just the way it is.” At what point is enough enough?

The latest story about bullying doesn’t come from a high school lunchroom or a middle school bus stop, but from the depths of the locker room of the Miami Dolphins. The 6′ 5″ second-year lineman Jonathan Martin left the team last week when the harassment he received from the NFL’s Dirtiest Player (by a player vote), Richie Incognito, used more than his 319 pounds to push Martin around (for the record, Martin weighs 312). During the offseason in April, Incognito left a voicemail for Martin that included a racial epithet, and threatened to kill Martin. And apparently, last week, Martin had seen and heard enough, so he quit the team.

Having played sports and having observed the “pack mentality,” I found myself wishing Martin could’ve stayed, because locker room mentality can be like sharks in the water at the first sign of blood. But what if Martin’s only recourse, after years of the football, run-through-the-wall mentality was to go the way of Jovan Belcher or Aaron Hernandez? The Rolando McClains of the football world are few and far between, those who recognize their anger and step away from the game to avoid a greater tragedy. What if Martin had decided that violence was the answer? [Seriously though, how many other people on a football team that practices together, eats together, lives together, and travels together saw this going down, and did nothing?]

And someone reading this just said, “but that’s because of the football mentality!”

Is it?

I can still remember being at the bus stop and being bullied in elementary school by a family who insulted how I dressed, kicked sand in my face, and threatened me with more violence on a regular occasion. I can remember my first year as a lifeguard at a public beach on the island where I grew up, being threatened with bodily harm and being forced to do tasks that no one else was expected to do because they were deemed too disgusting.

And I continue to see the pattern of “hazing” even within the life of the church I love.

At one of my stops as a youth minister, I encountered a pre-established pattern where ninth graders were humiliated on their first mission trip with the senior high, and favoritism was shown to some of the youth who were deemed “cool.” Is it just “hazing” when a seventy-five pound freshman is expected to carry two hundred pounds worth of luggage? Is it just funny when that person’s clothes are messed with or they’re left in the dark to stumble back from their shower without a towel?

Several years later, as a soon-to-be-ordained elder, I was told that the frustrations I had experienced within the United Methodist process were almost over, and that I could do those same things to others once I was “in.” Sure, I’m grateful for the difficulty of the process and recognizing what I accomplished, but I have no way to “jive” the teachings of Jesus with the idea that the subjective struggles I went through were okay because I could inflict them on others!

Isn’t that the form of initiation-turned-hazing that Paul is arguing against in Galatians, where he’s reminding a church that they are saved by Christ and not by being Jewish first? Isn’t the whole letter about the way in which the church structure became immune to the way that people were treated because it had become part of the process?

As a mentor pointed out a long time ago, “you show me a problem outside the church and I’ll show it to you inside the church as well.” Sin is sin is sin (to modify Gertrude Stein). Somewhere, there’s a 317 pound Richie Incognito in a church, waiting for someone to intervene, and stop him.

Rick Warren wrote that we couldn’t have peace as a nation until we had peace as a community, until we had peace within families. If churches and sports teams are communities or families, how can we have peace when one individual or one group lords it over another?

It’s time we stop “normalizing the abnormal,” it’s time we stop accepting that one person treating another as “less” is “just the way it is.” If we can watch Nickelodeon ads about stop bullying for our kids, isn’t it time we stop bullying as adults, too? Isn’t it time we said “no” to the mistreatment of our co-workers, our pew mates, our neighbors? Isn’t it time we made the decision to break the cycle of violence in our own lives, by stopping our own acts of violence and breaking the cycle of violence for others?

The case of Martin and Incognito reminds us that it doesn’t matter how big you are, you can still be made to feel small. But the biggest opponent can be brought low by the smallest decision to break the cycle of violence.

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About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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