Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.

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In a study published last Wednesday, the effects both of being bullied or being a bully were found to last well into adulthood (including, but not limited to, a severe increase of anxiety disorder, depression, suicide, and panic attacks). According to the New York Times, “bullying is not a harmless rite of passage, but inflicts lasting psychiatric damage on a par with certain family dysfunctions.” In a sense, the psychological effects of bullying are on par with sustained, severe child abuse.

As someone who has not been the victim of childhood bullying, this news is eye-opening. I, much like the church, have kept a wide distance from the topic. I have never heard a sermon on  bullying, nor have I read any books or seen many members of my Christian community interact on the topic of bullying. As I finished the article, stunned by the cruel realities of the world and how much I had distanced myself from them, I wondered why I so rarely hear this talked about. What is it about the subject of bullying that the larger Christian community finds so hard to engage with?

For myself, I know my lack of awareness and empathy comes from living a very different experience. I grew up in a fairly conservative home, and I was home schooled up until 11th grade. I lived in either rural or sheltered suburban environments, and most of my friends were similarly schooled at home or in small private Christian institutions. In my own experience, I never saw an instance of bullying, either first or second-hand. It simply wasn’t an issue for me, safe and secure in my Christian bubble, filled with AWANAS and youth meetings and positive music alternatives. But for many children, including those within the church, vicious taunts and jokes were their every day experience.

Another reason the church has been slow to respond to the issue might stem from who we perceive to be the objects of bullying. While Christians might think themselves the persecuted minority in America, the truth is that most of the more visible forms of childhood bullying center around not differences in religion, but differences in social acceptability: being overweight, ugly, socially awkward, or not conforming to strict gender norms.

It is the last one that has gotten a fair amount of media attention, and which the church has failed to address in any meaningful way. When the “It Gets Better” videos went viral, the church was silent. When Lady GaGa becomes an international pop star, due in a large part by her acceptance of outcasts and freaks—calling them her “beautiful monsters”, we are merely befuddled. When nearly every episode of Glee centers around a song-and-dance number on the importance of accepting ourselves, we roll our eyes and click off the TV.

But to ignore the very real issue of childhood bullying is both dangerous and lacking in what marks us as Christians—our love. Perhaps we have largely ignored the issue of bullying because it highlights a fact that most of us in the church do not want to confront: that there are large sections of our society that are being told, day after day, that they are not valuable. And we are letting it happen.

Words matter. To the ones being bullied, the church has a chance to step up and say: “I’m sorry for the words you have heard. We are here to tell you about the One who made you, who loves you and has a place for you in his kingdom”. The church, more than Dan Savage or Lady Gaga, should be at the forefront of the anti-bullying message. Do we not believe the Good News? Do we not believe that “It Gets Better?” Do we not see a place in the church for all the “beautiful monsters” of our world? If we don’t believe that, then our silence makes sense.

But I do believe it. I believe that within Christ’s kingdom, there is a place for all the outcasts. That through his perfect, redeeming love, we are all called to His presence. I believe in Jesus our high priest, who identifies with every suffering, including bullying, whom we can approach in all confidence, assured of finding grace and mercy.

So let’s watch videos like these, and seek to understand the lasting pain and hurt of words. Let’s be vigilant in our own communities, paying special attention to how our children interact with others. Let us seek to identify with those on the fringes of society, instead of ignoring their hurt and pain. Let us be the first to say we are sorry for their pain, to hold megaphones on the front-lines of the anti-bullying movement, to asses our own tendencies to ostracize those that we don’t understand.

But most of all, let us point to a radical Love that truly changes everything.  There is a kingdom coming where the meek and the mild, the hungry and the sad, the poor and the persecuted, will be the heralds of God’s rule and reign on the earth. Jesus himself told us so: it gets better. The kingdom is coming; the kingdom is already here.




  1. really healthy youth ministries are good at welcoming kids at the fringe, but so often the same rules of cool apply there, too…and then the youth group kids grow up and church isn’t so different from school or anywhere else with its ruling class and norms.

    when it comes to lgbt bullying, christians haven’t proven themselves to be safe people at all to provide harbor or to speak prophetically against the injustice of it. the church has a LONG way to go in being examples of practical, tangible, actual love, and to gay kids especially, the “best” they get from the church is our silence–which, in my mind, is about the same as complicity. we need to do better. thanks for writing.

  2. Just last night I was cradling my crying daughter. She finally confessed that for weeks now the boys at school had been taunting her at recess, calling her ugly, ridiculing her for her speech, refusing to allow her to play with them. Gut wrenching sobs… My son admitted to witnessing it all, that these boys are his friends. I asked what he did when it happened, day after day. “I stayed silent, mom. But I never said anything mean to my sister because I love her.” And there it is… he did thought by keeping silent, he was showing his sister enough love. But he didn’t think of stopping it, interrupting the unkindness as it unfolded or risk his own place among the popular kids. He observed his sister crying after recess more than once and would comfort her… but he didn’t think about stopping the others – or how he could without becoming a victim of similar taunts. This is all so hard, but so real.

    We did talk about these things just last night, D.L. Our words hurt, but even our silences can hurt. And how do we stand up for those we love and all those God loves… because my girl isn’t the only one teased mercilessly on the playground.

  3. Yes, yes, yes. We don’t talk about it, and there are children and teenagers emotionally (and sometimes physically) dying because of the bullying they experience. Oh, that our churches could truly be the place for those who don’t belong…that they would experience the love of Jesus, the one who stood beside those society had forsaken, through us. We are called to this.

  4. Oh, Kelley. My heart aches for your daughter. I was never the victim of bullying, but I saw the scars others bore over the years as they were taunted and picked on mercilessly. May your son grow in wisdom and confidence to stand up for the marginalized around him, starting with his little sister.

  5. Problem: you wrote this entire piece, you name-checked Dan Savage, the “It Gets Better” project, and Lady Gaga – but never once could you bring yourself to type the word “gay.” The closest you got was “not conforming to strict gender norms.” How can anybody believe you – and by this, I mean Christians more broadly, because this sort of verbal acrobatics is the norm among evangelicals who seem to believe that even saying the word “gay” is somehow “affirming sin” – why would anybody believe you identify with them if you won’t even identify the problem by name, if you won’t even recognize us for what we are? Lady Gaga’s power is in her anthem, “Born That Way,” with a message that Christians should know by heart – “I’m beautiful in my way/’Cause God makes no mistakes” – and we love her because in the same song, she calls us out by name… we dance to the words “No matter gay, straight or bi/Lesbian, transgendered life/I’m on the right track, baby/I was born to survive.” And for those of us who love Christ, it’s because we believe he knows our names, too… knows all of us, sees all of us, and claims us as his own. If it “gets better” with Christ, that’s the reason why – and until the church accepts that, it won’t “get better” with Christians. If Gaga’s gospel rings truer to the outcasts of this world, that’s not her fault, and I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing.

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