Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a natural fan/ally of Stonewall. I have written before about how they are specifically wrong, an instance where they did not judge public opinion correctly, and my position in the marriage debate of the last year leads me to different reflections.
However, today, I am rather surprised and yet also pleased to be finding myself agreeing with them. Justin Welby, apparently – here is a BBC News link, and a Tweet from Andrea Williams of Christian Concern who (I think) is misguided in her opposition here) – which suggest that the Archbishop has invited Stonewall in to have a conversation/consultation about reducing homophobic bullying in schools. Which I think is really rather a good idea. However, I do understand that some (such as Christian Concern) may be uncomfortable with this. I don’t think they should be, and to quibble over the providers of assistance, when it is clear where the Church stands (and, technically, officially, the C of E is clear!) on the issue, seems to me to be uncharitable.
– 1 –
Let me spell this out. Some children and teenagers in schools – specifically Church of England Schools – are bullied because of their perception of their identity, and the response of their peers. Now there is a lot to be said about the importance of sexuality and identity, and why it might not be ideal to ‘decide’ an identity based on sexuality, but the basic point stands: some people are bullied because of something not understood, not exactly their fault, and the C of E wants to help them. Bravo!
Bullying is a complex issue. There are a myriad of reasons why someone is bullied, and why someone else does the bullying. It is rarely simple. In the specific case of homophobic bullying, I would observe that is highly likely that most children (and to a lesser extent teenagers, but there we go) don’t have the nuanced understanding of the issue that lobby groups like Stonewall, or churches like the C of E, have. We should therefore not be dismayed, but instead seek to implement ways of engaging with the issue that are neutral. While I would observe that Stonewall does have some unhelpful attitudes and positions, the practical advice they might offer is what the C of E is/should be pursuing, and this is what would be useful. As I said, bullying is a complex issue, and in my mind any thought should be welcomed, certainly at a consultive level, if not a practical level of implementation.
As I hinted at, there are two parties in bullying. The bully, and the bullied. It is easy to demonise one and rush overwhelmingly to the protection of the other, but I think the Christian Gospel calls us to embrace both, both as human beings, both as sinners, both as people made in the Image of God. The bully (or, likely, bullies) need to be engaged with, understood, and attempts made to persuade them to be people who respect the basic humanity of everyone, whether or not they may find individuals strange/threatening/odd/difficult. Likewise, the bullied will need support. Possibly counselling. Certainly schools should publicly – in assemblies, announcements, letters, etc – make it very clear that bullying is unacceptable in any circumstances, regardless of motivation. The tricky thing here is to do this in a way that echoes and respect the basic human dignity of every person, without privileging one identity, race, religion, orientation or other factor over any other.
– 2 –
Why do I care about this? Why have I devoted a blog post to common sense, apparently? Because to me, this really matters. An important and influential part of my story is depression, and also the bullying that happened to me around and before that time at school. I was immensely lucky to get some support – even thought it wasn’t entirely effective – and to be listened to. The devaluing and dehumanisation that I felt from being bullied was to some extent counteracted by having adults – teachers and the excellent school nurse, in my case – listening and trying to do something.
I care because I don’t want anyone to go through the pain and hurt that is being bullied. I’m not entirely sure why I was – I *think* it was because I was a Christian, or because I was obnoxious, or because I was a bit different, or (and perhaps most likely) a combination of those. Human beings, whilst being incredibly valuable, creative, powerful and important, are also sinful, broken, damaged and damaging. Put people together and they might come up with the Sydney Opera house, or they might come up with the Atom Bomb. The reality of human beings is that we are not perfect, because we are sinful, and while we are made in and retain something of the Image of God, we live in a fallen broken world.
It is only from my own brokenness and bullied-ness that I can even start to speak personally into this story, to urge Christian Concern, and other groups (and their supporters) to think again about how they might engage with Stonewall on this issue. I am not calling for Stonewall to be given carte-blanche access to every school, but instead that we listen and learn from their expertise in this area. Imagine if bullying, for any reason, could stop, and mutual understanding and respect could be restored. In secular, terms it is a pipe dream. Stonewall cannot achieve it. Nor can the Government.
– 3 –
What motivates me to write, then? What makes me keen to share a fragment of my brokenness? Very simple. Jesus. You might accuse me of sentimental gospel-ing or cynical evangelical opportunism, but it is precisely because of my faith in Jesus, the power of his death and Resurreciton, that made me write this post. In a previous post – ‘When the Image of God is Reduced, Damaged, Broken‘ – I wrote this;
In Colossians 1:15 the Apostle Paul wrote a short sentence that goes right to the heart of the damage and brokenness I have been writing about today;
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation“
The image of God. The firstborn. God himself identified with us, and identifies with us, in tying the ultimate means of salvation and revelation, Jesus Christ, with the language and basic human experiences essential to our human existence. Jesus was born. Grew up. Was educated. Tempted. Made sad. Made hungry. Mocked. Beaten. Whipped. Bled. Cried. Died.
This Image of God, this Jesus, in dying for the world, for every Image-bearer who would recognise him, started as a baby born to a virgin, mocked even then. Jesus died alongside thieves, in human terms unjustly executed. The Image of God, The Son, hung on a cross. Reduced. Damaged. Broken. Bleeding like the LGBT protestors in Russia. Crying like the teenagers in the ex-gay ministry. Grown up, even as the boys in that camp will one day grow up. Made of the same stuff, the same genetic map, as the Royal Baby and the millions of babies never born.
I find this hard to write. Harder still to know. But I believe it is true. The Image of God matters. Recognising that, recognising the worth and value of human beings, does not instantly validate everything they do. I don’t think Jesus would whole-heartedly endorse every story and perspective. But he would welcome the people. The Image Bearers. So that, in the words of Paul again, this time in 2 Corinthians 3:18;
“We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit“
Would you contemplate the Lord’s glory?
Would you follow Jesus, and be transformed from your sinful, limited, death-bound self, into the fullness of his image?
What this means in earthly terms is radical, unpopular. It means recognising that structures, authorities, powers and principalities – and, yes, lobby groups and pressure groups – of this world are nothing compared to the Church. The place where mutual understanding, respect, real love should be found is in the Church of Jesus Christ. Because it is only in Jesus that people can understand their real identity, their real humanity. The lies of our culture – of religion, of government, of, yes, Stonewall – all are exposed by the truth who is Jesus. Who calls us out of darkness and into light by the power of his glorious cross.
I don’t think solving one form of bullying will change the world. But I do think its part of it. Because recognising the Image of God in people, whether we disagree with them or not, sends a radical message of inclusion. Not false inclusion, where people don’t have to do anything, where nothing changes, but real inclusion, where transformation takes place and the old lines and markers of sinful human beings are washed away in Jesus.
In Galatians 3:28 Paul is writing to a bunch of Christians, a chunk of the Church. He is writing to those called out – of sin, of sexual immorality, of brokenness, of rebellion, of lying, of slander, of greed, of avarice and a million other things – of darkness and into light. The Church;
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”
Notice, this isn’t carte-blanche, its predicated on a meaningful and transforming relationship with Jesus. But it is a startling riposte to our culture of labels and boundaries and sin.
No-one should be bullied.
Everyone should have the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus, the old, old story that says what is true about us. Because we – all of us – are great sinners. But Christ is a great saviour.
– fin –
UPDATE 29/11/13 – A great new website launched today, looking at this complex issue through the perspective of individuals, theological thought, and book reviews. Endorsed by some great folks and well designed, check out Living Out!