Eye for an Eye, Bully for a Bully: Reflections on Karen Klein’s Storyby Bryan J. on Jun 25, 2012 • 10:25 am 5 Comments
I expect by now that most people have heard of or seen the viral youtube video of grandmother and bus monitor Karen Klein being harassed and bullied to tears by small gang of seventh graders. If not, you can youtube it yourself–it’s really too dark and graphic to warrant embedding it in this post. Essentially, what happened is this: while watching kids on the way to school earlier this week, some seventh grade boys surrounded Ms. Klein and began to bully her, physically poking and prodding her while belittling her about her weight, her (assumed) financial state, and the history of suicide in her family. It’s dark stuff–really dark stuff–and you’re better off not watching the video itself. It’s like grandma got dropped in the middle of Lord of the Flies.
What’s made this story different, however, is that the youtube video documenting said harassment has caused a tidalwave of emotional and financial support to Klein. Thousands of emails in support poured in. A crowd-funding social media campaign, hoping to raise $5000 for Klein to take a nice vacation, has raised over $600,000 to date. Klein is being interviewed by just about every major news outlet. Something about Klein’s story has shaken the emotional subconscious of America to its core.
We’ve briefly touched on bullying before here at Mbird, but not in any substantial way. Using Klein’s story as a proxy, perhaps a few observations about the dynamics of bullying (and its prevention) are in order:
- Observation 1: “Much as we might wish it could, the command ‘Do Not Bully’ cannot create or encourage the desire to stop bullying.” It seems as if the heightened awareness of bullying as a “problem” over the past few years has done little to stop it. Awareness campaigns, increased punishment, documentaries, none of these things seem to help stem the tide of school-aged ridicule, and in fact, the growth of social media seems to have made the problem worse.
- Observation 2: “Bullying bullies does not stop bullying.” What is perhaps most fascinating about the Klein story is that the boys in question are now the target of bullying themselves. Once these four boys were put in a position of weakness and powerlessness through national media exposure, tens of thousands of angry phone calls, belittling emails, death threats, and vicious youtube comments have inundated their inboxes. The great irony: America responds to bullies by bullying them, becoming a bully itself.
- Observation 3: “Bullying seems to be a near universal expression/experience of sin.” As Klein receives over a half-million dollars in financial support for her anguish, the story is less about her financial windfall and more about who is giving that money. The average donation to the “Let’s Give Karen The Bus Monitor a Vacation” fund is (by my quick and unofficial math) $20 across 30,000 donors (as of 6/25). In other words, there are many, many people out there who sympathize with Klein’s story. It seems to have hit an emotional land mine, and it’s causing people to respond in profound and unique ways.
- Observation 4: “The Gospel is for the bullied and the bully” or, as we like to say on this site, the Gospel is for victims and victimizers alike. Perhaps the closest analogy to a “bully” in scripture is the Tax Collector. In all four gospels, Tax Collectors are listed among the sinners with whom Jesus associated himself. Of course, it was the Tax Collector’s job to collect all the necessary funds required by the (occupying) government, and extort some extra off the top for his own personal gain. They were not loved. Not unlike a lunchroom bully shaking down smaller kids for milk money or a mafioso collecting for “protection.” And yet, Jesus seeks out, loves, hangs out with, speaks peace to, and welcomes these tax collectors into his fold. St. Matthew was a tax collector. He was probably a bully. He wrote a book of the bible. See also Zacchaeus.
Bullying is such a hot topic these days, and it feels like a whole generation of adults are trying to integrate the ghosts of their bullies into their roles as grown-ups. I’m no different: I channel my 4th grade bully whenever I read any of these stories, hearing his words of condemnation alongside those in the news. The national news coverage has placed the blame on just about everyone else: parents, political rhetoric, violent video games, R-rated movies. The Gospel shows us, however, that the Law is ineffective in dealing with bullies. As Blair wrote last week in reference to the Lindy Chamberlain case in Australia: “We hope that by calling attention to the faults of others, ours will be minimized and appear ‘not that bad’ after all.”
Bullying will end when two things happen: when the Gospel of forgiveness and grace is preached to the victimizer who has been brought low by the condemnation of the Law, and when victims and victimizers recognize that both are sinners in possession of wounded hearts in desperate need of repair.
Yes, these kids will get some “first use of the law” punishment from their parents and the school system, as well they should. But perhaps the real grace in this situation is that Klein has so far refused to press criminal charges. She has not returned insult with insult, nor demanded an eye for an eye. “[She] was oppressed, and [she] was afflicted, yet [she] opened not [her] mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so [she] opened not [her] mouth,” to paraphrase Isaiah 53. In a world that would throw these thirteen year-olds behind bars for their bullying, Klein has, for now, extended a hand of grace, which might actually be the thing that changes the bully heart.
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