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June 10, 2012 | 8:00 a.m.

Is God a Bully?

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 138
Mark 3:20–35


Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference toward justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man.

Jürgen Moltmann
The Crucified God



Yesterday morning a number of men and women gathered here in the church Dining Room for a breakfast meeting sponsored by the Fourth Church Men’s Group to hear Dee Dee Sutherland, an expert on the subject of bullying and coauthor of There’s Always a Bully, a book for parents and children. She told of her painful experience of having been bullied as a youngster and identified how a person might stand up to bullies and when and how to intervene when someone else is being bullied. Her remarks were both inspiring and informative and along with the ensuing discussion greatly appreciated by those in attendance.

Webster’s Dictionary defines bully as a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person, more distinguished for insolence than for courage, who domineers or browbeats others in a loudly arrogant manner.

The subject of bullying has been receiving a good deal of attention recently in the media and in conversations and discussions in schools, churches, and homes, as well as in other places. A documentary film, Bully, has been making the rounds to critical acclaim. Aimed at bullies, the bullied, and the bystander, it graphically depicts the horrendous effects that bullying has on its victims—in this case school-age children—and the tragic consequences that result, including that of suicide in some instances.

Bullying is widespread in the world and takes many forms, some more subtle than others but with similar devastating effects. It does not occur only on the school playground, though concern about how bullying affects children should be a top priority. Bullying occurs in the political arena, in the corporate world, in the courtroom, in the bedroom, in family feuds (like that of the notorious Hatfields and the McCoys), on city streets, in contact sports where bounties are paid for particular hits, in international relationships, in the church (the Vatican and the nuns, for example, or the coercive techniques of some evangelists to get people converted), on the Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, in the incessant bombardment of loud and noisy in-your-face ads on television, and wherever violence and abuse are perpetrated in acts of racism, sexism, ageism, and on the battlefield. War is bullying writ large.

There is a lot of economic and political bullying going on these days, and the billy club being used to intimidate, manipulate, browbeat, and dominate others, the weapon of choice, is money. If you have the money, you have the power, and if you have the power, you can bully your way through the world and let the chips and the bodies fall where they may.

There’s a whole lot of bullying going on in the world. Life itself can bully us with its daunting demands and continual challenges. Standing up to and defending oneself in the face of a bully can be both difficult and dangerous, especially when the bluster is backed up by brawn and bulk, physical, intellectual, emotional, or otherwise.

As I recall, I was not quite twelve years of age when I decided to take on the neighborhood bully on our elementary school playground in Brooklyn, New York, where I grew up. His name was Billy. Billy the bully. He was at least three or four years older than the rest of us, several inches taller, and fifteen to twenty pounds heavier. He took delight in taunting and provoking the youngest and weakest among us in ways that often ended up in fist fights in which he pummeled others into submission and, in some cases, bodily injury.

Though he never picked on me, on that occasion he chose to pick on my younger brother, who, though a scrapper in his own right, was getting thoroughly thrashed. That’s when I stepped in to take on Billy, though I was aware that in all likelihood I would take a beating as well. But I could not stand by and let this bully give my little brother a drubbing and hurt him.

Billy the bully was not a particularly well-coordinated fellow. In fact, he was often quite awkward. I noticed that though he had landed a number of blows on my brother, he had also done a good deal of flailing the air with his arms and fists without inflicting any serious harm. So I decided to wear the bully down by adopting what may have been an early version of a strategy used years later by a well-known world’s champion boxer named Muhammad Ali. I proceeded to “float like a butterfly,” in hope that I would find an opening to “sting like a bee.” And found it I did. As soon as he was exhausted enough from flailing the air, he let down his guard. My left fist shot out toward his face, caught the bridge of his nose, smeared his broken nose all over his face, at the same time blackening both his eyes. He hit the ground with a thud and lay still. I thought I had killed him, and that scared me to the point of panic, because never in my wildest fantasies did I ever imagine myself as possessing such power as to inflict that kind of damage and hurt. He ended up in the hospital for a few days, where my parents insisted I visit him to tell him I was sorry. Which I did, but I wasn’t.

The problem with standing up to and taking on the bully is that it can bring out the bully in you. There is sometimes a very thin line between the bully in me and the bully in the other person. That’s part of the reason Jesus talked about turning the other cheek. He was not so much prohibiting standing up to the bully as he was warning against the toxic effect of persistent and pervasive revenge that can pollute one’s effort to stand up for and defend oneself, thereby setting in motion a cycle of retaliation and potential violence. The cry for justice, however legitimate, sometimes contains the demand for vengeance and can be a euphemism for it.

Is God a bully? When it comes to our enemies, we may want God to be a bully, our personal designated hit man to do our dirty work for us and annihilate our enemies. As I mentioned earlier, war is bullying writ large, and over time many a prayer has been offered by well-meaning and understandably angry people imploring God to give them victory and destroy their enemies. The psalms are replete with examples of such prayers. In 1923 Mark Twain published a parable that has become a relevant classic by an American icon. Entitled The War Prayer, it contains the prayer offered in a patriotic church service held to send the town’s young men off to war. The prayer reads in part as follows:

O Lord our Father, our young patriots
go forth to battle—be thou near them!
With them, in spirit, we also go forth
. . . to smite the foe. O Lord our God,
help us to tear their soldiers to bloody
shreds with our shells; . . . help us to
drown the thunder of the guns with
the shrieks of their wounded, writhing
in pain; . . . to lay waste their homes
. . . to turn them out roofless with their
little children to wander the wastes of
their desolated land in rags and hunger
and thirst . . . For our sakes who adore
thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight
their lives, . . . stain the white snow
with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of him
who is the Source of Love. . . . Amen.

Is God a bully? Sometimes, when it comes to our enemies, the folk we don’t like, we may want God to be a bully or at least be a conspirator in and bless our own bullying.

On the other hand, there may be times when I experience God to be bullying me simply because I do not get my way after pleading fervently to God for something. When my prayers aren’t answered in the way that I want, then is God a bully? My immature, childish self within me may think so, and my subsequent resentment may blind me from seeing God any other way. Which makes me wonder if the difficulty I have with God’s wrath has something to do with the difficulty I have coming to terms with my own.

To hear some tell it, God is not only a bully, but the biggest bully on the block. You can’t read far in the Bible without realizing that God is depicted as being a violent and abusive being, perpetrating upon humanity horrendous acts of devastation and destruction, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden of Adam and Eve, in the book of Genesis, because they ate a piece of fruit, to the grisly, bloodthirsty imagery in the book of Revelation about the end times and a place called Armageddon.

Years ago a friend of mine grew up on a missionary compound in Africa, the daughter of medical missionaries who were consumed by their work, sometimes to the emotional neglect of their children. From them she learned to conceive of God as an angry taskmaster who had little tolerance for anything short of perfection. One day a marauding tribe from another village attacked the compound and slaughtered another missionary family, beheading both parents and two small children. My friend’s mother, in what may have been an attempt to soften the horror of that event, said of those who had been murdered, “They are the lucky ones; they get to be with the Lord.” As a result, my friend concluded early on that Christ’s invitation was, “Follow me, and get yourself killed.” For a long while my friend had nothing to do with Christianity and the church, until later in life she learned that the God of the gospel was also a God of compassion, loving-kindness, and tender mercy. She is beginning to appreciate the wisdom of the words of the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, printed on the cover of our worship bulletin, about the relationship between God’s wrath and God’s love. I asked her once if her God was a bully. “No,” she said, “but my mother’s is.”

Did Jesus engage in bullying behavior when he cleaned out the temple, overthrew the tables of the money changers, and took the whip to and routed those who were exploiting the poor? Was God bullying Jesus by sending him to the cross on a mission of world redemption? Or take, for example, this business about the unpardonable sin, the one that can’t be forgiven, referred to in our scripture reading. Jesus had been creating quite a stir preaching and healing people of diseases and casting out demons—so much so that members of his family thought he was out of his mind and some religious leaders accused him of being possessed by the devil and attributed his good works to the work and power of Satan. After asserting that it is the nature of God to forgive sin and all kinds of blasphemes and insults, Jesus uttered the harsh restriction that insulting or blaspheming the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven.

Do you mean to tell me that God is going to consign a person to eternal damnation just for a little bit of blasphemy? What kind of God is that? Talk about bullying! Except that there is no such thing as a “little bit of blasphemy” when it comes to the Holy Spirit, the very essence of God. To insult God by calling God’s good works evil is to strike at the heart of God’s sovereignty and integrity. In a word, it is to call God a fraud. By so doing, the blasphemer arrogantly assumes that he knows all that can be known about God, that he has no need for forgiveness, and that he is greater than God by virtue of his perceived and presumed superiority. The limitation is not on God’s forgiving grace but on the blasphemer’s capacity and desire to experience it.

Sometimes a person may worry about being guilty of the unpardonable sin. But the presence of such feelings of guilt is itself the assurance that they need not worry. It is the one who in self-righteousness sees no evil or sin in himself or herself who needs to worry. It is such hardness of heart and blindness of spirit that confuses the divine with the demonic and sets oneself either on a par with or superior to God that thereby makes one incapable of experiencing God’s forgiving grace, which is always there in the first place.

In September of 1976, six months after I had come here to Fourth Church to be on the pastoral staff and founding director of our counseling center, I was called to the bedside of my brother in a hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Though he had had a successful career in the banking business, he sustained a number of health challenges that finally overtook him. Now he lay in a coma, close to death. When I arrived at his room, I noticed a man standing at his bedside who was obviously not a doctor or other hospital employee. When he turned to see who had entered the room, we stared at each other for several seconds before we recognized each other. The man was Billy, Billy the bully. I had not seen him for many years, but over time he and my brother had been in touch with each other and had become friends.

Upon recognizing each other and with the long ago memories of that playground encounter when we were young boys rushing into our minds from the past, our eyes filled with tears as we embraced each other. He said to me, “I came as soon as I heard. He was my brother, too, John.” When he asked me if he could give my brother the Last Rites of the church and assured me it would not necessarily make him a Catholic, I told him I would be honored. You see, Billy the bully had become a Catholic priest serving a large parish in Brooklyn and a part-time chaplain in a facility that cared for children who had been bullied and abused.

We stood there together, our arms around each other as my “little” brother drew his last breath. Two bullies who were now trying in our lives, as best we knew how, not to bully but to bless. Standing there with Father Billy I experienced once more something of the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Is God a bully? Not the God I trust.

Thank God.

Amen.