Bullies and their taunts have plagued vulnerable children—and adults—from the biblical period to our own day. Educators, those in the counseling professions and victims of bullying, have labored in recent years to increase awareness of the soul-destroying effects bullying has on children, their families and the larger community. Studies gathered by the National Association of School Psychologists report that nearly 20 percent of children in grades 6 to 10 have been bullied and a similar number admit to taking part in bullying. And everyone at some point will become a witness to acts of bullying—a reality that carries its own corrosive emotional current. As we seek to educate our children about and protect them from the heartbreaking experience of being taunted by a bully, we may look to the model and teaching Jesus offered when he encountered this problem.
We encounter biblical examples of the anguish of being taunted in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Consider, for example, the story of the prophet Elisha. As the glabrous prophet was going up to Bethel, a gang of boys came out from the city to taunt him, saying “Go away, you baldhead! Go away, you baldhead!” Elisha, “in the name of the Lord,” angrily retorted with curses on the boys. “Then two she bears came out of the woods and mauled 42 of the boys” (2 Kings 2:24). (All citations are from the NSRV.) Modern readers are shocked by the severity of the prophet’s reaction, but as scripture scholar Kenneth Bailey notes in his illuminating book The Cross and the Prodigal “[anyone who] has seen and experienced the verbal cruelty of a village gang, with its scoffing and derisive choruses…almost delights in reading that once, long ago, they were dealt with.”
Bailey, a Presbyterian minister who spent over 40 years in Palestine, pioneered modern scholarly reflection on the interpretive importance of Middle Eastern cultural contexts in scripture, including the dynamics of taunting and mockery. He notes that village taunt gangs have long been an annoyance in Middle Eastern life, and he was, unfortunately, well acquainted with these mockery gauntlets: “In Palestinian villages I have had men from the village, thinking I was an Arab pilgrim and thereby a guest in their town, escort me through their village to keep the ‘gang’ at a distance.” Over 100 years before Bailey’s ministry, another missionary, John Hogg of the Scottish Presbyterian church, was harassed daily by taunters as he came and went from his house boat moored in the town of al-Muti’ah on the upper Nile. The boys teased, “Mister John Hogg is too tall. Crack his head and see him fall.” Hogg solved the problem by rewarding the boys with hard candy every time they sang. When the treat supply ran out, the boys refused to sing, and that was the end of that!
Mercy and Solidarity
Scholars point to a number of instances where Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry addresses the caustic problem of taunting. Unlike his ancestor-in-faith Elisha, Jesus does not appear to advocate direct confrontation with bullies and taunters. Rather, Jesus models compassionate solidarity coupled with loving outreach that acts as a shield around the vulnerable one. Take, for instance, the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10. Vincent Taylor, in his monumental commentary The Gospel According to St. Mark, argues that the blind man’s name literally means “son of unclean.” Bailey, echoing Taylor, says this epithet might have been the poor blind man’s taunt name. One can easily imagine hapless Bartimaeus, wearing soiled rags, begging on the side of the Jericho road, being taunted by local children: “Here comes the ‘son of filth’! Here comes the stinker!” Bartimaeus’ cry “Son of David, have mercy on me!” assumes a new level of significance in light of the cruel taunting he might have faced. Jesus’ compassionate act of healing not only restores this man’s sight, but also brings an end to the emotional torture Bartimaeus was most likely enduring. Jesus, in a single gesture of mercy and love, restored the blind man’s sight as well as his human dignity.
Taunting also serves as a significant factor in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). A Middle Eastern audience would be appalled by a son who asks for his share of the family estate while his father is still living. No such custom existed. Bailey puts it forcefully. By asking that the estate be divided while his father lives, “The younger son is impatient for his father’s death.” That the contemptuous son quickly liquidates his share (settlement of property normally takes months, sometimes years) and leaves for a distant city is as much an indication of his need to escape the scorn of disgusted neighbors as it is his desire to flaunt his newfound wealth.
Bailey notes that the prodigal’s humiliating return was certain to evoke the wrath of all in his village. Everyone would want to be seen as sending a clear message: what this greedy fool did will not be tolerated, and, God forbid, no others should ever dare make such a demand of their fathers. The village boys of course would relish the chance to follow the disgraced man about, jeering him mercilessly. The sage ben Sira had witnessed taunt gangs in action and recorded his impression, “Of three things my heart is frightened…Slander in the city, the gathering of a mob, and false accusation—all these are worse than death” (Sirach 26:5). Taunt songs, name-calling and pelting with footwear (as suggested in Psalm 60:8) would have been the welcome the shamed man could look forward to.
As the prodigal approached his home village by the road leading in from the countryside, word of his return would quickly spread through the gossip network, aided by the close, open-windowed houses. Imagine him: empty-handed, wearing a pig-herder’s rags, a clearly defeated man. Scornful villagers, many of whom might be cousins or relatives, would begin gathering to make their displeasure known, as the boys sail out to commence the taunting. The sight of the returning prodigal son, however, compels his father to make a gesture that was as radical—and self-sacrificial—as it was unexpected. Jesus tells us, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20b).
The father does something a Middle Eastern man never does—he runs! No respectable Palestinian patriarch runs anywhere, the exception for an emergency. Once again ben Sira tells us, “A person’s attire and hearty laughter, and the way he walks, show what he is” (Sirach 19:30, emphasis mine). And Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says of running, “a slow step is thought proper to a proud man…and a rapid gait the result of hurry and excitement.” To run is undignified. To run signifies a loss of control. To run requires a man to collect his thawb, the traditional tunic-like garment, in his hands, thus exposing the ankles—a dishonorable and buffoonish posture. The comedy of the stumbling old man would have been enough to distract the attention of the village boys away from the dishonorable son. The harriers would now turn to the father, chasing after him and laughing at the spectacle he has become. The patriarch was within his rights to stand by quietly while his son endured the well-earned humiliation. But the father offers himself as a shield against the cruelty his boy is about to face.
Jesus, in touching the despised and neglected Bartimaeus, the “son of filth”; through his teaching in the parable of the prodigal son; and in other instances where he shows solidarity with the defenseless, invites his disciples to bravely and lovingly step into the crucible of humiliation with those who are being taunted; to act as shields of compassion for the vulnerable one.
A contemporary example of a response to bullying that mirrors Jesus’ teaching and example can be found in the story of Danny Keefe, a first grader in Bridgewater, Mass. Danny suffered a brain hemorrhage a week after birth that has left him with a slight impediment to his speech. Otherwise, he is vivacious and singular little boy, “water coach” for his school’s fifth grade pee-wee football team and known for wearing a coat, tie and fedora hat to school every day.
Danny’s peculiarity has made him the object taunting, however. His mother, Jennifer Keefe, told Bridgewater’s local newspaper, The Enterprise, that Danny has regularly been teased at the playground. Bullies have pulled his hat down over his face and called him demeaning names, she said. Danny would often come home in tears, brokenhearted to be the subject of such humiliation. When his older teammates on the Badgers football team heard about this, they created “Danny Appreciation Day.” Forty-five students came to school dressed in coats and ties —and fedora hats—as a sign of solidarity with their little friend. When interviewed by a local television reporter, many of the football players became emotional as they described how they felt about Danny, and how hurtful it was to learn that he was being taunted. One boy said through welling tears, “We wanted to come to school dressed like Danny…to show Danny that we love him. We love him a lot.”
The Enterprise story reported that Danny “beamed.” “This is the best day ever,” he exclaimed while other students gathered around him in the school library chanting “Danny! Danny!” “He feels so loved and protected,” said Mrs. Keefe. She often worried that her little son would go to sleep with the thoughts of taunting in his mind. “With this act of kindness, I hope he thinks of that as he goes to sleep.”
Jesus’ ministry was epitomized by his courageous willingness to place himself among ones most likely to be taunted—those who were weak and vulnerable, those who were unclean, those who were marginalized. Many who comprised Jesus’ first century audience would recoil, as we would, at the thought of touching the ugly blind man, publicly smothering a shameful son in kisses or dining with the despised ones, like the tax collector Zacchaeus (whose name means “clean” or “innocent”—perhaps a sarcastic taunt name). Jesus, by his own example and preaching, empowers us to move beyond being bystanders, to embrace and shield, through bold but loving action, those suffering under the yoke of bullying and taunting.