I remember the day well.
It was ninth grade. I was leaving campus, turned a hallway corner, and saw a group of guys bullying a friend, Mark. (Not his real name.) He was pinned against the wall and being punched in the face and stomach.
Mark was quiet, sweet, intelligent, and not very athletic. He liked puppies, cooking with his mother, working in the garden, reading, and music.
My reaction was swift, and I felt rage inside me. It was the sort of over-the-top response only a ninth-grader could manage. And while no one bullied Mark again, I want to be clear: I’m not the hero in this situation. My response did nothing to fix the underlying issues. (Not to mention I’m in time out for about another 14 years.)
But it raises a question: Can we say we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul without loving our neighbor? If we fail to act when we see injustice and oppression?
Even worse, can we say we love God if we bully someone else? Shun them?
For the record, bullying happens in many churches. Often, the genesis is a parking lot conversation. The result is that someone is on the outs, gets the cold shoulder, or is unwelcome. When this happens, the entire body of Christ is injured.
Let’s take things a step further. Can we say we love God if we ignore someone else’s concerns? Even if we disagree with them?
Or the person who irritates us, even though the situation isn’t their fault?
I’m thinking of a Sunday during the pandemic when I was in line at the returns desk at our nearby Lowes. In front of me were about a dozen people, all well-dressed. Some were still holding their church bulletins.
The wait was interminable, and folks were doing the passive-aggressive thing.
We know the drill: Bored looks. Pointed sighs. Tapping feet.
Finally, some old battleaxe bellowed, “Can’t you call someone to help?!”
As I was eying her, wondering if she had a weapon, an older gentleman behind her said quietly, “Given how fast he’s running, I’m betting he’d gladly call for help if he could.”
There was an awkward silence. Then, the lady who had yelled went over and said to the guy at the counter, “I’m so sorry. I know you’re short-staffed.”
My experience illustrates something important. Our failings in these areas often involve issues we think are minor. But they can cause significant upset for others, especially if the other person is trying their best.
In other words, we feed the hungry, aid the needy, and aid the oppressed. But we turn around and bully some kid making minimum wage at a job we probably wouldn’t even consider. And all because we went to a store in the middle of a pandemic when we probably could have done everything we needed online. So who’s the dork in this situation?
We call bullying, oppression, exclusion, and other misconduct sins. But when we do these things ourselves, we don’t call them sins. Instead, we call our actions mistakes and engage in the sin of hypocrisy.
Or we ignore our sin and call it water over the dam. The excuses are many, and they are lame. We know the drill. We say:
- Well, he’s gone now.
- That was so long ago.
- I don’t think it would make a difference.
- It was a bad day.
But the kid working the returns desk remembers that day. I remember that day. The effects linger and often get paid forward. In other words, we must repent and make restitution, even if it happened long ago. We must end the cycle of misconduct.
We make the same mistakes with clergy and friends. We make excuses to avoid dealing with unpleasant truths. Consider: How often do we say:
- Don’t take it personally.
- It will be someone else’s turn next.
- I know him. He would never do that.
- We’re all good people doing God’s work.
But because someone is clergy or a friend doesn’t mean we can assume they are reasonable, just, or holy. Friendliness has little, if any, connection to faith. Nor is being a priest a guarantee of anything except that they wear funny clothes to work.
And so, when we minimize sin, either our own or that of others, we erode the Kingdom of God. So too, when we assume corruption away: We pull down that which others have built up. We fail to ask the question: Does my conduct, here and now, build others up?
As for clergy, real priests expect to be held accountable. They welcome it. And there is no faster way to kill the church than to ignore misconduct, regardless of who’s behind it.
Friends, we need to be precise. We don’t build the Kingdom of God with mountains. It’s rare we even get to use giant boulders or slabs of rock.
Instead, we build the Kingdom of God of bricks. One by one, day by day. The bricks are the behaviors, large and small, that we offer at the altar of God. And the cement is our love of God AND our love of our neighbors. We cannot have one without the other.