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Sunday, May 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Fear and pain motivate both bullies and victims

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rev. Paul Graves For The Spokesman-Review

I purposely began writing this reflection on the one-year anniversary weekend of the Charlottesville riot over racism and white supremacy. It was a tragic reminder of what bullying is about, and a powerful reminder of how victims don’t have to remain victims.

I remember only two times I was physically bullied as a child in Kellogg. Once was outside my aunt’s home by the next-door boy my same age. Thirty-plus years later, he called me to ask me if I would perform a wedding for his son in Lewiston, where we lived then.

The other time was more physical. The bully was bigger and stronger than I, so he hit me some before the neighborhood kids surrounding us started yelling for me to hit him. I had a cereal box decoder ring on a right-hand finger and – honestly – I didn’t want to hurt him. Finally, I hit him once, he was shocked and ran away. I was no longer a victim.

Every season since time began, bullies and victims have been a part of the human dance. Siblings like Cain and Abel, tribes like Israel and the Philistines, are archetypes of today’s bullies and victims. Most victims aren’t on the national news. Nor are most bullies.

Every day, we either see or hear about, or experience, bullies and victims. Sometimes we are one or the other – or both, even simultaneously. The emotional drive that results in bullies and victims can be complicated and convoluted.

But I have a strong hunch that two essential motivators for bullies and victims are fear and pain. In simplistic terms, bullies project their fear and pain outwardly, spraying whoever is in the way. Victims project their fear and pain inwardly, taking blame and shame for what happens because “they deserve it.”

Deep inside their souls, neither bullies or victims deserve what they feel or experience. But for reasons often unknown even to themselves, they won’t see their fear and pain for what they are until they experience being loved enough, being safe enough, to begin to let their wounds heal.

Every faith tradition finds its own way to tell the stories of reconciliation, of transformation, of freedom from pain and fear. For those who try to follow Jesus, that way fires up our imaginations to see the stories and powerful God-images in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament that include all persons – bullies, victims, “nice” and “naughty” people – as God’s children.

That’s how Jesus challenges us. We may not want to include the bullies and the “naughty” people. They’re “not good enough” for us. They don’t deserve our compassion or love or even respect. That attitude exposes our bully-self. Or is it our victim-self? It’s likely both.

Jesus was bullied unto death. But he chose to not be a victim. Instead, he could forgive the bullies because he first understood their fear and pain; so he could unconditionally love them. Jesus showed us what humans are most deeply capable of being.

We may settle for being a bully or a victim. That isn’t what God created us to ultimately be. But our unchallenged pain and fear can force us to settle for those roles.

God’s incarnation in Jesus is the greatest reminder of what God wants us to be as human beings. When we settle for the bully or victim in our lives, we deny our true Self.

When we stand by and let other bullies and victims play out their fears and pain without standing in their way, we deny everyone’s true Self. Don’t settle for that.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at

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