Originally published in: Religious Education, Volume 98, Number 1, 2003.

Memories by Christian Adults of Childhood Bully Experiences: Implications for Adult Religious Self-Understanding

Ronald Hecker Cram
Columbia Theological Seminary


The relation of adult memory of bullying experiences during childhood with adult religious self-understanding is a neglected area of inquiry by researchers. Based upon a qualitative research design over a period of four years with Anglo Christian students at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, the researcher concludes that there is a relation between the adult memory of bullying experiences during childhood with adult religious self-understanding. It is posited, moreover, that bullying is an indication of spiritual crisis expressed outwardly as a desire to be in relation with the other—but with the opposite result. The relation of bullying with such themes as empathy, hospitality, and friendship are explored as possible correctives to this spiritual crisis.


In the years following the 1983 Norwegian Ministry of Education’s nationwide anti-bullying campaign (a creative response to the deaths of two child suicides that were attributed to bullying), countless articles, book chapters and books have been published on the general topic of bullying behavior during childhood.1 Scant attention, however, has been given to the adult’s religious self-understanding of childhood bullying. Certainly authors such as Ana-Maria Rizzuto have suggested the ways in which a child’s developing image of God during early years of life may have consequence for adult religious development (Rizzuto 1979).2 To date, however, no research dedicated specifically to the implications for adult religious self-understanding of child-on-child bullying is extant.


What is bullying? For the purpose of this research, the definition of bullying by Ken Rigby, Adjunct Professor of Social Psychology on the Faculty of Social Science at the University of South Australia is accepted. Rigby contends, “bullying is repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person or group of persons” (Rigby 1996, 15). While child-on-child bullying can and does occur, bullying can also include groups of children who target another child.

In terms of adult religious self-understanding, focus is given to the experiential and narrative forms that adults give to important milestones in life. The experience of bullying may be viewed as a milestone. Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley in their Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals: Weaving Together the Human and the Divine, suggest that “human beings are called, through community, to coauthor their stories in light of the divine narrative” (Anderson and Foley 1998, 43). Theologian Martin Marty has defined narrative theology as “talking about God by telling stories of humans” (Toolan 1991). Peter Gilmour is more specific:

The interplay of memory, reflection, imagination, and expression creates sacred texts. These sacred texts, stories of reflected-upon life events, embody and express individual and social, personal and communal significances. They reveal many things, but, most important, they reveal the transcendent dimensions of life (Gilmour 1997, 80).

As we shall see, moving from the very private nature of a bullying experience to “communal significances” is a primary function of the religious educator—especially when the revealed “transcendent dimensions of life” may at first defy any connection of “talking about God by telling stories.”

Research began in 1996 with interested students at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. In January of 1996, I was teaching a Doctor of Ministry course at the seminary entitled, “The Spiritual Lives of Children.” One day in the course, a woman in the course reflected on the ways she had been bullied—both as a child and as an adult. Immediately, other men and women in the class began to share stories of bullying in childhood. Much to my surprise, the students affirmed again and again that this was the first time they had ever told their painful stories to anyone.

With the permission of the Dean of Faculty, I developed a consent/release form for interviewing students at the seminary.3 A notice was placed in the campus newsletter, indicating that I would be interested in interviewing students about their childhood bully experiences. To date, I have interviewed some twenty-two students at the seminary. Others, by word of mouth, have found out about my research interest. In addition to the seminary students, I have interviewed two persons by email, and one person by phone. All interviewees are middle or upper-middle class. All are members of what may be called “mainline” or “old-line” Protestant denominations. All interviewees to date have been Caucasian.

The interview process is informed by the qualitative method described by Robert C. Bogdan and Sari Knopp Biklen, Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Bogdan and Biklen are of particular help in describing the process of collecting field notes (portraits of subjects, reconstruction of dialogue, description of physical setting, accounts of particular events, and observer’s behavior). Valerie J. Janesick’s “Ethnographic Inquiry: Understanding Culture and Experience,” is valuable in its categorization of three kinds of questions: descriptive, structural, and contrast. Descriptive questions include broad introductions into the context from the interviewee’s point of view. Structural questions focus on the roots of social behavior. Contrast questions call for comparing and contrasting differences in any category of social behavior (Short 1991, 101-19). In this research, there is no attempt to generalize findings beyond the confines of the data collected. Recurring themes within the finings will be noted. Research questions for further work, based upon the data collected, will be offered.4


Before specific interview data is summarized and discussed, it is important for the reader to know the underlying frame of interpretation guiding this research. This interpretation perspective is based upon interaction with Christian adults who were bullied or who were bullies as children, informal and formal conversation with colleagues, and research related to bullies.

Where there is no empathy, where there is no suffering in the presence of the other, there are the seeds of violence. Where there is no empathy, there can be no forgiveness, no caring. The bully has keen empathic skills without empathy. She or he is able to imagine, to intuit, what the other is feeling--more often than not with amazing precision. But the other is an object, because the self itself is an isolated object without feeling--but with a deep yearning to feel and be in relation with self and with other. Through acts of violence, the bully is able to transcend isolation and lack of feeling--but only for a brief moment. It is as if violence provides an energy powerful enough to break through the durable defenses of self-isolation and self-protection that allow life to continue on a daily basis.5

Violence is not only the illusion of relation, but is in fact relation, but without empathy or sympathy or caring. It is ultimately more and more isolating, more and more numbing--but is a signal of the spiritual longing to be in relation with. For the bully, violence is one of a few places in her or his life where pleasure, however fleetingly, is experienced--where relation with the other is experienced. This experience of being in relation with the other may be described as hate or rage or contempt. It is a living hell, because through violence the person becomes more and more isolated. Violence gives the bully exactly the opposite of what he or she yearns for. Violence is addictive. It gives intense momentary pleasure. And like any drug, violence must increase in order to repeat the sensation of intimacy with the other that was once experienced, that was once felt. To be a bully is to be a person in deep self-destructive spiritual crisis. The path of the bully who desires to be in relation with the other is to destroy the other, who in the end survives in utter isolation. We may find this understanding of the bully frighteningly horrible, for we know that the bully may be an individual, a group of persons, or even a national phenomenon.



"Jenny" is a woman in her mid-twenties. She came to my office eager to relate the experience she had with a bully in her childhood. She began with a visual description of the bully: he was thin, tall, had dirty blonde hair, and was about four years older than she.

She continued that she had an older brother, Jonnie, whom she admired and looked to for protection. From ages three to five, she related, a bully had terrorized her. The bully, who lived in the neighborhood, knew of her admiration for Jonnie. The bully would come up to her on the street and say, "Nonny is dead!" Nonny, she related with deep feeling, was the name that she used for her beloved brother Jonnie. Jenny would attempt to get away from the bully, frantically running first this way then that--but the bully would simply run after her, taunting her with the words, "Nonny is dead!"

One day, Jenny was actually tempted to believe that her brother was dead. The bully yelled, "Nonny is dead!" This time, instead of running, she confronted the bully and shouted back, "No, he is not dead! He is alive!" The bully replied immediately, "Your father has been killed. His head was chopped off and you can go look at it inside the hollow log in your back yard!" Jenny vividly recalls the inner knowledge that her father was not dead, but she was so terrified that she went searching the house until she found him.

Jenny never told anyone about these experiences, until she met with me in my office for the interview. She said, "It was such a horrible thing, I did not want to think about it."

When Jenny was five years old, the bully incited a group of children in the neighborhood to chase her and to yell, "Nonny's dead! Nonny's dead!" In an attempt to escape her tormentors, she ran across the street in front of her home to get away from them. There, with vivid memories of screeching brakes, "the silver bumper," the feeling of being scraped and shock, she was run over by an automobile. She was whisked away to an emergency room at a hospital.

Jenny reflected, "Kids can be so mean." She said that the relation with the bully "changed my life." "I was a very sensitive child, and I did not take teasing lightly. I have always been for the underdog." I asked her if she, as a Christian adult, had ever prayed for the bully. With anger she replied, "I have deep emotional scars. No, I have never prayed for him, I have only pitied him." At this point, Jenny left my office, agitated, face flushed red, crying.


Tom is a man in his early forties, studying in the United States for a term from a university in Europe. Tom was bullied from the time he was ten to twelve years of age. A vivid visual description was offered of the bully. The bully was short, squat, and dressed shabbily. He had a long lock of hair that covered one eye, and his hair was parted down the middle. He had a sneering mouth, and a curled lip.

Tom, reflectively and pensively, recalled that the bully had also bullied his best friend. The bully often stopped them both, and demanded money or sweets (which he often got!). Tom thinks of the bully "every once in awhile." Tom said, "I can still feel the fear I had of him down in the pit of my stomach. I really wanted to destroy him." Tom continued, "I felt humiliated. I really wanted to hit him, except he would have beaten me senseless." He did not speak to his father about the matter, he said, because he felt that this "would only make things worse." With head bowed, Tom lamented, "My father could not protect me from him."

Tom, until this office visit, had told "no parent, no church friend" about this bully.

Tom saw the bully until he was about twenty years of age, and then he "just disappeared." I asked if Tom would do anything differently today about the bully, if he had the chance. Tom replied, "I would stop it, whatever that would entail." I asked, "Have you ever prayed for the bully?" A curt reply followed: "No!"


Tina is a female in her mid-twenties. Much to my surprise as an interviewer (I had presumed incorrectly that those who would speak to me would be those who had been bullied), the first words from her mouth were confessional, "I was the bully."

A first child, "before my brother got out of the high chair, I bullied him." "Once, right before the fifth grade [age 8] I pinched him so hard that he bled." "I was the first child, the perfect child who met all of my mother's emotional needs. I protected the rest of the family from my mother."

Reflectively, she confided, "I still feel guilt, tons and tons of guilt."

In time, her brother enlisted in the Marines. When home on leave, she started bullying him. "He picked me up, and threw me on the bed, and left the room. I was so relieved. I knew it was wrong to bully him, and I needed someone to stop me."

Tina said that she has always presumed the presence of God in her life, even when she was a bully. One night, in a vivid childhood dream, she and her mother were laying side-by-side for a nap, and Jesus appeared in the room [she was about three at the time]. "Jesus was appealing because of his power." Tina woke her mother, and explained what she had seen. Her mother chastised her, and refused to hear about the vision.


Sarah is a woman in her sixties who witnessed a bully when she was a schoolteacher in Southern Georgia, then a very rural farming area. "In the 1940's, I witnessed a bully named Mike. He had been held back in school, and was two years older than the other children in the class. He was barefoot, and wore overalls. He was an unkempt urchin, angry in face and eyes. He was very active."

Sarah the teacher watched as Mike "wheeled and dealed," and picked fights with boys. "He was kinder to girls." "During class, there was a pole in the middle of the room, during class, he would climb the pole right up to the ceiling!" In the fifth grade, Mike put his head on a railway track near the schoolhouse, in an attempt to kill himself. "He came to school with his head covered in bandages."

As an adult, Mike owned his own whiskey store. His mother was murdered in that store during a robbery. Mike married and had a son, "a very dignified boy." Sarah concluded the interview in great personal pain. She said upon leaving the office, "He is a hurting memory."


Carol is a woman aged thirty-five. She encountered her bullies when she was fourteen and fifteen. "When I was a teenager, I lived out in the country in the rural South." As a result, a school bus brought kids from the "rural parts" together with "the more culturally sophisticated kids." A group of four boys from a horse raising area used to say to the African American bus driver, "N----!" The bus driver would simply bend his head down, becoming docile, timid, and quiet.

Carol continued, "There was a boy my own age, maybe from the Middle East, who was new to the school. He had dark skin, black hair, and wore a black leather jacket. He was different. He was sitting right across from me on the bus. The gang of four began to spit wads at the boy until they were literally caked on his jacket and hair [she repeated the phrase "caked on his jacket and hair" four times]. We just sat there. He just sat there quietly, he didn't move or say anything."

Carol confessed that she has felt a great deal of pain, anger, helplessness, and humiliation for him and herself ever since the event happened. "I almost wish it could happen again, so I could do something this time." She said that the bullies were "bigger and tougher" than the other kids on the bus. The bullies had been kept back in school, and were two years older than all the other children in their class. She never told anyone about this event in her life until last year, while taking an ethics course in seminary.

"It wasn't that I was afraid of retaliation; school was full of cruelty all the time, and we took it for granted. I can only see how cruel it was now, looking back." When I asked her if she had every prayed for the bullies, she said she had not. "I felt humiliation for the boy, which I guess is a way of praying."


Sam is a man in his early twenties. He grew up in a suburban home. Sam used very spatially specific language when remembering the bully of his childhood. "He lived down the street [he pointed in the office out the window to the bully's house that he could 'see' in his mind's eyes]. In the third grade, "when I was eight, I had an altercation at the bus stop with the bully." The bus driver saw the fight, and both boys were sent to the principal's office. To Sam's horror, he was blamed for the event--not the bully!

He went to his parents for help, but the parents ignored him. "I am still enormously angry that my father did not teach me how to defend myself physically. My Dad thought that defense of the family was O.K., but not personal defense."

One day when the bully was pestering Sam, a friend of his asked him, "Why don't you knock the crap out of him?" Sam went over to the bully, hit him in the nose, knocked him down, and jumped on top of him--all the while slugging the bully in the chest and face.

Sam then related a story from later on in life, from the ninth grade [age fourteen]. "In ninth grade wood shop at school, three guys in a group (one was an Army brat) were running rough shod over the class." Sam went to the counselor and complained, but nothing was ever done. "I should have let those guys have it. I lost honor, respect for myself, for not standing up for myself."

When Sam was sixteen, he was "born again" with the help of a Baptist girlfriend. A boy was harassing the girl, and Sam called him up on the phone and said, "If you don't leave her alone, we're going to go around and around." The harassment stopped immediately.

A month ago, he said, he had been on the public rail system in Atlanta, Georgia, called the MARTA. "Three guys asked me for fifty cents. They got aggressive in their language, and I stood up, puffed out my chest, and yelled, 'Look--I don't have fifty cents!'" The guys stopped their requests, and got off the train at the next exit. Reflected Sam, "I thought to myself, cheeze, I thought I had left all this behind in high school."

Sam said that he had never prayed for "the first two" bullies, but that he did pray for the MARTA guys. He prayed, "You need to get back to school, learn how to speak English--or you're going to end up in jail."

At the conclusion of the interview, Sam said that Martin Luther is his greatest hero. For it was Luther who showed us, "Wrong must be challenged. One man stood against all Europe."


Karl is a white male, aged 42. From the middle of seventh grade to ninth grade, Karl was bullied by three boys, “One thin and wiry, one big and fat, and one small.” Karl was in Catholic school until the seventh grade. In the middle of seventh grade, he transferred to the public school. His father was a factory worker, and apparently could no longer afford private education. It was in public school that he met the bullies for the first time.

In Catholic school, Karl wore a blue uniform and a black tie. Neither he nor his parents knew what kids wore in public school. His mother bought him Hush Puppies, tight pants, a p-coat and dickies. “I looked like Richie Cunningham! I did not look the same as I did in Catholic school.” Karl lamented, “I was new, alone and vulnerable and the sharks knew it, too.”

While Karl was attacked only once by the boys, he was terrified they might try to pick a fight with him. During the day, the boys would taunt Karl by threatening, “After school tonight!” Karl would try to go home “by stealth.” He would borrow someone else’s sweater, wear a friend’s hat, or deliberately walk home with girls. He would take several Alka Seltzer tablets and saltines to “fake throwing up” so that he did not have to go to school. This happened daily for two entire school years. Karl was afraid to go to dances, department stores, or sporting events alone. He never told either of his parents about the bullies. He did try telling a teacher once, but she “would observe and turn away.”

The one time the bullies hurt Karl physically was by indirect means. The bullies called a group of their followers to form a circle around Karl. The bullies forced the weakest child in the circle to go into the middle of the circle and fight Karl. It was an utterly humiliating experience. Karl said, “Terror was my every day experience. I could not imagine life changing.”

His grades suffered. From a good solid “B” student in Catholic school, Karl went to making only D’s and F’s. One day, he tattooed his arm with a ballpoint pen with the letter “K.” The principal saw it, and reported it to his parents. His father was furious and condemned, “You asshole, you’re going to wash dishes until that comes off!” At night, Karl took a Brillo pad and scraped it off. At 43, he lifted his arm to show me the scar that the Brillo pad had made.

In the eighth grade, Karl moved into deep despair. He had become a laughing stock with the girls. No girl would come near him. In one of his classes, he reached “a boiling point.” After one of the bullies made a negative comment, Karl decided not to take it any more. He took the bully by the hair of the head, and banged it into the desk as hard as he could. He then picked the bully up, and threw him into (and through) the classroom window.

Karl now decided to hunt down each of the bullies—one at a time. “I became totally vicious. I became my own worst nightmare.” He was terrified of doing the things he was doing, but also took great pleasure in seeing the other bullies suffer. Karl insists, “I was never a bully. They were the bullies.” Unable to understand what he had become, Karl started sniffing glue. “They graduated me from the eighth grade, but I wasn’t prepared.” Soon, Karl had racked up four arrests—one from beating up his girlfriend’s father (girls now found Karl attractive in his violence), and one from beating up his own father. Alcohol abuse, stolen cars, and violence were soon to be a part of his daily life. On his way out of a dance with a girlfriend (his social life improved as well), one of her male friends told her goodbye, “just goodbye.” Karl put the friend into the hospital—he beat the boy’s head and face so hard that he “ripped the gums away from the mouth, and his ears away from his head.” With few options before him after high school, Karl joined the military.

This was the first time that Karl had told this story to anyone. As he told the story, he moved about the room—as though he were in virtual reality system. Arms would fly as if he were hitting another person. Steps were taken as if he were at the dance. Putting into words what was for so long silent was a powerful and moving experience for both Karl and me. When I asked Karl if he had ever prayed for the bullies, I caught a brief but powerful glimpse into the rage of his earlier years. “No! Never!” was his reply, as his hand pounded the arm of the chair in which he was now sitting.

I did not expect the power of emotion, intensity of memory, or depths of soul searching that arose in these interviews. It was as if all time vanished for the interviewee, whether one was sixty or twenty, and the past became present reality. At least nine themes worthy of future discussion arose.
  1. The feeling of abandonment by significant others. The powerful memory of a parent who was unable or unwilling to help continues to shape the imagination, many years after the experience. "My father could not protect me from him" is a statement of deep hurt and deep longing. Basic issues, to use traditional Eriksonian categories (Erikson 1963) of trust and mistrust may be worth review, especially in light of the work of Rizzutto (1979) which suggests the developing image of God is dependent on early experiences of care or abandonment.
  2. The desire to seek revenge. The memory of being bullied resulted, in many cases, in the desire to go back and avenge. In one case, present behavior on a MARTA train was in many ways a way of taking revenge on the childhood bully. This sort of transference or projection may even shape the religious imagination, such as having Martin Luther as a hero--a guy who could not be pushed around. The relation of anger and depression may be worth examination here. For example, psychologist Robert Kegan suggests that "self evaluative depression" is an indication of humiliation, feeling compromised, or in fact being out of control (Kegan 1982, 270). A tentative hypothesis thus far in the research is that all of the students I have interviewed may be suffering in one degree or another from depression, whose roots may be found in the bully event.
  3. Deep feelings of repulsion, fear, and hate. All of the adults victimized by the bullies expressed intense distaste for the person. In fact, none of the victims prayed for the bully in ways that would indicate patterns of forgiveness or empathy. What does it mean for an adult Christian to be so afraid, so angry, so repulsed by a person that he or she refuses to pray for that person? Perhaps this is the only location of felt power in the situation--to turn the bully into an object (not a person), just as they had been treated as mere objects? It is possible that this deliberate act of prayerlessness is the only way many of the persons in this essay could exert a sense of dignity? It may be the case that Alice Miller's contention that forgiveness given too quickly disrupts healing from abuse in childhood is reflected in these interviews (Miller1994).
  4. The level of violence in childhood. It is easy to over sentimentalize childhood. Our adult witnesses to childhood bullies reflect a world in which violence, physical and emotional, are active parts of the culture of childhood. None knew much about the bullies. One might infer (perhaps incorrectly) that one boy may have been the child of alcoholics; perhaps another was poverty-stricken; perhaps yet others were developmentally slow. The fact of the matter is that the children who were victimized did not know. It is as though the bully emerged from a liminal zone (from places unfamiliar), or familiar places (where the assumed world was thrown into chaos). The bully is a trickster who upsets the taken-for-granted world in irreverent, unpredictable, unsettling ways. Bullies are the purveyors of chaos who threaten emotional and physical stability.
  5. Children are familiar with bodily experience. The sense of the body, of space, of physical pain, of fear of physical pain are very much present in these interviews. Even when a child pinches, a child may know she or he is inflicting pain. What does it mean to inflict pain child-to-child? Is the inner world of some children so pain-filled that they must get it out of themselves and "give" it to others in order to survive? Christian religious educators have paid scant serious attention to the relation of the body, self-concept, and maturing faith. Two contributions that may guide further exploration of this matter come from Brian McVeigh, who looks at the embodiment of morality in the doctrine of Sukyo Mahikari (McVeigh 19--, 140-61) and Gariele Dietrich's work on a feminist understanding of God's body (Dietrich 51, 258-84). Nomy Lamm, a feminist voice that focuses on obesity and cultural oppression invites us to wonder about the body sizes of the children who were bullied in these interviews (Lamm 1995, 85-94). But addressing the body of the child from a Christian religious education perspective as a theological issue has not been addressed in depth.
  6. Children know the pain of emotional abuse. "Kids can be so mean." Even at three to five, children can be emotionally abused by other children. While much progress has been made in recent years related to adult emotional abuse of children, how much attention is given to the ways in which three year olds treat other three year olds emotionally? This is a definite area of needed reflection across religious traditions. This is actually a matter of taking seriously that children have their own cultures, independent of the adult worlds--yet informed by the dominant values of the adult worlds (Armstrong 1996).
  7. The hurt child, the victim of the bully, is part of the unhealed, hurting adult. "I really wanted to destroy him" is not a statement somewhere about the past. The student who spoke these words wanted to put that bully to death here and now. Psychologically, what does it mean for the adult to forgive the childhood bully? Why have many of the adults in this essay found it a needed and important part of their Christian identities to continue to hate? Again, Miller (1990) may be instructive to further research here. Is it possible that hate sometimes gives children and adults the energy needed to live?
  8. Adults feel guilt because of childhood behavior. In the moving interview with the woman who was a bully, the sense of guilt was heavy and pervasive. How may an adult forgive himself or herself for victimizing others? What does it mean to the adult to forgive oneself for violence committed as a child? The work on forgiveness by the Foundation for Inner Peace may be instructive here (Foundation for Inner Peace 1992). To the best of my knowledge, however, this model of forgiveness that integrates psychological concerns with religious ones has not tended to focus on childhood memories in a way that these data would seem to require. Yet, it may be our best "first step" toward narrative. My sense is that the feeling and experience of helpless and abandonment expressed may be closer to David Blumenthal’s understanding of the abusing God than to a “sweet Jesus” perspective (Blumenthal 1993). Or it could be that God is understood to be a God of justice who will destroy the enemy in an act of radical justice. This issue is worthy to continued investigation in the future.
  9. Those who watch bully behavior are as deeply affected as those who are directly bullied. It is clear to me that the bully victimizes not only the "target" of her or his behavior, but those who witness the violence as well. It is likely that a form of trauma results with children who feel a sense of "right," but who are immobilized through fear. Clearly, the observers in the interviewers were as profoundly disturbed by the bully as those who had direct dealings with them. Grant's innovative work on trauma would confirm such observation in general (Grant 1995, 71-83).

In summary, the adult experience of the bully is deep and lasting, one which may shape "present" adult behavior. Clearly, the emotional investments of hatred and violence toward this Bringer of Chaos, this Abuser, this Mean Spirit are strong in the adults interviewed. By turning the victim into a thing, rather than affirming a person, the bully does her or his deed. I hypothesize that such behavior comes from deep human pain that is too dreadful to "keep inside." The adult, with a powerful pain deep inside based on memories of abandonment and violence may find himself or herself unable to contain the pain--even on the MARTA. In unexpected paradox, it would appear that the victim of the bully has become a potential bully--both in terms of feelings of hatred toward the bully, and in terms of violent, unpredictable behavior outward and/or inward. Outward behavior such as the unpredictable outbursts of defiance on the MARTA, or inward behavior such as unrelenting and unforgiving senses of guilt, humiliation, and helplessness arise.


There are very practical implications that arise for religious educators from these sorts of data. Bullying is not an inevitable part of growing up, and must be addressed by children and adults. Schools and religious organizations need to have discussions about bullying, and the need to have a zero-tolerance approach to it. Bully policies need to be created and publicized.6 But beyond these practical and needed policies and procedures, the religious educator needs to wonder afresh about the ways in which empathy is an integral part of the teaching and learning process. Empathic sensitivity, being able to read the other person’s emotions, is not the same as empathy. Empathy is a way of knowing that looks to diversity in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Empathy is a concerning suffering with the other—preserving both the integrity of the other and the self in the process.

In 1982, Carol Gilligan published In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. For a host of reasons, it is a touchstone study. I believe that in Gilligan's description of "an ethic of care," we have the roots of an alternative basis for teaching and learning in communities of difference. Some of you may remember her words about a new connection between self and other:

Care becomes the self-chosen principle of a judgment that remains psychological in its concern with relationships and response but becomes universal in its condemnation of exploitation and hurt. Thus a progressively more adequate understanding of the psychology of human relationships--an increasing differentiation of self and other and a growing comprehension of the dynamics of social interaction--informs the development of an ethic of care. This ethic, which reflects a cumulative knowledge of human relationships, evolves around a central insight, and self and other are interdependent (Gilligan 1982, 74).

Building on this seminal work, I would like to propose that within community characterized by diversity, life together that is characterized by empathy, caring, and friendship will give rise to a pattern of hospitality that encourages and strengthens "the play of difference." Moreover, I would like to propose that empathy, caring, and friendship are essential ways we come to know who we are in relation with others.

In order to place the discussion of empathy, caring, and friendship in context, let me say a few words first about hospitality. Hospitality is a non-linear dance between empathy, caring, and friendship. Hospitality is not a virtue, not something to aspire toward. Hospitality presents itself as the dance--sometimes slow, sometimes rapid--goes on. Hospitality reminds me most of composer Colin McPhee's "Tabuh-Tabuhan, Toccata for Orchestra and Two Pianos," including "the drum, a gong, xylophone" as well as the Balinese gamelan (STAGEBILL 1999, 20,29). Swirling, impossible to listen to without much concentration, wild. Hospitality has the inner logic not of science but of ritual, including consciously leaving an ordinary space and moving to a space prepared as sacred; bringing of a sacrifice; disorientation from which there is no return; a test followed by celebration; and renewed life for the whole community.7 Hospitality takes us back to ancient conceptions. Classicist Susan Ford Wiltshire has written that

Modern hospitality is typically a transaction among friends. Ancient hospitality is a transaction among strangers. Modern hospitality reinforces our familiarities. Ancient hospitality alters us by exposing us to outsiders. Ancient hospitality--xenia in the Greek tradition and hospitium or ius hospitii in the Roman--thus provides a meeting place for the public and private realms (Wiltshire 1989, 83).

Curiously, very little is understood about the development of empathy in our adult years.8 Most research on the development of empathy looks at young children. Certainly, the development of empathy is crucial in the young child for all of life.9 Judith V. Jordan has noted that

Through empathy, and an active interest in the other as a different, complex person, one develops the capacity at first to allow the other's differentness and ultimately to value and encourage those qualities that make that person different and unique (Jordan 1991, 82).

For Daniel Batson, empathy is connected intimately with compassion.10 This idea about the interplay of empathy and compassion is related to the understanding of suffering developed by Dorothee Soelle, or of pathos developed by theologian Edward Farley. Soelle writes,

When you look at human suffering concretely, you destroy all innocence, all neutrality, every attempt to say, "It wasn't I; there was nothing I could do; I didn't know." In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner--there is no other option (Soelle 1975, 32).

Farley contends "empathy, concerned suffering participation in the life of the genuine other, is a kind of activity and even efficacy, not in the sense of external force, but something that evokes response" (Farley 1996, 282). David Woodruff Smith suggests "in empathetic perception, I see 'her' as another 'I,' a fellow [sic] subject whose selfhood I understand through empathy and my own self awareness" (Smith 1989, 112).

Empathy is the essential core of hospitality, of the ability to recognize the "other" as fully human. With this recognition comes suffering. Where there is no empathy, where there is no suffering in the presence of the other, there are the seeds of violence. Where there is no empathy, there can be no “other.”

How do we teach empathy? I am more and more convinced we teach empathy by modeling it ourselves in our relations with others. I am finding that even for adults, many lives have been turned from violence, prejudice, racism and hatred by the act of another child or another adult being willing to suffer with them in their painful isolation.11 Sometimes, empathy takes the form of confrontation in love and justice. In a very unusual story in the Christian book of “Matthew”, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman. The story reads this way:

Jesus left that place and went to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon. But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting for us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:21-28, NRSV).

This biblical passage has been interpreted in many different ways. But what I would like to focus on is the relation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Historically, Jews despised and hated Canaanites. They were disposable, idol-worshipping heathens. The best thing to do with them was to force them from their lands so that Jews could occupy them. When the Palestinian Jew Jesus was confronted by a Canaanite, the possibility for religious, racial, and ethnic hatred to surface was real. Add to that this was a woman, and the scene is set. The disciples tell her to leave, and they embody the violence they have learned from generations of hate and prejudice.

Even Jesus implies she is a "dog." One commentary suggests that Jesus' use of the word "dog" is really not all that bad. After all, the "diminutive form" of the word "dog" was used (Matthew, New Jerusalem Bible, 1635, note h). "You little dog" does not seem to help the situation much.12 Jesus as xenophobic racist is a hard pill to swallow. In the words of Sam Keen in Faces of the Enemy, "Before we enter into warfare or genocide, we first dehumanize those we mean to 'eliminate'" (Keen 1986, 25). Just a little dog. But in a moment of enormous strength, dignity, nonviolence and wisdom brimming with suffering, the Canaanite woman sympathetically throws up to Jesus a mirror in which to see the dehumanizing force of his own words, not as an act of retribution, but as embodiment of a caring and empathetic teacher who believes so deeply in the necessity of interdependence, including interdependence with the Palestinian Jew, that she is willing to perish for it. And remarkably, Jesus sees himself. Through the eyes of a non-person, Jesus sees himself, repents, and learns more fully what it means to be human.

In the words of pastoral caregiver Marie McCarthy, "Empathy creates an environment where it is safe to know and to not know, where it is safe to explore, make mistakes, be uncertain, where it is possible to see things in new ways."13 Within the play of difference, a safe environment necessarily includes constructive, often life-changing conflict. Through confrontation, the Canaanite woman created a safe environment where Jesus could see his hate, where Jesus could move beyond violence, where Jesus could know the Canaanite woman as fully human, and from which Jesus could leave transformed.14 Jesus and the Canaanite woman were engaged in radical dialogue, which afforded an expanded understanding of religion.

C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis have demonstrated in a convincing way that our understanding of religion goes through dimensions, each dimension made possible by safe learning environments. The most basic is referred to as "the extrinsic, means dimension" of religion (Batson 1993, 373-74). In this dimension, people use religion "to attain self-serving ends"(Batson 1993, 373). The next dimension is called "the intrinsic, means dimension" of religion. In this stage, while there is the rhetoric of compassion, openness to diversity, and decreased prejudice, "this dimension seems to be associated with a self-serving concern to appear" open-minded (Batson 1993, 375). "The quest dimension" is characterized by ambiguity, flexibility, "and to increased responsiveness to the needs of the distressed….Reflecting on this evidence as a whole, the quest dimension appears to be associated with a religion of less faith…but of more works" (Batson 1993, 375-76). This simple model reminds us that change in worldview and values related to religion is related directly to personal identity and identity with others. While one may move to the quest dimension in a transformational moment of learning, it is more likely that the process is a prolonged and complicated one. This too is a part of what counts as a diverse community, staying in relation with those who are growing.

How is empathy a form of knowing? In and through empathy, we learn the basis for a healthy and life-giving interdependence in our diversities.15 Again, in the words of McCarthy, "empathy is above all a disposition, a way-of-being-in-the-world, which is characterized by a sense of openness, wonder, flexibility, and play" (McCarthy 1992, 124). Or in the words of H. Edward Everding and Lucinda A. Huffaker, "empathy is not only an important quality of the 'holding environment' that is conducive to growth, but it is also recognized as a conduit for self-development through the experience of 'holding' others"(Everding 1998, 421).16

Without the disposition of empathy, it is impossible to care. Just as empathy is a way of knowing, so also is caring. Just as empathy is a form of radical dialogue, so also is caring. Perhaps more than anyone else, the work of Nel Noddings has helped educators to consider the central role of caring in our communities of learning. For me, the most helpful aspect of Noddings work is what she calls the relation between "the one-caring" and "the cared for." She writes eloquently that to be in relation with "the cared for:"

maintains and enhances the relatedness that is fundamental to human reality and, in education, it sets the stage for the teacher's effort in maintaining and increasing the child's receptive capacity. As the teacher receives the child and works with him on cooperatively designed projects, as she resists the temptation--or the mandate--to manipulate the child, to squeeze him into some mold, she establishes a climate of receptivity. The one caring reflects reality as she sees it to the child. She accepts him as she hopes he will accept himself--seeing what is there, considering what might be changed, speculating on what might be (Noddings 1996, 22).

Within communities of diversity, caring for one another, caring for self, caring for the world are mandatory. To be cared for is a basic human need (Noddings 1992, xi). To be in a caring relation with another human being is essential for the moral and psychological health of the community. Noddings has received some amount of criticism for her understanding of the limits of caring, and for the unequal power dynamics involved in caring. I believe what Noddings helps us understand are the very real dynamics of caring in the real world. She writes insightfully from experience.

For example, her following words about caring might at first strike us as odd, even as non-democratic:

This attitude of warm acceptance and trust is important to all caring relationships. We are primarily interested in parent-child and teacher-student relationships but it is clear that caring is completed in all relationships through the apprehension of caring by the cared-for. When this attitude is missed, the one who is the object of caretaking feels like an object. He is being treated, handled by formula. When it is present and recognized, the natural effectance motivation is enhanced (Noddings 1996, 27).

But upon closer examination, the caring relation is not characterized by the cared-for as an object alone. Rather, the cared-for is actively involved in the process of caring. Noddings states

The insistence on including the cared-for as an active contributor to the caring relation makes it impossible to codify caring…at bottom, I have to respond to the cared-for who addresses me in a special way and asks me for something concrete, and even unique. Thus what I as a carer do for one person may not satisfy another. I take my cues not from a stable principle but from the living other whom I encounter (Noddings 1995, 188).

In other words, both parties "are constrained by an ethic of care" (Noddings 1995, 189).

Friendship emerges from the contexts of empathy and caring. Friendship is "a relation of mutuality, respect, fidelity, confidence and affection" (Haney 1980, 118). Friendship focuses intentionally on community, honesty, non-exclusivity, flexibility, and other-directedness (Hunt 1983, 135-155). A process of thoughtfulness, which includes "on the one hand by ability to reason and on the other by considerateness and caring" is characteristic (Raymond 1986, 218). In the words of Roberta C. Bondi, "no human relationship can be described accurately as a friendship where one person is powerless and vulnerable while the other holds all the power, has no needs, and is invulnerable to hurt from the other" (Bondi 1992, 12). Friendship is the relational pattern that guides all conversation with the stranger.17 It is the method, the hermeneutical process, of solidarity. Friendship is socially disruptive. Janice Raymond writes, "friendship is political; i.e., as the Greeks especially knew, it has power to affect the world and to change the distribution of power in the world" (Raymond 1985, 165).

This is not to imply that friends are of a single mind. Within every friend is the stranger. A friend is not a perfect person, simply one who chooses to err on the side of friendship. Within the friend is the stranger, and this stranger manifests itself in different ways. C. G. Jung once asked the following question, "What if I should discover that the least amongst them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders...are within me...that I myself am the enemy who must be loved--what then?" (Jung 1933, 235)

Friendship is hard, deliberate work. Friendship is inner-directed, as well as outer-directed. It is not a means to perfection, nor an avenue to easy or absolute clarity about decision-making in every situation. The art and act of friendship is a way of building communities of diversity. Being a friend is an act of hospitality because friendship implies a humane pattern of solidarity with all.

Empathy creates the space in which caring and friendship as ways of knowing may be practiced. Empathy, caring, and friendship are ways of knowing, ways of living interdependently in communities of difference. Together, they embody a process of radical dialogue, in which transformation may take place. Empathy, caring, and friendship move beyond tolerance as a basic orientation of taking seriously the fact of increasing diversity, including religious diversity, in the world. Empathy, caring, and friendship are both ways of knowing and radical ways of engaging in dialogue with the "other."


It is my sense that we live in a world deadened by toxic violence. Clearly, to take bullying as a serious issue in parenting, teaching, and our own lives is but a tiny step toward nonviolence in our day. Yet, it is a step. The courageous persons who chose to tell their childhood experiences to me have offered to you and to me a plea for silence-breaking. It is the conclusion of this research that the simple acts of expressing interest in hearing the stories of childhood bullying, and listening to the person begin—in most cases for the first time—to put into words the memories and meaning of the bullying experience may be a religious educator’s way of protesting violence in our times. God is with us in empathy and suffering. What might our small circles of daily life look like if we heard God’s story in the stories of these adults marked by childhood violence? Empathy, caring, hospitality, friendship—a bold and utopian vision for life together, for our good and the good of our children.


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Research Project: Adult Memories of Bullies, and Their Consequences for Adult Religious Self-Understanding

Consent Form

I have been invited to participate as a subject in a study of adult memories of bullies. If I choose to participate, I will be interviewed in person by Dr. Ronald Cram, Columbia Theological Seminary. The time required will be approximately 45 minutes.

There are no reasonable foreseeable physical discomforts or risks associated with this interview. Answering questions about traumatic memories may cause some emotional anxiety or discomfort. There is not likely to be any direct benefit to me, but knowledge gained from this study may contribute to a better understanding of the relation of early childhood experiences and adult religious development.

If participating in this study causes me problems, such as having too much anxiety from answering questions about traumatic events, the researcher will refer me to the Dean of Students, who will talk with me and if necessary refer me to an outside professional who can provide counseling.

The data will be summarized and reported in group form, as well as story form from particular individuals. Information that is gathered about me will not be reported to anyone outside the research project in a manner that personally identifies me.

I may ask any question about this project or of the researcher, Dr. Ronald Cram. Such questions may be directed to Dr. Cram and/or Dr. Erskine Clarke, Columbia Theological Seminary. The rights of human subjects in this research conform to principles delineated by the American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (1995), section 5.

I understand that I may refuse to participate in this study, and if I do choose to participate in this study, and if I do choose to participate I may stop at any time. If I refuse to participate or decide to stop, I will not be penalized in any way.

I have read and understand the above, and I agree to participate in this study.

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