I recently read a sad story that had a heartwarming ending.
A Florida elementary school held a “College Colors” day, where students were encouraged to wear attire reflecting their favorite college. One child, obsessed with the University of Tennessee, wore an orange T-shirt. Since it didn’t have the university’s emblem, he drew it on a piece of paper and pinned it to the front.
He wore the shirt proudly until lunchtime. Some girls in the cafeteria made fun of his crude artwork, reducing him to tears.
His teacher felt like crying as well. She decided to buy him an official school T-shirt, then reached out on Facebook to friends with connections at UT. The response was overwhelming. Her post went viral, and supportive comments multiplied. The University of Tennessee sent him a swag box containing school apparel. To top it off, the university turned the child’s rough “U.T.” design into an official school shirt, with part of the proceeds going to an anti-bullying foundation.
The response to the T-shirt was so great that it crashed the school’s online shop. (And, if that wasn’t enough, the university announced on Thursday it was giving the boy a four-year scholarship. He’d be part of the class of 2032.)
It’s extremely heartening to read this story because we live in a time of rampant bullying. Tweeting cruel nicknames and demonizing opponents fall into this category. So does insulting others according to their politics, nationality, religion or intellect.
The surest sign of the goodness in the human heart, not to mention godliness, is to have compassion for those who are ridiculed. The outpouring of concern for the boy shows that the potential for warmth is there. The trick is bringing it out.
Compassion for the vulnerable was the hallmark of Jesus. The Gospels report that such love was a driving force for him. When his heart was moved because of the hunger of a crowd (Mark 6:33-44), he didn’t calculate the cost before multiplying the bread and fish. He was simply touched by their human need and did something about it.
But he also took compassion to the next level.
Perhaps some in that hungry crowd receiving Jesus’ mercy were bullies.
A followup article to the Florida school incident made an important point. The author noted that bullies have problems as well. Something isn’t right, either in their heart or mind or both. The pain they inflict reflects inner hurt of their own. That, in turn, can lead to their bullying. They are at high risk for suicidal thoughts, and the more their aggression continues, the higher the risk.
Accordingly, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who [bully] you.” (Matthew 5:44) That’s a lot more difficult. We’re naturally angry at their cruelty, and loving them isn’t high on our agenda.
While our immediate response when the innocent are harmed must be to stand up for the victims, we will ultimately need to show some understanding for the perpetrators. That’s the only way to lessen future situations. Addressing the pain that’s causing their inexcusable behavior gets at the root of the problem. Prayer, as Jesus noted, may be a good place to begin.
Indeed, sometimes when we see the worst in people, those may be the situations that will bring out our best.
Greg Weeks is a retired United Methodist pastor who blogs at www.revgregweeks.com