By Steven Harmon
Reflecting on Scripture, the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa insists that in the Incarnation the Son of God embraced fully the human condition, including “the advance from infancy to adulthood,” and experienced from others the alienation and violence that mark humanity’s sinful condition.
Given recent media attention to the problem of childhood bullying and engaging in a little speculative theology, can we imagine that during his “advance from infancy to adulthood” Jesus may have encountered a bully?
The canonical gospels tell us precious little about those years of Jesus’ life, leaving imaginations ancient and modern to fill in the missing details. The portraits of the young Jesus yielded by such speculation often serve the theological and political agenda of those who paint them, but the room for imagination left by the biblical story of Jesus also invites us to locate our own experiences within his story.
The sole Gospel story from Jesus’ childhood isn’t one with which most children would identify, yet it hints at something experienced by a great many children. If Luke’s account of Jesus articulating wisdom beyond his years in the temple is representative of Jesus’ life as a boy, Jesus must have been “othered” by other children.
Jesus’ precociousness alone would have been enough to “other” him in relation to his peers — the fallen human nature of children being what it is. But there was also that matter of his questionable paternity — the fallen human nature of his peers’ parents being what it is.
Children like Jesus get teased, taunted, shunned and bullied because of the sinful tendency of people young and old to alienate and do violence to the “other” whom they judge unacceptably different. There’s evidence of a link between bullying “other” children as a child and committing acts of violence as an adult. There’s also a line that leads from Jesus’ likely experience of childhood bullying to his experience of the cross, where Jesus suffers the alienation and violence by which the world’s adults exert power and yet unmasks this alienation and violence for the sin and weakness that it is.
I began to imagine Jesus as a childhood bullying victim last week when news stories of efforts against anti-gay bullying in schools and an allegation of anti-Hispanic bullying in the wake of Alabama’s new immigration law coincided with our Korean son’s growing consciousness of his otherness in relation to his kindergarten classmates. To our knowledge he hasn’t yet been teased, taunted or bullied in school. Should that ever happen, he will need to know that Jesus experienced that, too. And should that ever happen, the bullies and their parents will need to be made to understand just how deadly serious bullying is — in theological terms, how deeply sinful bullying is.
For the sake of all children everywhere, let’s try to imagine Jesus as the victim of childhood bullying. It might lead us to imagine ways to do something about it.