The bullies are in charge. That’s at least the view of one leading BBC political journalist we heard this week. In the 20th century, democracy as a ruling political principle seemed to have won the day. In the 21st century, he suggested, it’s the authoritarians who rule.
To support his argument, he pointed to the rise of Jair Bolsonaro - about to be elected in Brazil. Some people are calling him ‘Latino Trump’. The journalist talked about the Kremlin flexing its muscles in Salisbury and the rest of Europe. And, of course, there’s the story of the Saudi journalist Kamal Khashoggi who has just been ‘eliminated’ because of his opposition to the royal house. He was killed in Turkey, itself no model of democracy. It imprisons more journalists than any other country, according to the Washington Post. To complete the picture, there was the news filtering through from western China of up to a million Muslims who are currently interned to undergo a ‘re-education’ programme conducted by the Communist party.
And the issue of bullying comes closer to home. We in the UK are by no means free of political bullies. Anonymous tweets have been issued using violent and dehumanising language towards Theresa May…from those in her own party! Allegations are rife about the Speaker of the House of Commons presiding over a culture of bullying. We aren’t naïve enough to believe in every conspiracy plot but it does seem that the bullies are alive and well in the Mother of Parliaments. And beyond politics, there is no shortage of ambitious types who will deal in a little nastiness to climb some greasy pole.
The church is by no means free of the spirit of bullying. There is no shortage of those with their own particular hatreds within and between different communions. Our church has its fair share of bullies. And the people ‘at the top’ may be far from the worst. A little power in local churches can be a dangerous thing, especially in the hands of people who feel rightly or wrongly that they have no power anywhere else - in their work place or in their homes. They trample insensitively on the ideas, aspirations and feelings of the people in the church who may have less confidence about speaking. Sometimes there are nasty text messages or emails instead of face-to-face encounters. Religious bullies may be the most gifted at manipulation and intimidation, all done with a tight smile and a sanctimonious word. They like to get their way.
Powerful people who promise to ‘sort things out’ are sometimes attractive at times when we feel unsafe. Today, when there are so many uncertainties in the air, it is not surprising that so-called ‘strong men’ are having a field day.
If a culture of bullying and the ‘balance of power’ concerns us, we can do three things.
We can try to make people feel some safety in our presence – be a safe, welcoming human space.
We can face down bullying when we come across it in our own circles and ‘speak truth to power’ whoever has it. That requires some skill and courage. It will not always win us friends.
Lastly, we can name our own inner bullies - those voices within who tell us we are worthless and direct us to pull others down too. To recognise and befriend the bullies within - however persuasive their voices – is perhaps the most difficult of all.