Guest blogger: Rick Hiemstra, Director of Research, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
On October 10, 2012, shortly before her 16th birthday, Vancouver area teen Amanda Todd took her own life – she was the victim of cyber bullying. This video, which she made shortly before she died, chronicles her nightmare, which began when, on a whim, she flashed some guy on the other side of a webcam. That guy recorded the image, and then used it to destroy her.
Social media technologies have monstrously amplified the power and reach of bullies, while at the same time providing them the cover of anonymity. All our anti-bullying efforts in schools, while well intentioned, are largely rendered impotent when school, teacher and parents have little jurisdiction over the new social media playground. There is no safe place to which a bully’s victims can escape from taunts, threats and menace, because social media has taken away even private retreat. The Bible talks about an overlapping realm of “powers, rulers and authorities” against which Christians wrestle. While I’m not in any way suggesting that the social media is the realm the Bible talks about, I can’t help but be struck by the parallel way that social media works in our world: an overlapping digital jurisdiction that affects the physical world in very real ways, but that the physical world can do little to directly influence or control.
The spiritual parallels in Amanda’s tragic situation don’t stop there. Amanda Todd took her life because she thought redemption of her life was impossible. How did she arrive at this conclusion? And why is redemption, or the possibility of redemption, necessary at times for each of us to continue on?
Photos, emails, texts, and videos live on in cyberspace. Any of these can rise up to testify against us, as they did against Amanda. Those who live within a Christian framework are familiar with the idea of a Day of Judgment, a singular day in the future when we will be held to account before a righteous Judge. But in the here and now, judgment day – in the form of a threat from an anonymous person on Facebook – can come at any time, from any direction, and go on seemingly forever and ever amen. As Amanda tragically found out, the judge found in social media is not a righteous one, but may in fact be your adversary; and the judgment comes in the form of domination and control, even enslavement. In the world of social media there is no appeal that will work fast enough to prevent the damnation of your reputation. Accusation is denunciation is conviction. When your accuser presses send, you have been sentenced. Where is the possibility of redemption in this?
Who wouldn’t want such sins as revealed through the digital world washed white as snow? To be forgiven, to have those damning photos erased, and the careless emails or text messages sent deleted? Redemption in our culture amounts to deletion of the offense. We want to erase it, to change history, and make it so it never happened. This might account for the fascination with time travel in our movies and our literature. To go back, to have a ‘do-over’, is the only way we think we can effect redemption in the present. Contemporary Western society has in many ways sought to will God away, yet we’ve substituted for Him with something less believable because, in the end, we just can’t live without the possibility of redemption. The Christian message is not that we can somehow pull things back after we press send. The Christian message is that Jesus takes the consequences on Himself. Reality isn’t altered for us; it’s met, its’ terrible costs are absorbed and it is redeemed.
When Jesus gave Himself up for us on the cross He was dealing with what Christians call “sin” on two planes: the “fallen” physical world, and the realm of “rulers, powers, and authorities.” Sin and the pain of this world are never merely physical phenomena, and neither is bullying.
Bullying will never be adequately dealt with unless our solutions offer redemption for the victims, as well as a path for repentance for the bullies and restoration for both. Both the victims and the bullies carry their own particular kinds of shame. As Jesus Christ suffered, someone is going to have to suffer to make transformation happen in our schools. Not the victim, not the bully, but someone who decides “I have a responsibility to look after this person who is getting bullied.” It will likely need to be another student. Being your brother’s keeper is a religious idea. Suffering on behalf of other is a religious idea. Compassion is a religious idea (call it spiritual if you like). Our societal obsession with personal rights has often overshadowed the responsibility we have for each other. Our default posture has become to demand something of someone else rather than to give of ourselves.
Bullying is as much a spiritual reality as it is about name calling, punches, and ostracism. To fail to acknowledge this is to leave the problem untouched. The irony is that while our society and our education system tries to keep religion and spiritual realities on the margins of public life, we’ve created a digital spiritual counterfeit in social media. Spiritual and social problems are now manifesting themselves in the digital world of social media, while our public policy has increasingly banned the very kinds of solutions necessary – yes, the religious ones.