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Bullied to Death - The Failure of Modern Moral Education

April 12, 2010
S. Michael Craven
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Over the last few months, I have been struck by the terrible tragedy of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Irish immigrant who hanged herself in January after suffering months of relentless public torment by her peers in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe’s story is one more in what appears to be a growing problem in America’s schools, which raises the inevitable question, “What does this say about us and our culture?” Are there lessons to be learned—warnings, if you will—about where our society may be headed?

As I have written over the last two weeks, God judged Israel on how they treated the poor and defenseless. Dick Keyes, the director of L’Abri Fellowship International and author of True Heroism, goes even farther by saying the way a nation treats the defenseless “is God’s barometer of the moral quality of a society” (Keyes, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits, [Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995] p. 183). There are two issues at stake in the rise of bullying of this type that reveal the “moral quality” of the forthcoming society: the brutality of those doing the bullying and the “cowardice of noncompassion” by those who stood by and did nothing to help the victim.

To the first point, so cruel were Phoebe’s tormentors that one wrote “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook page after she hanged herself and none of the nine charged in this case have shown “even a tinge of remorse,” according to a report from Fox News. To the second point, it seems no one had the moral courage to intervene on Phoebe’s behalf and defend her against these adolescent despots. These two aspects are most disconcerting and reveal a serious moral deficiency that threatens the preservation of a just and civil society.   

The bullying of which we hear these days is not that of the proverbial schoolyard bully, the big kid who picks on the weak to compensate for his own insecurities and low self-esteem. This was an understandable pathology that fit within the traditional moral framework. We understood that the bully’s behavior typically derived from dysfunctional family conditions that first did harm to the bully’s relationship with himself, which in turn affected his relationship with others. Educational psychologists today describe a new kind of bullying. “The perpetrators are attractive, athletic and academically accomplished—and comfortable enough around adults to know what they can and can't get away with, in school and online” (Rick Hampton, “A 'watershed' case in school bullying?,” USA Today, Feb. 4, 2010). In other words, the new bully is no longer the socially marginalized but more often the social elite, potential leaders in the next generation.

The modern bully is conniving, vicious, frequently female, and highly narcissistic, driven by social competition and unrestrained by any coherent moral sense. The new bully—I would argue—is the inevitable product of secularization. By severing moral choices from the religious and philosophical reasons for those choices, we no longer understand why we ought or ought not do anything. The secular educationists insist that grounding our morality and ethics in a particular religious or philosophical framework is to impose absolute moral requirements upon children and this, they say, is immoral. Instead, concessions to pluralism demand that the only universal moral virtue is tolerance. The problem with tolerance is that it isn’t for anything. The only “ought” under the so-called virtue of tolerance is that you ought not claim there are any absolute virtues and you dare not attempt to impose them if you do. In reality, the modern emphasis on tolerance is better understood as a covenant of tolerance: “I won’t tell you what to do and you don’t tell me what to do.” In the end, common virtue is replaced by personal values that are relative to each person and what they determine works best for them.

Of course the adult generation still wants the younger generation to be ethical, however they (as expressed through our public institutions) are unwilling to specify exactly what that means. Dick Keyes adds, “The outcome of the dilemma is that the younger generation is given a confused message. Be a good person, but don’t ask ‘why?’ Or how we have determined ‘good’ for you, or for that matter, exactly what a ‘person’ is” (Keyes, p. 212). In short, the next generation lacks a coherent or compelling morality. They can simply pick and choose according to their own self-interests, since that is the only remaining authority within the relativistic moral code.

As to the second matter—the absence of intervention—this also is the bitter fruit of secular morality. In essence, secularism has eliminated any positive ideal, which serves not only as the authority for what is good but also as the inspiration to do good. The positive ideal offers something to aspire to, even in the face of great risk and danger. It is the positive ideal that inspires us to do good even when it may cost us something—to be heroic. The value of tolerance fosters no such aspirations.

In contrast to tolerance, Christianity exalts the higher ideal of love that is personified in Jesus Christ. At its best, tolerance says, “If we disagree, I’ll put up with (or tolerate) you.” Practically, this only represents a change in one’s outward disposition and not a change in attitude toward others. In short, tolerance is really only indifference toward those with whom you disagree. Tolerance lacks compassion. On the other hand, the Christian virtue of love says, “Despite our disagreement, I will still love you.” Love keeps the relationship primary and the dividing issues secondary. I would much rather be loved than tolerated.

Finally, love is courageous; it compels people to act—to be compassionate—even at personal risk. Tolerance doesn’t compel us to risk anything! Tolerance only encourages us to avoid conflict and thus breeds the cowardice of noncompassion. Jesus defined what love is and offers the example to which we aspire.

In Mark 3:3–6, we read the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath (again) in disobedience to the overly restrictive Sabbath laws. On this particular occasion, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand in direct defiance of the religious leaders. In verse five we are told that Jesus was “angry” with those who would deny compassion to this man in the name of God. The love that Jesus displays here is not sentimental or soft but resolute and just. Here, Jesus is courageously compassionate at great risk to himself. Of course, the ultimate display of Christ’s love was exemplified in his willingness to endure the cross.

Where were those people—young men and women inculcated with the Christian concept of love—in Phoebe Prince’s situation? Where was even one person compelled by love of neighbor with the courage to do what ought to be done? Apparently, they were nowhere to be found. How ironic that so many were willing to participate in candlelight vigils but not a single soul was willing to risk anything to stop Phoebe’s abuse. In a world whose only virtue is tolerance and in which there is no God, there is nothing sufficient to inspire us to risk anything or to love upstream, against all the natural forces that encourage us not to!

In the end, it seems that secular morality has left us at the mercy of an increasingly cruel and inhumane tyrant class who will not have to fear any interference.

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

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Responses
Response from : Greg Simnacher  

April 12, 2010 9:15 AM
 

Michael,

Excellent (though very disconcerting) article. I believe it goes to the heart of what ails this nation.


 
Response from : Patricia Malloy  

April 12, 2010 9:23 AM
 

Michael,
Your article is profound and to the point. However there is one group you are "letting off the hook" that needs to be held accountable. It is the parents of the young people who bullied Phoebe Prince.

Morality is not taught exculsively in the school. It is place in the hearts of children in the home. Loving our neighbor is an outpouring of loving God with all our heart, soul, and strength. That kind of love is learned in the home.

Thank you for your discerning words. Add this to your clarity about the problem!!


 
Response from : Greg Williams  

April 12, 2010 10:06 AM
 

Mr. Craven

Excellent article and very poignant! One thing that I know you're aware of but not covered specifically in this article but is certainly in line with the secular relativism that you speak of with regard to our culture in general and tolerance, specifically... the role of relational and sexual sin that is at the core of all of this. As a director of a character based abstinence until marriage program, we know that you can't separate character and behavior and especially when it comes to relationships and sexuality. The studies on the pre-adolescent through young adult brain are now revealing more and more the impact that casual, non-committal 'free sex' in any form (including porn of every kind) lead more and more to outrageous behavior due to the frivolous 'hooking up' that literally creates momentary bonding physiologically and then breaks it off when a person engages intimately with the next "partner". This type of casual and non-committed intimacy is totally against the way we were created and it continues to lead, along with the lack of morals/values/character teaching that you so adeptly portrayed, to more and more of these types of situations with very little repercussions until it is too late!

I've stated anecdotally, but with no kickback whatsoever over the last 8 years, that at least 75%, if not upwards to 90%+ of the current 'ills' in our culture are directly and indirectly related to relational and sexual sin and this story is just one more anecdote to highlight the sad state of our homes, schools, culture and yes, even the church in postmodern, western culture.

Thanks again for sharing your excellent insights and have a blessed day in the Lord!

God bless in Christ!

In His service

Greg Williams

http://www.heritageofky.org

 
Response from : George  

April 12, 2010 12:31 PM
 

Your analysis of this issue is excellent. Bullying in our society is one among many evils that is developed due to the severe lack of moral thinking and any understanding of the importance of instilling moral principles in the young. This evil force, which is the result of permissive "liberal"-minded elements in our society, who are anti-Christian, is the cause of many of the world's problems. God Bless you and your work.


 
Response from : Melba  

April 12, 2010 1:14 PM
 

Thank you Michael...


 
Response from : gerald  

April 12, 2010 1:59 PM
 

Really Michael, thanks for continuing this discussion. There are some amazing truths here. Among them the true barbarism that is newly formed among our youth. It is truly a Lord of the Flies environment. I enjoyed reading the latter part of your article most, because in this world, it seems that the most hope, in fact the only hope, is the endearing and challenging lesson of the sacrifice of Christ. I am not surprised that this has happened. I am on the "front line" of this battlefield daily, 180 days a year.
My greatest concern is that we Wake Up to realize that we, the church, are the problem. It is great that people like you and others in large pulpits speak out against the unspeakable, but evil wins only when "good people do nothing". Think of WW 2. We are called to make a difference, not through your voice or the voice of this lone District Attorney, but within ourselves as believers. These situations, yes I believe this is just the tip of a very large iceberg, will need to be confronted wherever we find them.
However, I find hope in our culture in shows like Home Makeover and Dirty Jobs.
These non-mainstream messages carry forth a battleground mentality that says that we were born, created, to ACT when we see wrongdoing. To stand and challenge the convention of brutality in all forms. (I'm speaking to myself here) It is easy to say these kids or those kids or this part of society, but really, we are all guilty.
Dona Nobis Pacem


 
Response from : Sally  

April 12, 2010 3:24 PM
 

I thank and praise a loving and merciful GOD for Christians that are speaking up and bringing these important matters to the masses. GOD help us. GOD forgive us as Christians for not coming along side this young girl and defending her.

http://sally-exlibris-mikemcgirkblogspotcom.blogspot.com/

 
Response from : Marica Maas  

April 12, 2010 5:13 PM
 

"There is no truth or mercy or knowledge of God in the land... Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children."(Hosea 4:1&6)... How terrible to be forgotten by God!

On an equally sinister note: Remembered how one of our young children once literally lost control over her body by starting to shake, after being exposed to a movie with occult connections, which made me realise the reality of how persons can get invested and controlled by evil spirits when exposed to evil materials, including violent, pornographic and occultic programming. This basically includes most of what most modern children are constantly feasting on as 'entertainment.'


 
Response from : Linda Howard  

April 12, 2010 9:36 PM
 

Michael,

I was hoping you would address this issue. The death by bullying is disturbing on many levels. We are in an age were people, human beings, are not only marginalized but seen as nothing more than a walking target available for victimization. We've seen this type of evil throughout history. As I listened to the latest victim on the news today, it saddened me even more to realize the victims of the bullies consider suicide an acceptable option.


 
Response from : Robert Eustace  

April 13, 2010 9:44 AM
 

You may wish to check out the movie "To Save A Life", about how a suicide led a high school student to cross the line and begin reaching out with compassion to outcasts. I have not personally seen it, but have heard good things. It is PG-13. You can see the trailer on Facebook.


 
Response from : Jacqueline Bertinus  

April 13, 2010 10:22 AM
 

Hallo Michael,

Just yesterday they were speaking about this very same problem in schools here in the Netherlands. Only nowhere in the conversation did they mention God or love of your neighbour. Around the table was a child the presentator and a psychologist. If I have your permission I would like to forward a copy of your article to the station/person who was discussing this yesterday. Here they have not taken God "officially" out of the schools, but as far as I know prayers is not a part of the curriculum. My family and I are foreigners in this country and where we are from prayer is still said in classrooms and devotions is a part of the curriculum. I am not saying its perfect but at least its something.

God bless,
Jacqueline Bertinus
The Netherlands


 
Response from : Eileen  

April 13, 2010 10:31 AM
 

I think if we keep a close enough eye on this kids unless they repent you will see them reap what they have sown. There is a verse Proverbs 26:2 an undeserve curse will not come to rest. Gods word is powerful and it is my sincere hope that these adolescents come to the saving knowledge of Christ because this really is an undeserved curse.


 
Response from : Irene Garcia  

April 13, 2010 11:01 AM
 

I have asked the same questions. As educators we are charged with inefective moral education, however, we are not to "cram" our values onto the students and mention of God is forbidden. Where are the parents in all of this? Are they not supposed to teach their kids that this kind of behavior is WRONG?!! I agree that tolerance = indifference = uninvolvement. What a terrible society my grandchildren are growning up in. Home, school and church must work together in the formation of moral character.


 
Response from : Carol  

April 13, 2010 12:39 PM
 

great and insightful article.


 
Response from : Robin  

April 13, 2010 5:15 PM
 

I was actually a victim of bullying. I am a nurse. White,and a born again christian working in a inner city NYC hospital. The tone in which nursing assistants and peers speak to someone who is different is unbelievable. I was told by hosp administration that it is a hostile work environ. It also comprises of sexism,and racism and bullying. Its terrible and this is adults acting like this. They were damaged kids who are now damaged adults. The shipwrecked personnel lives is no joke.
I want to leave. Please pray for me.


 
Response from : nttys  

April 13, 2010 7:50 PM
 

This reading has indeed been a great source of help to me, I do hope you have more like this in the further to reach more people who need this kind of comfort.

http://none

 
Response from : Tyler Sorrells  

April 13, 2010 11:34 PM
 

Great article! Its definitely made me think! I have to preface what I'm about to write by stating that I am totally unfamiliar with the details of the story you're referring to in the article so if my comments are out of context I apologize in advance. This story really created a conundrum as far as I'm concerned. One part of me was reminded of the 'turn the other cheek' adage but another, equally powerful, part of me can't help feeling that if people in that girl's situation had had a sense of self-reliance they might be less prone to resort to such drastic measures. I was thinking of my dad when I wrote that. As I was growing up he went to great lengths to instill in me the attitude that you don't stand still and let people 'spit' on you. You go on the offensive and make sure they pay for it if they try. I have to say that seems to have been a very effective solution when I've run into these sorts of issues throughout my life. I know that's outside the tenor of most of these comments and its basically a worldly response but that's genuinely how I feel about it


 
Response from : Julie Friar  

April 14, 2010 5:58 AM
 

Amen Amen Amen! The truth so well expressed with words.

Thank you for boiling this down so that the truth can be shared. So this is where forbidding absolutes being taught to our children in school has brought us? God forgive our nation, for they know not what they have done.

May God Comfort Phoebe's family.


 
Response from : Cynthia Butler  

April 14, 2010 12:21 PM
 

I find this very sad that our society of said Christians have come to this same point. many flee the cold and indifference of our churches for this same reason.
we read the Bible but do we really hear the heart of the story. " for everyone did what was right in their own sight." This smell came unto God and it stink in his nostrils. I'm sure we are not that far form the same meter read. Where I worship many would turn their heads and say I don't want to get involved. Some even act as if they don't see. There are many times when I was hauled into the Pastor's office for standing up for someone. Though I was given every reason why I should not get tied up in others problems. I fear the Lord God, if we offend one of his little ones it would be better that a mill stone be tied around your neck and drowned in the sea. My heart breaks for the one who is being bullied and the one who is doing the bulling, both need someone to intervene to stop this evil behavior.


 
Response from : Bill Jack  

April 14, 2010 12:56 PM
 

Well said. Thank you.


 
Response from : Leslie  

April 19, 2010 11:12 AM
 

how compelling and sad that we have to look to the younger generation to take care of us. if this is how they treat thier own age, how will they treat the elderly? As a parent of two younger children, we are infusing them with the improtance of morality, loving thier neighbor and thier world, but also that this is unacceptable behavior, God created each of us in his own image and for his liking and for a purpose. I hope these teens learn something when they are taken to court. Ironic part of this is they will along with thier families, cry and ask for mercy from God and the family when all is said.
God bless and keep Phoebe's family in his loving and compassionate arms as they go through this tragic event.


 
Response from : Amy  

April 21, 2010 12:39 AM
 

What you miss is something that has been around since I attended school in the 1950s: the source of bullying is the TEACHER in way too many cases. Once a teacher targets a child, that kid is doomed to some pretty vicious bullying - & no defense from any quarter in most cases, for fear of offending the teacher & becoming a victim yourself.

That latter, by the way, is why no one intercedes on behalf of the victim; it's been shown that if anyone defends a victim, they are attacked even more viciously. And this has been going on for 60 years now.

The social elite & the marginalized are the 2 main categories of bullies & always have been.

My cousin was bullied because his mother died in a car accident. Some of the taunts: she'd rather die than have to be your mother. Who started it? The teachers.

I was bullied because my parents divorced. The teacher, angry that I wouldn't give her any juicy gossip, declared in front of the classroom that I was the reason for the divorce, that my father was too ashamed of me to stick around.

Did this change by the time I did my student teaching for my education degree? No; I ended up confronting a faculty lounge full of teachers for the way they treated 2 first graders - one of whom was the child of the town "whore," the other of whom was a child of divorce. The charges? The whore wouldn't have to be a whore if she didn't have a child to support (news flash: her occupation is the reason the child existed). And the father of the other child wouldn't have divorced if he hadn't been ashamed of the child. One kid was struggling with math; with a little work, he did fine & was making As & Bs. The other was a straight A student. These "sage" tenured teachers instructed me that there wasn't any hope for either child; the divorcee's child would likely end up an "axe murderer." After they were through, I told them that I'd grown up in circumstances nearly identical to the divorcee's child - including the faculty bullying - & I had yet to axe murder anyone, Their surprised silence allowed me to demand to know how they could live with themselves when they spent so much time destroying young lives. Wasn't their mission to build kids up & help them learn, to become better than their circumstances?

Back then, those teachers still had the capacity to blush. But they threatened to fail me until I threatened to go public with what they'd been doing. And when I subbed on a military base 16 years later, I found the faculty bullying had only worsened, & ended up rescuing a few kids & rousing the parents to interact more with the school & demand an end to faculty bullying.

So, if you want to stop bullying, first bug the faculty lounge & eavesdrop on the private conversations in the hallways after school. See for yourselves how good teachers are beaten down for defending kids, & how faculty on student bullying is fueling the increasingly vicious bullying in our schools. There are plenty of wonderful teachers out there, but they, too, are often bullied by their gossipy peers. They'd be happy to see student & parent groups rallying around the issue of bullying.


 
Response from : connie  

April 29, 2010 4:33 AM
 

this is indeed an extremely painful situation. bullies are everywhere and i agree with the author's "The modern bully is conniving, vicious, frequently female, and highly narcissistic, driven by social competition and unrestrained by any coherent moral sense." i am a working woman and i see this trend emerging in the adults world. What can we do about this...singly? definitely out of the question...that is why we see the cowardice non-compassionate numbers....what can we do? very sad ...


 

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