Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 119:41-56) transports me to a banquet table in the back of a jam-packed banquet hall in Washington, DC, December 1, 2005, where a room-full of service-learning administrators were there to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Learn and Serve America. LSA is a government program designed to foster voluntarism to improve communities and solve social problems across the country, sort of a domestic Peace Corps. I had administered a couple of Learn and Serve grants at Mars Hill College, so I was invited to come to the festivities. Speaker after speaker rose to the podium to extol the virtues of volunteering and the impact of LSA.
I have to admit, I was not interested. The problem was, I had just started a book the night before, Blindness by Jose Saramago, and I was absolutely captivated. I had brought the book down to the banquet hall and found a table in the back corner; I was the only one sitting there and could secretly read the book while no one was looking. Occasionally, a speaker would come up who really stirred the crowd, and I would have to stand for the periodic ovations, but I’d get right back to the book. I was in a particularly gripping chapter, describing the insane cruelty of one group of blind folks against another group of blind folks, all of whom were imprisoned there in a former mental institution,. One of the victimized folks, a woman, could actually see, but she could not let anyone know about it, and she was plotting a way to exact revenge against the bullies.
In the middle of this chapter, a familiar-looking fellow came in the back door of the banquet hall and sat down at my table. I looked up and wondered where I knew him from; I figured he was another service-learning administrator like me. He had the look of an ex-hippie, so he fit in with the crowd of do-gooders. I gestured a greeting to him, and he gestured back, and I went back to the book. A few minutes later, the emcee began introducing their featured guest of the day, someone who had devoted the past several years of his life to battling the problem of bullying in schools. She spoke of his years of work in the music field and in the civil rights movement, and I perked up a bit, and then she told us who it was: Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary. Much to my surprise, the ex-hippie do-gooder from my table rose and went to the stage, where his guitar was awaiting him. He sprinkled some songs in the midst of his talk about the work he is doing to develop resources for teachers and students to use to stop bullying. It was a bit surreal to be reading about the evil bullying of the cruel blind folks while hearing Puff the Magic Dragon.
The author of Psalm 119 was dealing with some bullying of his own. Verses 42 and 51 speak to his predicament of having to face the arrogance and insolence and cruelty of people presumably stronger or more powerful than he. Various translations of the Hebrew chaphar in v. 42 include taunt, reproach, mockery, make fun of, and insult. Various translations of the Hebrew helitzuni in v. 51 include mock, deride, ridicule, make fun of, and hold in contempt. These words bring back uncomfortable memories for me, as I had plenty of experience as both the bully and the bullied in my school years. Never being one of the strongest or biggest in my class, I was generally on the receiving end of the physical bullying, but I learned the power of words and could taunt and deride and make fun of folks with the best (worst) of them. It is fascinating to me to see that the word “bully” originates from a Middle High German word from the 1100s, buhle, which meant “lover.” Don’t have a clue how the word deteriorated, but the Psalmist begins this passage by calling on the unfailing love of God as his answer to the bullies who are taunting him. No amount of derision can turn him away from the way of love, and for him that is the only strategy for dealing with the arrogant and powerful who reproach and ridicule him day in and day out. What if this became a centerpiece of faith-based education for kids in our churches and synagogues, developing strategies of love for them to take into the schools where bullies await?
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.