Circles of Harm and Support

Sermon Description: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Bullying Prevention Month, and LGBTQ History Month. Rev. Cynthia L. Landrum will weave together these themes and talk about the way violence works in cycles, and so can love.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Bullying Prevention Month, and LGBTQ History Month. It’s also a bunch of other things, of course, including Pastor Appreciation Month. But I wanted to lift up the domestic violence and bullying prevention, and talk about the links between them, and the links between bullying and LBGTQ identity.

We know that there are cycles and circles of violence and harm. We know that children who are victims of domestic violence or witness domestic violence are more likely to be on either side, victim or perpetrator, of domestic violence as adults. This is something we’ve known for decades, and the good news is that the knowledge, education, awareness, along with training of professionals from counselors to police – this has all made a difference.

Lesser known than the idea that domestic violence begets domestic violence is that there’s also a link between domestic violence and bullying. A 2006 study showed that children who were victims of domestic violence were more likely to bully and more likely to be bullied. This was the first study to show the link between domestic violence and bullying. Of the children in the study, a third had engaged in some sort of bullying in the past year, and almost three fourths had been the victim of some sort of bullying within that past year. Almost all of the bullies were also victims of bullying.

That last point, that almost all bullies were bullied, shouldn’t be surprising. We know that violence teaches violence. Here are some excerpts from the journal of a sister of a child who was bullied and became a bully. His sister wrote:

“Fearing that the father could no longer control himself in his unbridled rage, she [our mother] decides to put an end to the beating.
“She goes up to the attic, covers [my brother] who is lying on the floor, but cannot deflect the father’s final blow. Without a sound she absorbs it.”

In another quote, when she was eight and her brother was fifteen, she wrote, “Once again I feel my brother’s loose hand across my face.” The writer of these quotes was Paula Hitler, sister of Adolf Hitler.

Of course, to bring up Hitler is always to carry an argument to its extremes. Not every child who lives with domestic violence will grow up to be a Hitler. But the converse might be true. Remember how the study showed that almost every bully had been a victim? It might just be true that every person who becomes a Hitler was bullied and beaten, too.

The circles that violence creates are complicated – sometimes one goes from bullied to bully from victim to perpetrator, and sometimes just from bullied to bullied to bullied. Sometimes becoming the recipient of violence just teaches that the world is violent and unpredictable.

That’s what happens to a lot of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer children and youth. Remember that statistic of about one fourth of children experiencing bullying in the last year? A 2011 study showed that 83% of LGBT youth experienced bullying in the past year. Other studies say 9 out of 10 LGBT youth have experienced bullying in the past year. They also experience more cyberbullying. And they also think about, and attempt, suicide more often – two to three times more often. Take for example, the case of Tyler Clementi a few years ago. Tyler Clementi was a college student who was gay. His roommate took secret videos of Tyler, and then he shared those on social media. This is cyberbullying. And a few days later, Tyler Clementi was dead of suicide.

And these cycles and circles are not unrelated to the family. If a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teen is not accepted by their family, the likelihood of attempting students jumps to eight times more likely than the average student. The support of family can, and does, mean that much. When you think of homeless youth, most often you think, perhaps, of youth fleeing violence. And that’s true for a lot of LGBT youth who are homeless. And 40% of the homeless youth are LGBT. In fact, a family’s non-acceptance of LGBT youth is the leading cause of youth homelessness. The next highest cause is violence, which of course can be a part of the story with the LGBT youth as well. And then the next highest cause after that is aging out of the foster care system. Of course, when you think of how children get into the foster care system, violence is a part of that story, as well.

Youth who are homeless are more likely to commit suicide, too. Overall, the suicide rate of homeless youth is 29%. Of LGBT homeless youth it is 62%.
So violence against youth, and non-acceptance of LGBT youth are not only things that lead to their being at risk for violence being a part of their future lives. It puts their very lives at risk.

Most of the time when we hear about bullying and about how to stop it, and when we hear about domestic violence and how to stop it, we focus on the victim. We focus in domestic violence on strengthening the victim and encouraging her to get out. In bullying, we teach assertiveness and confidence.

But what works is changing the climate – making bullying inacceptable, and LGBT status completely acceptable. Because the truth is that the “love the sin, hate the sinner approach,” or the “that’s fine for whatever they do I just don’t want to hear about it approach” is killing these kids, because it perpetuates the point of view that there’s something wrong with them, and that encourages a climate where the bullies thrive. An article in “American Nurse Today” said this:

Because schools are the primary socializing institutions where children and teens spend most of their time, school is a crucial environment for implementing prevention and intervention strategies. Even modest reductions in bullying in middle and high schools would bring significant long-term health gains. Schools can offer safer environments by developing and enforcing comprehensive antidiscrimination and anti-harassment policies that incorporate input from administrators, educators, parents, students, and outside clinicians who see students after school. These policies should include LGBT identity and gender expression. School curricula should integrate racial and ethnic diversity and LGBT issues; when these become a routine part of learning, all students will be perceived as “normal.”

Who else gets bullied? The 2015 bullying report from lists four categories of people who are more prone to being bullied:

  1. People with weight problems
  2. People with Disabilities
  3. People who belong to racial or religious minorities
  4. People who are LGBTQ or perceived as LGBTQ

What do all these things have in common? They’re all groups that are treated with prejudice by our whole society, not just by bullies. Starting with weight issues, we have a society that bullies fat people, and tells them that it’s for their own good. It’s socially acceptable to make a fat joke, or speak derogatorily about a fat person, because society says it’s not okay to be fat. You would not believe, for example, the number of times someone has justified bullying and shaming of fat people to me by saying it’s for their own good—our own good, to get them—us to change, as if shaming and bullying are ever justifiable, first of all. And as if we would mistake the lack of bullying and shaming as not just condoning, but embracing and celebrating. For people with disabilities, we understand as a society that this is beyond their control, but that doesn’t stop the sneering, the stares, the using of negative terms for the disabled as disparaging remarks. Racial minorities? Here we move more into the realm of where our society knows that this prejudice is unacceptable, but yet it’s persistent. I spent a long time last Monday discussing racism with my communications students. In their view, only the most overt, conscious, and deliberate actions warrant the term “racism.” If I’m not conscious of it, but I act in prejudicial ways, not only would they not label it racism, but they don’t really think I’m doing anything wrong, because I don’t know I’m doing it, so I can’t be held accountable for my actions, so they’re not unethical. And our racism in our society has gone underground in exactly this way. If we all say we’re not racist, then there is no racism. And it doesn’t matter who is dying more often, or who is hired less often.

These circles and cycles of harm are ever persistent in our society. And what needs to happen most is for those cycles to be disrupted. For the cycles of domestic violence to be disrupted, for the cycles of bullying to be disrupted.

The only answer I know to these cycles and systems is love. Radical love. And it seems almost too simple, or almost too naïve, or too elementary to say it. But in the end it’s all I come down to. And the thing is, it really can be enough. We change the world by creating circles of love. We start with building family dynamics of love and care, but we don’t stop there. We create schools where each child is loved and valued and celebrated – not as a special snowflake, as we sometimes say of children that are taught they do nothing wrong – but loved and valued and celebrated in a deep and meaningful way – that if they are gay or lesbian, that’s wonderful and they are loved, and they are beautiful. If they’re African-American, that’s wonderful and they are loved, and they are beautiful. If they are fat, that’s wonderful and they are loved, and they are beautiful. If they are differently-abled, that’s wonderful and they are loved, and they are beautiful.

We start by building here a radical community of inclusive love. We take Universalism from being the “no hell” church to the “love the hell out of the world” church. My friend the Rev. Dawn Cooley shares this story in her award-winning sermon, “Love the Hell out of the World”:

I recall a time more recently when I was in the trenches, fighting on the side of love rather than the side of fear, working as a chaplain in the cardiac unit of a local hospital. A woman I was visiting opened up to me. She told me that she was afraid of dying because she was estranged from her brother and wanted to reconcile with him. “But he is gay,” she told me, and her church had told her she was not to associate with him because he was a sinner, doomed to eternity in hell. “Do you believe God is like that?” she cried out to me, obviously in pain – torn between her love of her brother and her fear for her own soul. It would do no good for me to explain to her that I was agnostic, at best. “You love your brother, I can see that.” I told her. “Would you damn him to hell to eternity for being gay?” “Of course not!” she replied. “So how could God be any less loving than you?” She broke down, called her brother, who came in to visit her and they reconciled. She told me later that her heart, which had been so full of pain and fear, was now overflowing with love and gratitude. And she made a speedy physical recovery.

Dawn’s story nicely echoes a story from the 1800s, of Hosea Ballou, the father of Universalism, that she also tells in her sermon.

“he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. “All right,” said Ballou with a serious face. “We’ll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we’ll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we’ll grab him and throw him into it.” The farmer was shocked: “That’s my son and I love him!” Ballou said, “If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!”

If you look at the stained glass window over our front door, you’ll see a circle with a cross in it. That’s the symbol for Univesalism used by a group called the Humiliati. To some it means Universal religion, with Christianity a piece of it. For me, the circle is God’s love, which includes Christians, but is inclusive of all of humanity.
Last week I was invited by the Lutherans and Presbyterians to be their guest for their “Pub Theology” group. They asked me questions about Unitarianism and Universalism and the trinity and how we do worship. And I don’t remember what prompted it, but at one point I launched into my elevator speech about being an agnostic. I explained that the reason I’m not a Christian and not a theist is because I haven’t had any proof of God in my life. And I believe if there is a God, God knows exactly what that takes for me to have a conversion experience, and perhaps even chooses to withhold it, or at best is pretty neutral on the subject of my belief in God. And so, I said, I think that if there is a God, I’m doing God’s work. God’s work isn’t about converting people to belief. What God really needs that or cares about it? If God is a loving God, then God isn’t condemning anybody to Hell – I believe 100% Universalism has it right about that. God isn’t worried about us worshipping God. No. If God makes any sense at all, what God is worried about is how we’re treating each other, here on earth – how we’re working to make the world a better place, one person, one life at a time. God’s worried about how we’re treating the homeless, and the imprisoned, and the gay and lesbian youth.

The thing is, while other religions are worried about going to Hell, we here in Unitarian Universalism are not. And that has freed us up to do the work of religion, the work of God, which is loving the Hell out of this world. And if all we can do, if the very first thing we can do, is to create a space between these four walls where love is strong and the hate is held out, then by God, that’s what we do. By God, that’s what we do.