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.