It was hard. I entered kindergarten as a child of immigrant parents who spoke English as a second language. I spoke English with a Dutch accent. My fellow students soon picked up on that. “He’s different,” they said. “Different” meant I was not one of them. The difference had to be highlighted.
I was not allowed to use the bathroom. They barred the door with their bodies. I wet my pants. Walking home I was not allowed to walk on the road. I was forced into the ditch, often getting soaked to my knees. My mother was not happy with wet pants.
I was not the only “different” person on the playground and in the classroom. My friend Tom had a younger brother. He was a differently abled person. He didn’t fit. He received the bullies’ attention.
They kept him from entering the schoolyard. In the winter some of them would take his coat, hat, and mittens. Looking back 60 years later, I cringe at this display of extreme bullying. No adult seemed to notice.
“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words penetrate deep into our psyche, leaving wounds that may never heal.” That’s what Neal Plantinga said to us in one of my seminary classes.
One Sunday morning Tom’s brother went with his family to the local church just a block from their home. Near the end of the service, he asked his parents if he could go home. Permission was granted. When the family came home, they found him hanging from the shower in the bathroom. He had ended his own life.
We came home from our Christian Reformed church as the noonday sun shone brightly. I remember coming home and hearing the sirens, knowing they meant trouble somewhere, but not knowing who was in trouble. Tom’s family entered into days, weeks, months of grief. They soon moved away from the village.
Why do we do this to each other? Why do we see God’s image bearers as persons to be set apart from us, less than us, unworthy of our care and love? What blinds us from seeing the other as sacredly formed as we are, worthy of respect, worthy of dignity?
How is it that a young boy no older than 7 comes to the conclusion that life is not worth living? Where does he find the resolve to end it all?
The hardest question of all might be, “Why didn’t God step in to change the situation and stop the bullying?” Why didn’t this boy experience a great intervention? Mary sang a song celebrating God’s desire and power to right what was wrong in the world, including that which keeps us from allowing others to flourish as God’s image bearers. “Difference is not defect,” says Maria Popova in an article about her book, The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the command to love our neighbor is the most challenging there is as we give ourselves in love to God. Following the command to love one another is maybe the best way we can demonstrate that God is truly with us.
“A meaningful relationship with God takes seriously the breadth and difference of God’s people,” John Swinton reminds us. He also writes, “I take Jesus quite literally and seriously when he says: ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ (John 13:34). Such love relates to intentionally adopting an attitude wherein we recognize the inherent value in other people, and we are genuinely glad that they are with us.”
There is much difference to overcome in our world, our neighborhoods, our communities. It just might be that the difference we celebrate will be enough to convince another that life is worth living.