Thoughts on the Huddersfield bully and whatever happened to grace

The video of a young Syrian lad, from an asylum seeker family, being bullied has gone viral. The video shows the Syrian boy being hauled to the floor by his neck and having water poured over his face as a bigger, white boy says, ‘You b***ard. I’ll drown ya.’ You can read more about the story here.

I am purposefully not sharing the video. The boy who hauled the lad to the floor reported for summons and has now been charged with assault. There is no reason to share the video for identification purposes. Sharing the video more widely simply gives oxygen to it and is entirely unnecessary and unhelpful. But, in no particular order, here are some thoughts on this story.

I have all the sympathy in the world for the Syrian family at the centre of this. By all accounts, the boy’s sister has also faced bullying – not least since she began wearing a hijab – and has even tried to kill herself as a result. The outrage over the bullying is entirely justified. We should rightly be ashamed that, rather than protecting those who are most vulnerable in our society – people we have ostensibly welcomed because they are fleeing for their lives elsewhere – they are bullied and harassed here instead.

At the same time, whilst there was some (and I do stress, some) value in sharing the video online so as to identify the bully, there is absolutely no value in sharing his name and address in the public domain (which has been happening). All the more troubling is the fact that it is being shared publicly and people actively encouraged to ‘teach him a lesson.’ Though there is every reason to be outraged by his actions, he has been identified and it is right to let justice run its course. Sharing his address and encouraging mob retaliation is neither just nor fair on his family.

There should also be some thought give to the fact that the perpetrator is just a boy. That does not excuse his behaviour nor does it mean it should go unpunished. But we live in an age of constant public surveillance that is marked by a total lack of grace. We live in a world where one mistake or misdemeanour may be captured by any number of phones and cameras and, when it is exposed, there will be no clemency nor restoration. We live in a world of one strike and you’re out, without any possibility of atonement or reconciliation. We are, hereby, publicly condemning a 16-year-old boy – a very stupid boy who has clearly done wrong – to a lifetime of condemnation. For certain crimes, we simply offer no means to atonement.

At the risk of making an unpopular and somewhat controversial claim, having seen the video – unpleasant as it is – I don’t think what was done in the video is, of itself, as horrendous as some claim. People are outraged beyond belief by what they saw in the clip – and it should rightly be punished and is evidently unpleasant – but I think the ongoing bullying (potentially carried out by this lad, I don’t know) is far worse than what we saw in the video.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that is the sort of incident that happens in schools up and down the country with more frequency than we would care to admit. Not only that but it is the sort of thing that might be considered, in the grand scheme of things, relatively tame. Of course, as a former teacher, if I saw that sort of thing I’d want to deal with it. It’s certainly not to be waved away. But I’ve seen – both when I was at school myself and as a teacher – children beating each other black and blue and others harming pupils with weapons. I remember seeing boys stripped of their clothes and having shoes thrown out of bus windows. These things were not one-off or highly unusual things. More than that, I believe the constant drip-drip attrition of persistent bullying is far worse than the incident seen in the short clip. That’s not to brush it aside as nothing but merely to say, as incidents go, this doesn’t rank close to the worst. Which begs a question: why has this gained such traction when far worse things happen with frequency?

My guess is that this happens to fit a particular media narrative. Amidst the chaos of Brexit (which the media has often sought to cast as loutish, unthinking racism made manifest), a white boy attacking a Syrian refugee serves the story as they would like to present it. Not long ago, we had the refugee crisis almost constantly in the news and it was presented as the callous and heartless people who wish to keep out ‘migrants’ vs the warm-hearted liberals keen to welcome refugees with love. It is, interestingly, precisely how Brexit was presented between the cold-hearted, xenophobic idiots who want out vs the warm, embracing europhiles who wished to remain. This black and white narrative makes it hard to compute that there are remainers who were happy to close the borders to ‘migrants’ and leavers who wanted to welcome the refugees.

If this story serves any useful purpose at all, I hope that it may cause us to reflect properly on the following questions:

  1. Do we really treat those seeking asylum in our country – people who have usually fled for their lives – with the dignity and respect they deserve? In my experience, the answer to that question has to be ‘no’.
  2. Do we want to live in the kind of graceless society that offers no means of restitution or atonement even for a child who made one horrible decision at one particular point in time? Just imagine if camera phones and twitter were around when we were at school and all your misdemeanours might be broadcast without possibility of forgiveness or clemency.
  3. Do we want to live in the kind of society that decides mob rule is legitimate?
  4. If we are so moved by the bullying in this video – which, of itself, is far more tame than what goes on daily in schools – what are we going to do fr the far worse bullying that happens frequently in schools to children who don’t have the good fortune for it to go viral and for hordes of strangers to offer them sympathy?

It is interesting, when we are faced with videos such as this one, how quickly we want to see justice to be done. It is similarly interesting how little we value mercy and restoration when we are not at the centre of proceedings. When we err, we are quick to call these things ‘mistakes’ and expect grace for us. When others are involved, we are quick to condemn and pronounce judgement upon their entire character.

It reminds us again of the great need to keep justice and mercy in tension. I am grateful that there is a God who demands perfect justice but who is, nonetheless, perfectly merciful. There is one who offers grace and restoration to the worst of sinners but who doesn’t overlook or ignore what is just. Sin must be punished but there is grace for repentant sinners.

Incidents like the one before us have a tendency to make us denounce this wretched, horrible child and thank someone (maybe no longer God) that we aren’t like this terrible human being. But of course, Jesus Christ – the one whom God sets as the measure against which we are all held up – may make precisely that sort of judgement about us. If Jesus’ words are true, ‘For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you’ (Mat 7:2), our reaction to this incident potentially renders to us a problem. If there is no room for grace and mercy, how will such things be measured to us?

But God, in his loving gracious kindness, set forth Jesus not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. There is, indeed, grace for repentant sinners. And we ought not to hold ourselves up as paragons of virtue, but as humble sinners who recognise they have been forgiven for no other reason than the Lord chose to save us and caused us to repent. It is only when we recognise that we are, indeed, sinners in need of forgiveness that we might experience such grace. But in Christ, there is forgiveness, there is restoration and, though we have failed and fallen, there is atonement. It is all a gift of his grace. 

I pray that this incident would not cause of to thank ourselves that we are not like this sinner, but would cause us to realise that we are measured not against a boy from Huddersfield but against the perfect Son of God. This puts us all in the same boat; we all need that same grace. Would that God will show such grace to a lad from Huddersfield, both of them, and that the rest of us might see our need for it too.