It started with 25 cents.
I sat at my desk in the first week of second grade at a new school. I was 6 years old and surrounded by 7- and 8 year-olds because my birthday just made the cut-off date for that grade.
I sat at my desk, listening to Miss Williams, whose voice sounds more like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world to my memory. Whah whah whah whah. Whah whah whah. Etc.
Suddenly, I was punched in the back. It was Alice, a heavy-set girl with disheveled clothing and two plats protruding asymmetrically from her head.
Alice said she just punched me for fun, at first. That first day the punches came at random times with no provocation, infrequently at first, and then it escalated. Within days the punches came every time Miss Williams turned her back to the class, which was often.
Alice had two goons, too. At least that’s how I remember them. I don’t remember their names all. All I remember is the fact that they were short. They were ugly. And they sat or stood by Alice’s side whereever she went like two bulldogs ready to pounce if their queen commanded.
One random morning Alice punched me hard in the back and I cried. I didn’t know how to stop it. I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing I could say that could stop it. I felt helpless. I told Miss Williams. She did nothing. I looked to the one or two friends I had made by jumping double-dutch and playing hopscotch on the playground. They did nothing. No one could challenge Alice and her goons.
Then Alice leaned in and her bulldogs showed their teeth and she offered me a way out. All it would take to stop the torture was 25 cents a day — just a quarter a day.
“Give me a quarter a day and I’ll be your friend,” she said.
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, and her goons smirked.
So, all it would take is 25 cents a day for the monster’s craving to be satisfied. I could do that.
The next day I begged my mom for a quarter. I don’t remember what I told her I needed it for, but she gave it to me. Even now when I think of the moment that first quarter touched the palm of my hand, I remember the relief. I also feel the value drain from my soul. As I handed my first quarter to Alice and prayed that she would become my friend, I learned something about myself and about life — something it took another 30 years to unlearn. My second-grade soul learned that I am not intrinsically lovable. Love and safety are transactional.
Twenty-five cents was all it took. It was like magic. The punches stopped and for the first time in a long time I felt what it feels like to be normal — to be safe, to be lovable, to live without a target on my back.
But even the transaction was not a guarantee of love.
Though I continued to bring quarters that fed the monster’s craving every day, after a while even their magic stopped working.
The torture started again on the playground after school.
I walked across the schoolyard and headed home, which was only a half-block away from the school. Suddenly I was surrounded by Alice and her goons. She taunted me and pushed me, then punched me. It didn’t stop. It became a ritual.
Soon, every day, armed with only my book bag, I would duck my head and make a beeline for my house and Miss Burton (the babysitter). And every day Alice and her bulldogs would hunt me down and taunt me and push me and punch me as I walked the looooong half-block home.
Mom asked one day what I was doing with all those quarters. When I told her, she marched up to the school and had it out with Miss Williams and then my principal. I was only in that school for one year.
Alice wasn’t the last bully I had to survive. There were others. There was Tracy in the fifth grade and two white girls whose names I’ve blocked out in eighth grade. For a long time I thought I must have an invisible target attached to my back.
It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand the mark Alice and other bullies had made on my soul.
I was doing one of those fill-in-the-blank devotionals during a quiet time with Jesus. The devotional writer asked the reader to reflect on Psalm 100:3: “Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
The writer asked something like: “How does it feel to know that you are a sheep in God’s pasture?” There was a blank space for the reader to write in their feelings after reflecting on being a sheep in God’s pasture. The writer was trying to draw out how safe and loved we are under God’s care. But that’s not how I felt.
I wrote in the blank: “Fear.”
Was I afraid of God? No. I was afraid of the other sheep. That revelation was the beginning point of my healing. It was a long process that culminated in my 30s when I was in Croatia; taking part in peacemaking training in the face of violence and oppression.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
I had always seen this as an invitation to be beat up some more. But in Croatia I learned that to turn the other cheek is not to passively wilt in weakness. On the contrary, to turn the other cheek is assert one’s intrinsic human dignity — to look the aggressor in the eye and to declare from deep inside, “The only reason you are able to strike me right now is because I give you permission, but know this: I can take that permission away.”
Jesus did this when he went to the cross, an instrument of terror. Though he could have called down 10,000 angels to blast the Roman Empire, the Sanhedrin, and the crowd to hell, Jesus turned his cheek. He did not resist evildoers. And the result of his nonviolent response was that the wretchedness—the sin—of his aggressors was made obvious to the world, and even to the very ones who nailed him to the cross. “Truly this man was God’s son!” said the centurion (Matthew 27:54).
If I could go back in time and speak to that 6-year-old little girl, here is what I would say:
“Lisa, you do not have to pay for love or safety. You are made in the image of God. You are intrinsically worthy of love and friendship, and you are as worthy of protection as any other child in the school yard. Sometimes, though, you will have to face down bulldogs yourself and when you do you will have to stand rooted in the knowledge of your inherent dignity. Know that in the face of terror, the most powerful action you can take is to offer your other cheek. ”
This spirit day I stand in solidarity with all the 6-year-old, 12-year-old, 20-year-old, 40-year-old, and 80-year-old gay and straight women and men who face down bulldogs every day. May our feet remain planted in the truth: We are all made in the image of God. We are all worthy of love.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat