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Ethics and Religion Talk: Can a $135 Pair of Sneakers End Bullying?

I was disturbed by a report about a teen buying a friend a pair of $135 sneakers because he was bullied for wearing old, dirty, shoes. It's lovely that he wanted to address his friend's bullying problem. But is buying him a $135 pair of shoes a bandaid or a solution?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

Bullying is a serious issue, although I posit it is not new. I grew up being bullied by my peers for different reasons. Kids are always harsh on one another. The foundation of this article is a bullied child, and the message is powerful. Respect for a fellow human being is profound

I was not disturbed by the article in the least. I found the story to be a compelling witness to the generosity extended by one child to another. What is notable is that the two became and remain good friends.

I have learned over the years that generosity begets generosity. How wonderful it is when one person recognizes the need of another and then gives freely. I am reminded of the scripture story of the woman who lost a copper coin, cleans her house thoroughly to find it, and then celebrates with her neighbors when what was lost is found. Likewise, the prodigal son is a story of how parental love never wavers. The witness to God’s goodness, intended or not, is present in the lives of these two young boys.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

I find this question puzzling; we are not being asked about the bully but rather to pass judgment on the “good Samaritan” of the story. I would not take my energy to find fault with a helpful friend but rather focus on why bullying and shaming is happening. I agree the price of the sneakers seems expensive, but in this case, it is the thought that counts. The friend is trying to be helpful to the person being bullied.  

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I read the same article and felt the exact same way. I am stunned that bullying is tolerated to any extent in schools. They should have procedures in place to curb such activity. Aside from any disciplinary action directed toward the bully, one would hope that the student would be educated as to the reasons why bullying is harmful. Of course, knowing who we are as a people, I’d be afraid that we’d probably go overboard to the extent where a harmless practical joke could get a kid suspended.  We would need to balance our desire our desire to offer students a safe place for learning, while still knowing that kids will be kids. 

And while I strongly condemn anti-social behavior such as this, we know that a certain amount of teasing has allowed some students to develop advanced skills in dealing with difficult people. 

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

To the rescue! A well meaning person of privilege tries to solve a systemic problem with a gift of one pair of sneakers.  I suspect the recipient was, on one level, grateful. On the other hand, such gifts only deepen the rift between givers and receivers. I wonder how the recipient’s parents feel about this? How will the gesture impact the child’s relationship with the parent? With siblings? With other children with dirty/worn shoes? The implications of what seems a simple gift are complex. 

In buying the shoes the donor gives a bandaid and sometimes bandaid is just what is needed— temporarily. A solution requires a wholistic approach and is far more costly that a $135 pair of shoes.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Like you I commend the concern and sacrifice of the one who bought the shoes for his friend, but still have to question the long term effectiveness of this act as a solution to a much bigger and more persistent problem. In my high school days, great store was set by the brand and style of every article of clothing one wore to school. The uniform decreed by the peer group nabobs was the “preppie look” of the day:  Oxford cloth shirts, vee-necked sweaters, tight white Levis, navy crew socks and Bass Weejun shoes. Departures from this unofficial dress code were duly noted, discussed, and punished.

Had these two teens come to me, I would have tried to show them how bullies operate, by preying on any perceived weakness or difference. In this case, the age and condition of the shoes was the starting point, but once that problem is addressed, the bully will simply search for another pretext. “Any stick will do to beat a dog.” My Christian faith was a great help to me in high school and college because it gave me a sense of personal identity and purpose as a child of God, whose chief end is to glorify God and follow Jesus Christ. Our example in this case is King David, who in a time of great national distress, “encouraged himself in the LORD his God” (I Samuel 30:6). Thus rooted and grounded by his faith, David could say, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of who shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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