Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Bystander Effect (Dialogue Column 11-3-09)

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter.

If you missed worship on Sunday morning (or if you were there and not paying attention), you missed my sermon on Mark 12:28-34, where Jesus speaks about the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In my sermon, I shared that these commands do not leave room for Christians to remain passive bystanders in their world, their communities, their churches or their relationships. I chose the term “bystander,” because of some reading I’ve done recently about why it is that when an act of violence is witnessed by a crowd of people none of the bystanders try to stop it. I think there is an analogy here to the spirituality of many Christians who fail to take the two great commandments seriously.

The phenomenon of bystanders failing to help someone in need is called the “bystander effect.” Social psychologists replicated this effect in laboratory experiments following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. She was murdered outside her apartment in Queens, NY and although numerous neighbors heard her cries for help, none made any effort to help her. Similar cases appear in the news on a regular basis, perhaps most recently in the case of a 15 year-old who was raped outside a school dance in California a few weeks ago. Numerous people observed the attack over a two hour period, but no one tried to stop it.

Psychologists believe there is a reason for this lack of response. In controlled experiments, it has been repeatedly documented that if there are two people in a room and one of them has a medical emergency, then the other person most likely will offer assistance. For each additional witness to the crisis, however, the likelihood of someone offering help drops by a substantial percentage. In other words, the more people there are the less likely it is that anyone will help.
The psychologists who study the “bystander effect” argue that the reason people are less likely to help another—even in a relatively small group—is because of something called “diffusion of responsibility.” Each individual believes they have less responsibility in a situation, because there are other people around. This response can take the form of callousness at one extreme (“It’s not my job.”) or confusion at the other (“No one else seemed concerned, so I did not want to come across as overreacting to the situation.”).

The “bystander effect” seems like particularly bad news for churches. As Christians, we are called to be in community with one another, but the more of us there are the less likely any of us is to take responsibility for helping others. That’s too bad, because Jesus’ commands to love God and love others as we love ourselves run in direct opposition to our tendency to be passive bystanders of the world around us. Hopefully, few of us will be witnesses to a violent crime, but all of us are witnesses to various kinds of crises in our communities.

In every church I have worked at or belonged to, I have seen this phenomenon at work. Most Christians I have known are basically good people who do care about others, but they tend to do little about those needs. This lack of action is not due to a lack of compassion, I believe, but a lack of any clear understanding that it is their responsibility as a Christian to do something. The reality is that a few people in each church who seem to have hardwired personalities of the “Do-er” sort end up carrying much more than their fair share of the load. Usually, these “do-ers” accomplish a lot of good on their way to being burnt out church members. The rest of the members sit back and let it happen, not because they do not care, but because they do not realize there is something deeply wrong with their self-understanding as a committed member of the church. According to Jesus, Christians are not supposed to be passive bystanders.

Of course, churches like all organizations need leaders and lines of responsibility, but both those in and outside of leadership are required to be actively engaged in the life of the church. There is no room for complaining about how things should be only for action to make things as they ought to be. The good news is that the “bystander effect” can be overcome, but it takes a deliberate effort by each person to do more than stand by as the needs of our community confront us.

Grace and Peace,


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