NOT SO INNOCENT BYSTANDERS

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. [Matthew 7:12 (MSG)]

giraffes Back in 1964, it was the slaying of Kitty Genovese in New York City. For thirty-five minutes, at least 38 people watched a killer stalk and murder her. Twice the attacker was frightened off by lights or voices but, when the police didn’t arrive and no one came to the woman’s aid, her assailant returned to continue his vicious attack. Apparently, the only call to the police was made after the woman was dead.

The Genovese story made headlines across the nation in 1964 and I had no trouble remembering her story and name today. Nowadays, however, stories like hers don’t seem to give us pause. In February of this year, a Chicago man was sucker-punched, knocked unconscious, and landed in the street. Surveillance footage shows that more than a dozen bystanders failed to come to his aid in the nearly two minutes before a cab accidentally hit him. No one tried to pull him out of the street or even to stop traffic. In fact, within seconds of his being punched, while others watched, two men ran up and rifled his pockets, taking his wallet and cell phone. The young man died from his injuries a few hours later. Last April, a girl was attacked by a man and woman on a Chicago commuter train. As she screamed for help, fellow passengers on the train did nothing to help—they simply watched as the nineteen-year old was brutally beaten. Even more shocking is that, after the attack, rather than calling the police or coming to her aid, the witnesses left the train car. More than fifty years have passed and people still won’t get involved. Worse, in this era when onlookers post videos of muggings, schoolyard attacks and rapes, stories like these no longer seem to shock us.

As Christians, we know that we should treat others as we want to be treated. We’re sure that we would never be the kind of bystander who ignores a cry for help and picture ourselves as being the Good Samaritan. In reality, most of us would probably be more like the priest or Levite and avert our eyes or go the opposite way. This attitude of indifference is so prevalent that psychologists have a name for it: Bystander Apathy. Apparently, the greater the number of witnesses, the less likely we are to help. First, we look to others for clues—if they don’t appear to think help is necessary, neither do we. Second, with more bystanders, each person feels less individual responsibility. Surely, someone else has called for help we think as we walk away. Studies have shown that when others are present, people will help only 20% of the time but, when there is only one bystander, the likelihood of offering help raises to 80%. 80%, however, is not good enough.

As you might have guessed, the text for a recent sermon was the parable of the Good Samaritan. An interesting question was asked: who do you think represents Jesus in the story? The obvious answer is the Samaritan because he had mercy, showed love, paid the man’s debt and promised to return. It was suggested that we also consider the victim as a Jesus figure. He was beaten, stripped, and left to die, as was our Lord. He was ignored by the pious Jews, as was Jesus. He was accepted by the outcast Gentile, as was Jesus. I couldn’t help but think of our Lord’s warning that when we ignore the needs of others, we’ve ignored Him. While we may be willing to pay no attention to the screams of a woman in an alley, an unconscious man in the street, or a girl’s plea for help, are we willing to ignore the cries of our Lord?

Father, forgive us for being indifferent and unresponsive to our brothers and sisters. Instead of looking to others to know how to react, remind us to look to you. Don’t let us turn our backs to those in need; give us courage enough to become involved.

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” … He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.” [Matthew 25:37-40,45 (MSG)]

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