on bystanders and standing by

Running through a city this weekend, I found myself along a stretch of deserted waterfront. Scanning the environment, I spotted a man walking toward me. Being a female in a country where sexual assault occurs frequently can lead one to occupy a state of hyper-vigilance. Whenever I am alone, I am aware that I could be assaulted at any moment (from anecdotal conversations, I know I am not alone in this). We live in a culture in which one never knows if the man walking toward you has been taught to respect the dignity of a woman’s personhood, or to take what he wants from her.

 Running along this unfamiliar trail, I was flooded with regretful thoughts of my own foolishness: Why was I so confident that I could run through a city, anonymous, with no record of my departure or path? Why did I continue to push the bounds of independence when I could just be safe instead?

Then I saw a couple in the distance, and immediately felt safe again. These bystanders restored my peace.

 Should they have? Everything in me wanted to trust that a person—even a stranger—would intervene for my well-being. Suddenly, in spite of myself, I wondered why I trusted this to be true.

 Dr. King claimed we live in a network of mutuality, that we are all tied to one another in one garment. Jesus agreed, hitching the flourishing of his kingdom to the ability of his followers to love others well. Adherents surely claim that Gandhi embodied the best of Hinduism when he continually linked the needs of others to his own sacrificial courage. Even here in America, we claim to believe we are all created equal, that every American deserves a chance at happiness, life and liberty.

 Indeed, our public consciousness is held up by a commitment to one another, to neighboring and to the shared responsibility all communities demand. Despite the ideal that basic decency requires bystanders to not stand by when an other is harmed, we seem to have a rather large hole in the garment holding us all together. Do we still believe in noble bystanders, or have they gone the way of knights and town criers?

Well-known research has shown us that people are not always trustworthy in their efforts at intervention. When Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964, many bystanders witnessed some part of the gruesome act, and yet no one called the police or attempted to stop the crime in progress. Resulting experiments confirmed what is known as the Bystander Effect: The Inaction of onlookers due to the diffusion of responsibility. In short, the more people notice a bad act, the more paralysis—or the less responsibility—they feel to intervene. When we notice others noticing—and ignoring—injustice or a crime, we are disincentivized from speaking up ourselves.

In our American moment, active bystanders are hard to come by. There are many reasons for inaction, and I am sympathetic to nearly all of them. We are busy, and intervening takes time. Helping others is messy. We have a limited number of resources and spending them on a stranger might reduce what we can offer those to whom we are already committed. Furthermore, speaking into a situation can invite trouble or even seem presumptuous: What if they don’t want my help!? What if I do it wrong?

These are understandable considerations; however, the psychological math of is perhaps even more toxic.  The prevailing attitude goes something like, “not my people, not my problem.” Rather that everyone we pass on the street is a human, and therefore worthy of help or protection if they are in trouble, we seem to first consider if a potential victim is worth our time. Most of us want to be people who intervene to stop a bad actor, but many of us stay silent as our neighbors are displaced, or as children in public schools continue to fall below grade level, or as life is ignored from womb to old age, or as rape kits go unprocessed, or as people of color are consistently treated suspiciously, or as public housing funding is stripped, or as folks with pre-existing conditions are threatened with being uninsurable, or as people who make minimum wage cannot feed their children.

Something in us wakes when we see vulnerable others ignored or abused, and yet most of us remain silent.

What happens in the space of that comma that transforms us from engaged bystanders to passive supporters of an unjust status quo? How does the gap between who we want to be and who we prove to be grow so large? Whatever occurs in the space of that comma unravels the fabric of our society. If that comma, that pause, gave us space to find courage, more of us would live in community rather than dying alone. More of us would find hope instead of despair. More of us would experience shalom.

 We are all bystanders to acts of violence and disdain when we live in a society that refuses to care for the people who comprise it. We need not be shocked by this admission, for in many ways, this is who we are as a nation. Historically, before we decided to intervene, we decided if you were worth it. After all, bystanders looked away as native lands were stolen. Bystanders did not come running as bodies were bought and sold, forced to build wealth for others. As Jemar Tisby forcefully argues in his book, The Color of Compromise, a few Christians denounced slavery and the lynchings that followed for a century, but the vast majority remained silent, avoiding any stance that would prevent the practice from progressing.

Running along the waterfront that day, I was indeed relieved to realize there were bystanders nearby. As I put distance between my own body and the male body nearby, I realized I could only rely on my own speed to keep me safe. Bystanders, all too often, simply stand by, refusing to speak up for others around them. Each of us is a witness to those around us. Will we reweave the garment King hoped we all share, or will we continue to use blinders, only getting involved when we decide the person at risk is valuable to us? Pay attention to your surroundings, and you might just see that you develop the compassion, patience and will to stop standing by, and instead intervene to protect the strangers around you.

the disapproval of Dr. King

I read today that in 1966, a Gallup Poll measured Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorability at 33%, while 63% of those polled disapproved of him.   This was over 10 years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched King to prominence and focused the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement.  This was 3 years after King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall, unifying the call for freedom and the need for jobs with his singular voice.  This was 1 year after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, a march that was attempted 3 times, where white and black civilians linked arms, allowing their conviction and hope to propel them to walk across a bridge and a state, some sacrificing their wellbeing or very lives as civilians and policeman brutally, openly, attacked them.  The violence broadcast in the month of the march woke the conscience of a nation, encouraging the Congress of the United States to support the Voting Rights Bill.  Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Compassion is the radical form of criticism, for it announces that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.
— Walter Brueggemann

Dr. King and the SCLC forced the country to observe their status quo.  Their bravery was remarkable, but it was effective because it created a setting in which African Americans and their white allies were vilified and attacked for doing every day life: for sitting on a bus on the way to work, for walking across a bridge, or for ordering coffee at a lunch counter.  These acts of resistance were brilliant because they were mundane.  Everyone knows what it is like to order a drink expecting to receive one.  Although not many white folks knew what it was like to be black, they could certainly understand what it meant to be refused service just for existing.  To be beaten just for walking in your Sunday best. 

Dr. King was the face of a movement that not only lifted up the spirits of his fellow African American brothers and sisters; he also required the gaze of a country to confront the indignities they suffered by observing the sacrifices they made.

Dr. King and the SCLC reminded the country of visceral, instinctive compassion.  The images captured and scenes witnessed were so uncivil that they “announced that hurt is to be taken seriously, that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  Those living in the white majority would most likely have argued that society could not be characterized as full of hate; rather, they were full of civility and kindness and would remain so as long as African Americans stayed in their lane.  This type of delusional break from reality is only possible when compassion and empathy are dead.  This is how the antebellum South could be remembered as a place known for genteel manners, kind hospitality and gorgeous vistas in settings in which bodies were chained, whipped and forced to work in the glare of said gorgeous vista.  We cannot hold onto both ideas at once, so we ignore the ugly and mythologize the good.  Dr. King was both wildly unpopular and most effective because he exposed the average citizen to the flaws in their own mythologies.  Truth tellers are often avoided (Cassandra, anyone?), and Dr. King kept showing the country the truth of the everyday, mundane trauma African Americans experienced, dispelling the delusions that America was a land of respected and kind free people who rewarded hard work.

In 1966, the actions of Dr. King disrupted the status quo in violent ways.  The actions of those in the movement forced people to realize there is a vast difference in order and in peace.  Those “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”…people “who prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” would not and could not find Dr. King ‘favorable’ (King).  Dr. King’s actions boldly broke the beloved mythology of ‘separate but equal’, a centuries-long commitment of society to silence dissent to such a degree that, according to King, “we have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated.”  The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society destroys the inner lives of African Americans.  They explained that waiting “for more than 340 years for [their] God-given and constitutional rights” leads a person to be “plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’” (King), your own humanity cries out to simply do mundane tasks—like taking a bus, taking a walk, or taking a sip of coffee at a counter—with dignity.  Dr. King’s actions made him unpopular in the moment because he demonstrated the injustice and unsustainability of the status quo so cherished by white people with power.  His actions, and the violent reactions to them captured on film, forced society to engage compassion as they realized everyday, mundane hurt is “an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness” (Brueggemann).  63% of Americans didn’t favor him because his actions destroyed their delusions.

The demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement proclaimed that the status quo of society-protected and nourished by powerful white people-destroys the inner lives of African Americans. 

Dr. King’s words also made him unfavorable with a very powerful group of people in the South: White Christians and their churches.  Dr. King, always willing to collaborate with those who followed Christ in the work of doing justice and making things right for their neighbors, forcefully outed those in the church who chose power over sacrifice, acting as the “arch supporter of the status quo” (King).  Indeed, his words claimed that—especially for Christians—the measure of peace cannot be the absence of trouble, but must instead be the flourishing of all people in great and mundane tasks.  He wrote, “somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied to a single garment of destiny….I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”  For a Church committed to theologies of victory and favor, committed to a status quo maintains power for their glory, such words of interdependence wound deeply, demonstrating why he was unpopular.

In our decade, Gallup found that Dr. King has a 94% favorability rating: He is celebrated, loved and quoted by many.  Next week I will explore the roots of this ‘favorability’, and discuss what honoring his legacy must mean for us. For now, let’s allow the words and actions of Dr. King to expose our delusions about our status quo.  Are we facing the mundane trauma of the marginalized or do we discredit and ignore their hurt?  Do our words and actions honor or destroy his legacy?