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.

Lent Readings: The Kingdom of God is Like...Part I

The presence of Lent in the church calendar—40 full days of preparation for Easter—reminds us it is wise to prepare. When we ponder where we are headed and think about what is coming, we sometimes find ourselves strangely more engaged in the present as well. In the Biblical record, God uses the number 40 as a measure of time for the people (It rained on Noah for 40 days, the Israelites wondered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before publically launching His ministry). God used this time to bring God’s children closer: to increase their desperation for God, to remind them of God’s power and provision in their daily lives, to encourage and pour into them before a hard season ahead. 

     In the Catholic Church I visit every Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that Lent is experienced most fully in three ways:

1)   We sacrifice something in order to remind ourselves of thirst, of hungering after God, or to disrupt patterns that diminish our flourishing in Christ.

2)   We willfully use this experience of disruption to push us toward Christ, placing Jesus in the front of our minds, or at the top of our day.

3)   We turn our eyes from ourselves and toward others as we intentionally live more generously toward those in need during Lent.

For these 40 days, I pray you would be mindful of these 3 ideas, and maybe use them to orient yourself toward God. 

     Christ’s coming sacrifice and resurrection are our only hope for living well with ourselves and others. Allow yourself to know this during Lent. Allow yourself to recognize the abundance in your life, and to lean in to the lean placesJ. Allow yourself to think about people who live with very little, and know that they often hunger for and understand God in ways that may be hard for us to understand. Allow yourself to hear God’s words in these 40 days, to begin to understand what God cares about, and then think about how you can imitate Christ by pouring your life out for others. 

     These readings end each week with the Beatitudes.  In the last year I have come to see all the ways that I have diminished the power of God in my life because I have cared about protecting and expanding my own power and security instead of looking to God for significance and peace. In the past, I decided God’s Kingdom was made in my image, so that the hardest workers, the kindest, the most intentional people win. The Beatitudes remind us that God doesn’t value what I value. God promises to be present, generous and available to those who have no power, to those near the margins, to those who align themselves with the overlooked and against self-interest alone.  This Lenten season I am reminded that if I want to prepare myself for Christ’s coming kingdom, I would do well spend 40 days marinating in the words Jesus used to describe it.  (One other note: all of the selections are poetry.  While we love to be instructed by scripture, W. Brueggemann reminds us that the very nature of God is mysterious, wonderful, and creative.  Poetry—instead of a helpful outline—is a fabulous medium to usher us into the presence of God.) 

     When the priest at the Catholic Church places ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, he murmurs, “Turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel.” I pray that as we read these verses of God we would think about what it means to simply “Believe the Gospel” in our daily rhythm of life.                              

Find stillness, wait, and believe,


Below are reading for the first half of Lent. More to come.

Week 1

To Ponder:

“God is that way with us, He wants to hold us still with Him in silence….They cannot all be brilliant or rich of beautiful. They cannot all even dream beautiful dreams like God gives some of us. They cannot all enjoy music. Their hearts do not all burn with love. But everybody can learn to hold God…We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time.”                                                    -Brother Lawrence

“Maybe you search for understanding, but find only one thing for sure, which is that truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals. Most traditions teach that truth is in these small holy moments.”                                                                            -Anne Lamott


To Read:

Mar 6 Matthew 5:1-12

Mar 7 Proverbs 2:1-15

Mar 8 Ps 94:12-22

Mar 9 Micah 6:6-8

Mar 10 Matthew 5:1-12

  Week 2

To Ponder:

“Recovery involves quelling the riot of thoughts in the mind and thinking the overpopulation of images and feelings that accumulate with an abundance of activity. Silence and solitude are the recovery room for the soul weakened by busyness…In silence and solitude we regain our perspective, or more importantly, God’s perspective. Augustine described it as learning to “perform the rhythms of one’s life without getting entangled in them. Alone with God in prayerful quiet, the rhythms of life are untangled.”        -Howard Baker 

“Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ, but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ.”                                                   -Blaise Pascal

To Read:

Mar 11 Ps 90:12-17; 91:1-2

Mar 12 Ps 95:1-8

Mar 13 Ps 120:1-2; 121:1-4

Mar 14 Zeph 3:14-18

Mar 15 Ps 107:1-9, 19-31

Mar 16 Daniel 6:25-28

Mar 17 Matthew 5:1-12

Week 3

To Ponder:

“To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete.  The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message.  Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”                                                                                                             -Soong Chan Rah

 “This is the best way to act: talk a great deal to the Lord….Choosing Christ brings mystery, rejecting Him brings despair…I choose to look at people through God, using God as my glasses, colored with His love for them.”           -Brother Lawrence

To Read:

Mar 18 Ecclesiastes 7:5-14

Mar 19 Ps 130

Mar 20 Job 42:1-3

Mar 21 Isaiah 40:21-31

Mar 22 Ps 142

Mar 23 Hosea 5:15-6:3

Mar 24 Matthew 5:1-12