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.