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Bystander - Monday Musing, January 11, 2021

Dear Church,

Bystander. If you witnessed an emergency occurring right in front of you, would you take action to help? Many of us might respond to that question, “It depends.” It might depend on the situation, whether it was safe for you to act, and even your ability to come to the aid of another. While we might like to believe that we would all come to the aid of someone in trouble, psychologists suggest that a bystander’s response depends on the number of other people present.

The term “bystander effect” refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely a person will help someone in distress. Research finds that observers are more likely to act if there are few or no other witnesses. Being part of a large crowd results in inaction of individual bystanders since it is assumed that someone else will surely take responsibility and render aid.

I have been thinking about the social psychological theory of the bystander effect (or bystander apathy) since the events at the US Capital last Wednesday. The nation watched in horror as protestors became a violent mob and attempted to illegally take control of the nation’s democratic process. The events we all witnessed on national television were an embarrassment and a scar on the foundational principles on which this nation was created. Surely, not everyone in the crowd was of the same mind. Bystanders would certainly recognize that what was occurring was wrong and render aid to those who were harmed during the riot, right?

Last Wednesday’s horror show was not unexpected. Some could easily argue that we saw this coming. Political divisions have been growing and growing deeper and deeper for over a decade. The volcano simply erupted; it was bound to happen after the match was lit in the middle of an angry crowd. We have all been bystanders to this political drama that has been unfolding in plain sight. We have grown numb to political division and simply pretend it does not really exist. Surely someone else will take responsibility for fixing it, right?

Jesus tells us that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. As followers of Christ, we are called to serve those on the margins of our society, particularly those who are vulnerable. We cannot fulfill our calling by sitting on the sidelines and being a bystander any longer. As followers of the Prince of Peace, let us no longer stand by, but rather stand with those who seek to courageously act to bring true repentance – turning to God. We can have political differences as to how our nation should be governed, but as people of faith we can no longer be bystanders; this goes against the core commandment we have been given – to love.




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