Several years ago there was an incident in which a young woman on a New York street was attacked, beaten, and eventually killed by a young man while over 100 people stood around and watched. No one came to the young woman’s aid, and there have been similar incidents in other places in the United States. Psychologists have labeled this the “bystander effect.” There have been numerous studies done to answer the question of why this happens. Our culture seems to fear involvement, and the “lawyer effect” where people are afraid they will get sued or hurt is only part of the issue. Thanks to cell phones we now can assume that everyone can call for whatever help they need, and our view of others is becoming an isolationist view.
If your religious view is “survival of the fittest,” then anyone who needs help is simply not fit and endangering your fitness by helping them is not going to happen. When I was an atheist, I would be likely to stop and help a woman who was having car trouble, but my motives were less than altruistic. I would be very unlikely to help a man in the same situation. Not all atheists are so selfishly guided, but the logic of atheistic beliefs would deny endangering oneself to benefit another. Some religions would push a person to help others of the same faith, but people of a different faith are considered to be enemies and would not be helped. The “golden rule” is recognized by almost everyone as a nice philosophy, but the bystander effect seems to be more widely practiced in today’s world.
In Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, the bystanders were the people most qualified to give aid. The twist is that the outcast Samaritan, rejected by the people to whom Jesus was speaking, refused to be a bystander and give aid to the wounded man. The first century Church stood out in the society in which it functioned by responding to the needs of everyone in Jerusalem (Acts 3-5). Throughout the New Testament, we see the emphasis on doing good to everyone.
How do we as individuals take the “bystander effect” out of our thinking? I would suggest that we need to spend some time looking at what Jesus taught, and how the early Church responded to the culture of the day. When you read James 5, you get the picture of Christians not only addressing the physical needs of those around them but also being a part of the emotional and spiritual struggles of daily living as well. The entire “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) moves us to think differently by allowing God’s Word to permeate our hearts. Second Timothy 3:15-17 tells us that Scripture has value in molding and shaping our attitudes and thoughts. We can be the light of the world that Jesus talks about. The people of Jesus’ day were astonished at his doctrine. Our world today will also be astonished when Christians live as God calls us to live. The deeper our world sinks into secularism and selfish bystander non-involvement, the brighter the Christian light will become.
–John N. Clayton © 2017