Refining Life, on Purpose

Our Duty to Rescue and Rejecting the Bystander Effect 

Though Jesus was not subject to the bystander effect when he died in our place, we are susceptible to it. Here’s why, like Christ, we have a duty to rescue.

I was introduced to the concept of the Bystander Effect while refining my understanding of seeing individuals, not crowds. I have no doubt that you have seen it in action many times over. As have I. In the simplest terms, it is an unwillingness to speak up or take action while a part of a larger group even when you know it is the correct move to make.

Some might call it a form or peer pressure. An academic might say it as “pluralistic ignorance” while talking to their like-minded associates. No doubt, it is a form of social influence, though. And, as I learned more about it, I started thinking about how Christians are often called to reject the Bystander Effect if they are to truly live out their mission and purpose.

Indulge me for a moment with a little context to frame that…

Duty to Rescue in the Last Episode of Seinfeld

A lot of people watched the last episode of Seinfeld – a reported 76 million viewers and many more have seen it in other forms since that time. In that episode, the group consisting of Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine are witnesses to the carjacking of an overweight victim. Instead of helping, they make wisecracks. They are later arrested and charged with failing to follow the so-called “good Samaritan law.”

Many witnesses detail the character behaviors of the group as they stand trial. In the sentencing, the judge says:

I do not know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built. I can think of nothing more fitting than for the four of you to spend a year removed from society so that you can contemplate the manner in which you have conducted yourselves.

Duty to Rescue and The Bystander Effect

I am not going to go into detail in this post (you can find it here though), but this depiction is based upon an actual Duty to Rescue Law. It means there are some conditions in which a bystander is obligated to help someone in danger.

This happens when a person is in the presence of others, yet is dissuaded from intervening if there is an emergency scenario. Social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, popularized it following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. She was stabbed to death while outside her apartment. Bystanders observed the crime but did not get involved, nor did they contact police.

The psychologists attributed the Bystander Effect to a perception of not having a responsibility and that onlookers are more likely to intervene when there are few or no other witnesses. They further said that individuals in a group will monitor behaviors of those around them for determining how to act.” Each onlooker also saw their neighbors’ inaction and determined that their own personal help was not needed either.

Though Jesus was not subject to the bystander effect when he died in our place, we are susceptible to it. Here’s why, like Christ, we have a duty to rescue.

Though Jesus was not subject to the Bystander Effect when he died in our place, we are susceptible to it. Like Christ, we have a duty to debunk the Bystander Effect and respond to our duty to rescue.

Christ’s Duty to Rescue

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
   We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
   the sins of us all.

Isaiah 53:6 (NLT)

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:23

Hold on a second, I am giving you a big “church word.” Are you ready for it? Okay, here goes: Atonement.

This is the central message of the Bible. It’s what made it possible for man to come back into communion with God despite our infinite mess ups (sins). It means that Jesus stood in our place and took the discipline that we deserve. It means the God sentenced his own son to death to restore our relationship with him.

Get a much more refining perspective of atonement here
– OR –
take Tim Challies’ Atonement quiz (trust me, it’s well worth it!)

Your Duty to Rescue – Rejecting the Bystander Effect

The Kitty Genovese murder that is mentioned above is one of the most famous in modern U.S. history and it helped pave the way for the 911 system. A story on the front page of the New York Times (March 27, 1964) claimed that “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” The number was later increased to 38.

This story was later debunked as sensationalism and the actual group was probably no more than a handful. The events took place both outside the apartment and moved indoors. Neighbors did in fact take action and some claimed to have called police. A neighbor came to Kitty’s aid and was with her through passing.

Does this also debunk the Bystander Effect?

I don’t think so. Too many times in my life, I have wanted to speak up or act according to my conscience, and I chickened out. Too often, I have regretted my actions – or inaction – in certain situations.

This all came to a head while studying the book of Obadiah (yeah, all 21 verses of it). We have a duty to rescue. It may not be a stereotypical heroic action and it may not require that we have empathy for the lives of others and give thoughtful consideration to how we behave in those relationships.

I stumbled upon verse 15 of Obadiah and thought immediately of the book of Matthew:

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. – Matthew 7:12 (ESV)

Perhaps the prophet tells us why we should follow that “golden rule.”

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. – Obadiah 15 (ESV)

About Chad Gramling

Chad Gramling makes his home in Indiana with his wife and three daughters. He’s the founder and primary blogger at 1Glories, a vision cast onto his heart and detailed in Listen Up Kids: Foolish Dreams, Syncing with God & Running to Win.