Have you heard of the Bystander Effect? This is the psychological term that is used to describe a situation when somebody is in desperate need of help, but people in a position to help – bystanders – do not intervene. Interestingly, it is alleged that the more bystanders that are witnessing a particular emergency situation, the more likely it is that NONE of them will help. What a tragedy! The most famous case of the Bystander Effect is the tragic case of the murder of Kitty Genovese, in Queens, New York, 1964. Kitty was a young woman that was stabbed, raped and ultimately murdered by a man outside of a crowded apartment building around 3 am one morning. The attack on Kitty, 28, lasted over 30 minutes, and she screamed and cried and constantly pleaded for help the whole time. Her pleas, though heard by up to 3 dozen witnesses, ultimately fell on deaf ears. Well, actually – that’s not exactly true, is it? They weren’t deaf ears…they just didn’t care enough to do anything about it.
The Kitty Genovese murder is often the defining case of Bystander Effect, but it is far from the worst, sadly. In 2008, a man named Sergio Aguiar brutally killed his two year old son as multiple witnesses – including a volunteer fire chief – stood by and did nothing. At one point Aguiar stopped the beating for a moment to go turn the hazard lights in his truck on. Still, nobody intervened to save poor young Axel Casian. WHY? Why did nobody step up and stop this unarmed father from killing his son? Ultimately, when interviewed and asked that very question, the answer was that they were afraid that Aguiar, “might have something in his pocket.” So they just stood by and watched.
Had enough? One more case of the Bystander Effect: One Sunday morning in April of 2010, again in New York City, a man named Hugo Tale-Yax heroically came to the aid of a woman who was being assaulted by a violent criminal. The criminal stabbed Tale-Yax in the midst of the rescue, and left him bleeding in the street, and the woman that was assaulted also ran away. Tale-Yax collapsed to the ground, bleeding heavily. According to security camera footage, within one minute of the attack, a person walks by Tale-Yax on the ground, but just keeps walking. Almost two dozen more people do the same, most completely ignoring him as he lay dying. One man actually pulled out his camera, but instead of calling 911 for help, that man took a picture of Tale-Yax and kept on walking. Another person actually checked on him and rolled him over, but upon seeing blood, quickly left without helping. Fire-rescue crews finally arrived at Tale-Yax’s side almost two hours later, but it was too late – he died.
Does this leave a bad taste in your mouth? It should. The Bystander Effect is one of the ultimate acts of depravity, selfishness and self-centeredness, and it happens every day in our country and around the world. Not everybody, however, gives in to Bystander Effect. Some people are heroes. Some people risk themselves on behalf of their fellow man. It is those people that I wish to single out today, and call the rest of us to emulate them. Indeed, to be a Christian is to be a rescuer – Jesus himself said so in what might be His most famous parable.
I had asthma as a kid, which meant that a small cold or virus for me could often turn into an occasion to cough for a week or so, and visit my friends in the emergency room. Unhappily, I passed that little gift onto most of our five kids, and we have sometimes had a hard time with it. Asthma is a tricky disease. Most of the time, you’d never be able to tell if somebody has asthma. They look normal and act normal. However, “asthma attacks” can come out of nowhere, and suddenly drastically decrease your ability to breathe. These attacks can be triggered by sickness, allergens, emotion, ozone, weather changes, hot air, cold air, and when people look at you funny. Asthma-related issues have landed us in the emergency room at least three dozen times over the course of our kids’ lives, but a few of those times stand out.
One morning, I was awakened to the sound of my son having an asthma attack. I got up and rushed into the living room where my wife was already giving him a breathing treatment, which was not helping. He continued to get worse and worse, so my wife looked at me and said, “He needs to go to the hospital!” We jumped in the car and headed off rapidly towards the hospital. Unfortunately, my son’s breathing got worse and worse, and he stopped being able to talk. My wife called 911, and they directed us to go to the nearest fire station. A police officer met us on the road within about three minutes and escorted us. When we arrived, even though it had only been about five minutes after we called 911, a team of firefighters were waiting in the driveway, well equipped and ready. It was honestly one of the most inspiring and beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life! My wife and I hopped out of our car, and four or five guys calmly got in and began to take care of my son. They handled it so well, and put him immediately at ease. His breathing got better, and then we went on to the hospital, where he rapidly recovered.
Years later, we had a similar instance. Another asthma attack that came on suddenly. This time we had to call 911 immediately, and within about ten minutes a group of six firefighters arrived at our house. Once again, they saved the day! They came into our house with grace and calmness, quickly assessed the situation, and reassured the child who was having an asthma attack while they administered medicine. It was a beautiful scene, and the way they handled it with humor and skill, calmed my wife and I down, and encouraged the child that has having an attack. It was amazing, comforting and so encouraging. I love firefighters, and am very grateful to God for them!
Fire-rescue people are awesome. Maybe that is why Jesus used a first century fire-rescuer/medic type person as THE paradigm – THE example to use when He taught people to love their neighbors. One day a Pharisee/Law expert challenged Jesus and asked Him what the most important commandment of the Old Testament was. Jesus, refusing to give just one answer, told Him that the TWO most important commandments were: 1. To love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength AND 2. To love your neighbor as yourself. This reply didn’t satisfy the questioner, so he, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus who exactly his neighbor was. Jesus told one of His most famous parables as an answer to that question. You remember the parable of the “Good” Samaritan, right? Here it is as a refresher:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him up, and went off, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, but when he saw the injured man he passed by on the other side. 32 So too a Levite, when he came up to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan who was traveling came to where the injured man was, and when he saw him, he felt compassion for him. 34 He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever else you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way.’ 36 Which of these three do you think became a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 The expert in religious law said, “The one who showed mercy to him.” So Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37, New English Translation NET)
What an amazing story! Notice that Jesus never called that Samaritan a title! It wasn’t until hundreds of years later that Christians dubbed him, “The Good Samaritan.” I have what might be a more apt title, however. How about, “The Samaritan Rescuer,” or simply, “The Rescuer.” Jesus uses the story of a Samaritan who rescues his ethnic enemy from certain death with medical aid and hospitality as THE example of how Christians should love their neighbor. Bystander Effect is the very OPPOSITE of the teachings of Jesus to love our neighbor. Rather, love OFTEN looks like rescue. People who love their neighbors often look like and act like Fire-rescue people. Not because they literally pull people out of burning cars (though that would definitely be loving…) but because they do that sort of thing of thing metaphorically. They don’t turn a blind eye or deaf ear away from somebody who is suffering. True followers of Jesus realize that their Master has taught them to love their neighbor with sacrificial action (and money, if needed) and that ANYBODY in need is their neighbor.
Let me say it one more time, and close out this post with a call to action: The kind of love that Jesus calls His followers to looks a lot like rescue. It often involves radically intervening in somebody’s life at the expense of your time and resources. Over and over Scripture indicates that biblical love is not merely a feeling, not merely an emotion. Consider:
1 John 3:18, “Little children, we must not love with word or speech, but with truth and action”
James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?“
Biblical love is ACTIVE love. So – what can we do with this truth? Going back to our friend, the Samaritan, I suggest three things:
- We must keep our eyes and ears open to need. Somebody you know is suffering right now. Maybe from depression. Maybe from loneliness. Maybe from heartbreak. Maybe from addiction. Maybe from lack of food/shelter/money. I guarantee you that if you prayerfully pay attention, you will see more needs around you – in your “neighbors” – than you might imagine. The key is to not turn your head and heart away, but to look and see. Don’t be a busybody – don’t be a gossip, and don’t be annoying, but do offer to help. Reach out. Look around! Listen.
- When you do find somebody in need, give yourself to them. The Samaritan Rescuer got his hands dirty with another man’s blood. He used his own transportation to carry the wounded man, and he used his own money to take care of him until recovery. This is the example that Jesus uses to call us to loving our neighbor.
- Love often involves risk, so be willing to risk yourself. The Samaritan Rescuer stopped and took care of a man who had JUST been beaten up by robbers. Who knows – they might have still been nearby?! Similarly, the type of love that Jesus calls His followers to might entail risk. It is worth risking an awkward conversation to find out if somebody needs help. It is okay to risk getting out of your comfort zone to help somebody. We humans tend to hide the things that are killing us – whether it be something physical like a drug addiction, or something more inside, like depression. It is rare that somebody will quickly divulge that they need help on the first ask. To really rescue prodigals and those that are wounded, we must persist, with all humility.
I’ll close with these last words from Jesus Himself. Not only does He call us to love like the Samaritan – He calls us to love like HIMSELF. Sacrificially.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12
*** Note: It is worth heeding John Piper’s excellent caution here on reducing love to a merely service and action: “If we reduce love to mere action, we will miss love at its source. Making love only a verb will likely make us Pharisees. Because just like you can talk loving without really loving, you can act loving without really loving. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “If I give away all I have and deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). We can look like we’re fulfilling 1 John 3:18 and still not love.” Source: Desiring God.