The Bystander Effect

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

—Luke 10:36-37 

After WWII, Nazi officers were rounded up and taken to Nuremberg to be tried for their violent crimes against humanity. Some historians argue that the German residents living in proximity to the Nazi death camps should have been put on trial as well. How could ordinary citizens pretend they did not know what was going on behind the barbed wire fences in their backyards?

This is called the bystander effect. It’s a social psychological phenomenon that occurs when the presence of a large number of bystanders discourages an individual from taking action in emergency or extreme conditions.

Diffusion of responsibility allows us to drive past a homeless person, skip the missionary presentation and keep our wallets zipped tight in times of natural disaster. We soothe our conscience and justify our apathy by saying, “Someone else will do the hard things.”

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told the story of two religious men who chose to hide behind the skirts of the group. Both saw an injured man, who’d been beaten and left for dead. Neither stopped. They were busy, after all. Surely someone else would care for the man.

And then Jesus told of another man, who dared to break from tradition and offer aid. The man had compassion and helped when no one else would. And Jesus said we should be like that man.

Showing mercy is different than preaching mercy. And much harder. It takes courage to step into trouble. It takes our time to offer aid. It will deplete our finances to invest in a good cause. So why should we do it?

Once upon a time, we were the ones lying by the side of the road. Discouraged, beaten and broken. Jesus boldly left the security of heaven, stepped into our mess and offered His time, His love and His life to save ours. As redeemed believers intent on becoming more like Christ, we’ve been called to jump in, even when no one else will. 

Today’s One Thing

Find a way to give aid to someone in need. Maybe your church has a social outreach program that you could join. Perhaps you could volunteer to be a mentor at a local school. Or take a moment to talk with the homeless man on the corner and provide him with a warm meal. Dare to stop and render aid. You will be the one blessed.

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