The “bystander effect,” or “bystander apathy,” is a social psychology term that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. In other words, in experiment after experiment over the past fifty years social psychologists have found that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. For example, researchers Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment in 1969 around a woman in distress. Seventy-percent of the people who were alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt, but when there were other people in the room only forty-percent offered help.
It’s far too easy to stand with our hands our pockets when there are other people around to serve and to do what is just. “When the LORD noticed that justice had disappeared, he became very displeased. It disgusted him even more to learn that no one would do a thing about it.” Our rationalizations for not becoming involved are legion: “Someone else better qualified than me will do it.” “But what if I screw up?” And the ever-present “I’m just too busy” are all ways to justify ourselves into not doing the work of justice in the world.
If we are apathetic to the needs of others less privileged than ourselves, then we must come back to the Old Testament prophets and give them a very serious hearing. The prophet Isaiah lets us know that none of us are anonymous; we have all been given gifts as the people of God in order to serve the greater good. The Lord dispenses his grace and glory primarily through active people who eschew being bystanders in the world. God inevitably gets noticed in the public square when his people are attentive to his justice.
Just God, you care about the people of this world receiving the things they need to live and flourish well in life. Inspire and empower all of your people, including me, to spread a spirit of service in our local communities and churches, through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.