Recently, there was a video clip which showed some 30 passers-by rushing to lift a trailer truck to free a man who was pinned underneath. It was truly a remarkable display of public spiritedness given that these passers-by did not know each other and were unrelated to the victim. Furthermore, there were some risks involved, especially for the two individuals who went under the truck in an attempt to pull out the victim. Thankfully, there were no other mishaps and the victim, believed to be a South Korean man, escaped with a leg fracture.
In Singapore, we are more familiar with anecdotal accounts of drivers gawking at traffic accidents and passers-by being more interested with the numbers on the license plate. Thus, it is heartening to know that in this instance, those who were nearby readily offered their assistance. Indeed, in this age of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms, it is easy for anyone of us to become preoccupied with updating our personal status or posting comments about an incident instead of considering the well-being of others or rendering practical help when the need arises. To the credit of those who helped, they were not distracted by taking photos with their smartphone cameras nor did they fall prey to the “bystander effect”.
According to research, the bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. The bystander effect was a concept made popular by social psychologist Bibb Latane and John Darley following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese murder in Kew Gardens, New York. After studying the accounts of this tragic case, they learnt that Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment while bystanders who witnessed the crime did not step in to assist or call the police.
Latane and Darley explained that this phenomenon of apathy and inaction is possibly due to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group observe the behaviour of those around to determine how to act). In the case of Genovese, it appeared that each onlooker concluded from their neighbours’ inaction that their own personal help was not needed.
Unfortunately, there are occasions when we see the bystander effect taking place in churches too. For example, during events where food is served, some will continue to pile up the disposal plates even when the bin is full and assume that the next person will line the bin with a new trash bag. After service, even when we notice someone unfamiliar in our midst, we proceed to catch up with old friends, expecting others to welcome the visitors. Likewise, we acknowledge that the church can do more in the area of social concerns and serving the community but think that if we are already contributing money, others who have more time in their hands can do the legwork.
As followers of Christ, one of the ways to resist the bystander effect is to take heed of Jesus’s word, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). As people who have been bought by the blood of Christ, we should not hesitate to give of ourselves in service. In addition, even if other Christians around us are not forthcoming, we ourselves must never relegate the sharing of the Gospel or discipling someone to the “professionals”.
We need to understand that when we desire to glorify God, the Holy Spirit will guide us accordingly. In some situations, God may also rally like-minded brethren to come alongside us. Nevertheless, we do not always need to wait until there is a critical mass or depend on others before offering our help. Imagine what could have happened if in the aforementioned accident, every passer-by was waiting for someone else to be the first to help lift the truck.
Judging from how 30 ordinary folks can lift a truck to save a life, surely as God’s people stay united in doing God’s work, God will graciously enable us to accomplish much more. The stakes are far too great for us to just remain as passive by-standers. Instead we should be equipping ourselves and getting ready to respond in obedience to God. And if Jesus has promised that He will build the church and the gates of hades will not overcome it (Matt 15:18), we know that our labour of faith and love is never in vain. There will be far greater rejoicing on that day as souls are being saved and burdens being lifted up. All because Christ is strong enough to crush Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20).
Rev Edwin Wong
August 2, 2015