“Go and do likewise”: The command that counters the bystander effect
Rev Dr William Wan // July 28, 2019, 9:10 pm
Photo by Peter Hershey on Unsplash.
“Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act.” (Proverbs 3:27)
The heart-wrenching story of the two-year-old, Wang Yue, who died in a Guangzhou hospital on Oct 21, 2011, prompted much bitter soul-searching in China.
The toddler had wandered onto the street at a market in Foshan, Guangdong, on October 13, 2011. She was knocked down by a van, whose driver paused and proceeded to run over her the second time. The hit-and-run incident took place at about 5pm and was captured by a close-circuit television camera.
It went viral around the world within minutes.
What the world saw was shocking: Three people walked past her without lifting a finger to help as she lay there on the road in a pool of blood. Two of them noticing her plight deliberately looked away. Soon after, a truck drove over her once again!
All told, 18 people walked or cycled by her before an old lady who was a scrap collector scooped her up and desperately cried for help.
Each of the 18 people who walked away and did nothing for the poor, dying girl, had an excuse.
Little Wang Yue struggled for her life in the hospital for just over a week before she died of brain failure. Some netizens proposed to name October 21 “Little Yue Yue Day” as a memorial to her so that China will not forget the shame of the tragedy where morality was cast to the winds.
Wang Yang, a high-ranking officer of the Chinese Communist Party, was reported in Xinhua News as saying: “We should look into the ugliness in ourselves with a dagger of conscience and bite the soul-searching bullet.”
Tracked down and interviewed by the domestic media, each of the 18 who walked away and did nothing for the poor, dying girl, had an excuse. Some claimed not to have seen her, though the camera revealed otherwise. Some were too frightened while others just did not want to get involved.
A modern replay of a parable
Psychologist Wendy Walsh, commenting on CNN, said: “This is the sort of classic bystander effect, where people have diffusion of responsibility.”
The tragic incident reminds me of the good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37.
Mercy is not about handing out just desserts; it is about grace. That is the crux of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus told the story of the unknown man (we assume him to be a Jew) who was attacked by robbers on a highway and left to die. A priest and a Levite, both righteous people who should have known better, passed him by without lifting a finger to help. No doubt, if asked, they too would have had lots of excuses to offer.
But a Samaritan, who was despised by the Jews, stopped to help because “he took pity on him” (Luke 10:33). He gave him first aid, took him to an inn, and left enough money for the innkeeper to take care of him. He even told the innkeeper that if that was not enough, he would reimburse him when he returned.
The Lord Jesus then asked his listeners which one was acting as a neighbour to the victim. They said it was the one who had mercy on him. Jesus then told them to “go and do likewise”.
I wonder what we would have done if we were among those who saw Wang Yue on that fateful day. Would we have stopped to help?
Proverbs exhorts us not to withhold good from those who deserve it when we have the power to act (Proverbs 3:27).
The result of our neglect may not cause physical deaths, but the consequences of our indifference are no less serious.
In the case of the Good Samaritan, the Lord went further than that. From the Samaritan’s perspective, the fallen Jew could not have deserved any favour since Jews despised Samaritans in every way.
But mercy is not about handing out just desserts; it is about grace. It is about going out of the way to help anyone in need. That is the crux of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Returning to the “bystander effect” of Wendy Walsh, I am wondering if we in the church often suffer from this effect. Often, people are “run over” by uncaring leadership or indifferent attitudes in church, so to speak, and we know that it is just not right for such a thing to happen.
But we remain “bystanders” because we claim that we did not see, or we are too frightened, or we just do not want to get involved. Maybe the problem is we do not care enough? If we do, and we are obedient to the Lord, we cannot hide behind such excuses.
Though the result of our neglect may not cause physical deaths, the consequences of our indifference are no less serious.
This was first published in the book More Pastoral Reflections by William Wan and is republished with permission.
Reflection and Discussion
- What effect do you think indifference has on the Christian?
- “Mercy is not about handing out just desserts; it is about grace.” Is the opposite of mercy injustice? Or indifference?
- Spend some time reading and reflecting on Luke 10:25-37. Do you recall a recent incident where you might have been the kind of passerby in the parable – whether the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan? How would you do anything differently if the same scenario presented itself today?