Despite being one of the smallest answers or action we can give others, agreeing to engage with people is often costly, so how many of us say, “Yes”?
In Foshan, China, two-year-old Wang Yue wandered into an alley-market behind her family’s house while her parents were working. She toddled forward, looking around curiously.
She’d stood in the alley for a minute or less when a delivery van sped down the alley and ran the toddler over. A pedestrian slowed at the sight of the child laying on the street with her arms and legs twitching. He stepped around her. A scooter rider swerved to avoid hitting her feet, then another pedestrian walked past without glancing down.
A truck rumbled down the alley. Yue began to wave her arms, perhaps too badly injured to cry. The truck didn’t even pause as it rolled over her.
A motorcyclist swerved at the sight of the small form on the ground. He stopped, stared at the child for a few seconds, then revved the engine and took off. A rickshaw driver, another pedestrian, a bicyclist passed. Some looked. Others didn’t bother. Footage from a nearby security camera confirmed that 18 people passed Yue without stopping as the toddler gasped and lay in her own blood.
Another person approached, an elderly street-sweeper. She stopped at the sight of the child. Her face stoically drawn, she laid down a bag of scavenged trash then walked over and knelt beside Yue.
First, she tried to lift the baby girl but hesitated when she felt shattered bones shift inside the small body. Grabbing Yue’s pink shirt, she gingerly dragged the toddler out of the street, then she went to find help.
The Terrible Bystander Effect
As the security footage of Yue’s terrible situation went viral, social media personalities and news outlets roundly condemned the people who had walked past Yue. Others mourned the loss of “basic human decency” and blasted onlookers for “China’s declining morality.”
In truth, the people walking past the gravely wounded toddler were doing nothing particularly unusual.
Chen Xianmei, the street sweeper who went to the aid of the dying child, was the real anomaly. Her compassion was wildly out of place in a world where few people want to risk their own comfort, time or safety helping a person in need.
Two social psychologists in the 1960s named this propensity the bystander effect, “the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in need.” Namely, people shied away from responsibility, either excusing themselves or saying, “Someone else will do something.”
The event that spurred their research was the murder of Kitty Genovese. She was assaulted, while neighbors ignored her cries. Two people called the police after Kitty had been stabbed multiple times. Only one person emerged from their apartment, an elderly woman who knelt on the pavement and cradled the dying young woman in her arms until the police arrived.
We would all like to think of ourselves as the one hero who would step forward to help a person in need, do the right thing, be the glowing exception.
Perhaps this is why Jesus deliberately mentioned two religious people ignoring a person in need when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The man who finally stopped was said to be despised, a hint at why he might have had such compassion on the person left to die on the roadside.
The parable is a sobering story, much like Yue’s and Kitty’s.
A Multitude of Reasons We Look Away
We are all guilty of passing someone in need without making eye-contact. That person may not be a gravely injured child, but there are plenty of grieving, weary, wounded individuals we side-step on a regular basis.
We have many reasons for ignoring the people around us in need. We’re busy; we’re tired; we’re preoccupied; we already have our own problems to deal with; we probably don’t have anything that would help them anyway; they’re so draining; their issues never seem to improve; they probably brought this problem down on themselves; other people are better qualified to deal with their issues; someone else will help them.
We walk away.
Engaging in others’ suffering is exhausting. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible without actively plugging into God’s passionate heart for others.
We will only have the strength to be a Good Samaritan when we know God’s great love both for us and those around us. Only then will we have the mental space and emotional fortitude to reach out to those who desperately need an advocate, regardless of the consequences.
On the other side, though, ignoring others’ needs may not be a conscious choice. We may be so focused on whatever’s happening in our own lives that we miss what’s happening in others’.
“As followers of Christ, we’re longing so much to be aware of God’s presence, but sometimes we're not aware of the presence of the people around us in the taxi, subway, airplane,” Gary Wilkerson pointed out in his podcast.
Barry Meguiar, World Challenge board member and guest on the same episode, agreed, saying, “You're speaking for all of us, you know? We get so focused; we're doing this and that, and there's somebody right there that God's put there. I look at God orchestrating bringing that person over here to us and we walked right by, and I pictured Jesus going, ‘Oy vey! I set them up, and he blew me off!’”
“Let’s learn to practice the presence of people,” Gary concluded.
When We Pray the Lord’s Prayer
Our call, as believers, to be light and salt in the world is never an easy one. The cost of saying “Yes” to someone else’s cry for help is usually great. Our heart will groan on their behalf. Often hurting people will lash out, even at the hands helping them; we may be hurt by the very people we are trying to aid. We may lose time, money or other valuable resources. We may even be condemned by bystanders for stepping in, if only to make themselves to feel less guilty.
When we say, “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 NLT) in the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for God to give us an opportunity to act.
Without God’s strength and presence, willingly entering others’ problems is nearly impossible, but our absence will have dire consequences for suffering people. This time we have on earth, the money in our wallet or bank account, the experiences we’ve had that give us extra empathy—these are all gifts to us for a reason, and that reason is probably not our own comfort.
Let’s ask God to give us the strength to have true compassion for other people and when they appear in our path, the courage to say, “Yes.”