On Monday of this week, two people were driving along a road in Dallas when something went terribly wrong. Maybe they were college students talking about their summer plans. Maybe it was a woman driving her elderly mother to the doctor. Maybe it was a married couple, discussing the details of a movie they had just seen on a long overdue date.
Whoever they were, on Monday afternoon they found themselves in a horrific situation, in a crashed car that was engulfed in flames. Lt. Anthony Williams, an off-duty Dallas police officer witnessed the accident and stopped his car, sprinting toward the blaze in an effort to help them escape.
It turned out that there was no way for him alone to save the people. According to his testimony, they burned to death right before his eyes. It was the first time I ever prayed for someone to go ahead and pass, he later told the news cameras.
But, he wasn’t the only one on the scene.
There were other eyewitnesses, other hands to help and strong arms to pull. There were plenty of people to run to cars and find a tool–any tool–that might help free the burning victims. There were others to come alongside Lt. Williams in his effort to rescue the poor writhing souls inside the flaming car.
But, instead of rushing to help, the witnesses held cellphones. They videoed the dying crash victims until they were no more. And then the coroner couldn’t even identify their bodies because, after they were finally burned to death, they were no longer recognizable.
This well-documented phenomena is known as the Bystander Effect. The idea is that individuals are less likely to move to help if there are other witnesses present. I’m no psychologist and I don’t really know the science behind it, but there have been plenty of documented cases, and some believe with the advent of cellphones it’s worse than ever. Still, it’s hard to imagine how a crowd of witnesses could stand around and gape at two human beings as they writhe in agony in a burning car. Lt. Williams said he even had to ask a woman to move out of his way who was standing especially close to the car to get a good shot. You should try to help, he said, even if it’s just a bottle of water you have sitting in your car that you could throw on someone. You don’t know what comfort that would’ve brought.
Even just a bottle of water in your car.
It’s almost too awful to think about.
The Christian landscape is somewhat like this terrible crash scene. There are dying people. There are Christians who are living a down and dirty, run straight into the the flames kind of faith. And there are the bystanders.
The Christian bystander talks a lot. He watches a lot. He criticizes a lot. But, he doesn’t do a lot.
It’s not enough to just be present at the scene. We have to do more than talk. We have to do more than watch. We don’t want to wake up one morning and realize that we are the crash scene gawker instead of the first responder. We can discuss this thing to death. Or we can help to conquer death.
No more standing by.