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Summary: The prophet Obadiah makes clear that we can’t stand idly by while our neighbors suffer.

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At approximately 3:20 on the morning of March 13, 1964, twenty-eight-year-old Kitty Genovese was returning to her home in a nice, middle-class area of Queens, NY, from her job as a bar manager. She parked her red Fiat in a nearby parking lot, turned-off the lights and started the walk to her second floor apartment some 100 feet away. She got as far as a streetlight when a man grabbed her. She screamed. Lights went on in the 10-floor apartment building nearby. She yelled, “Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me!” Windows opened in the apartment building and a man’s voice shouted, “Let that girl alone.” The attacker looked up, shrugged and walked-off down the street. Genovese struggled to get to her feet. Lights went back off in the apartments. The attacker came back and stabbed her again. She again cried out, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” And again the lights came on and windows opened in the nearby apartments. The assailant again left and got into his car and drove away. Genovese staggered to her feet as a city bus drove by. It was now 3:35 a.m. The attacker returned once again. He found her in a doorway at the foot of the stairs and he stabbed her a third time--this time with a fatal consequence. It was 3:50 when the police received the first call. They responded quickly and within two minutes were at the scene. Genovese was already dead. The only person to call, a neighbor of Genovese, revealed that he had phoned only after much thought and after phoning a friend. He said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 27, 1964, p. 38.)

When I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1978, I remember discussing this incident in class. The question was, Why didn’t anyone come to her rescue? Why did only one person call the police? Was it simply because no one wanted to get involved? Was it because people wondered what a young woman was doing out that late anyway? As budding social scientists, we were interested in learning why people act the way they do.

As a result of this incident, two social psychologists, Latané and Darley, began their research to identify the factors that influence why people may be reluctant to come to the aid of others. Their explanation has been called the bystander effect and says that an individual is less likely to provide assistance as the number of bystanders increases. In other words, if you think you are the only one available to help in an emergency, you will likely do it. But if you see others standing around, you will be less likely to act because you think someone else will do something.

What it really boils down to is the question, “How much responsibility do I have for my neighbor?” It is not a new question. In the Old Testament, after Cain killed Abel, he asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, of course, is Yes. In the New Testament, when a lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him the story of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion we are to draw is that my neighbor is anyone who is in need. There are no innocent bystanders.


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