“The bystander effect” is a term used by social psychologists to describe what happens when individuals fail to intervene during crises or emergencies when they perceive others are present and aware of the event. Preeminent social psychologist Elliot Aronson writes in his classic book, The Social Animal, “If people are aware that an event is being witnessed by others, the responsibility felt by any individual is diffused” (51).
I became familiar with the term after reading A. M. Rosenthal’s, Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case. The book is an account of the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese by Winston Moseley, which occurred on March 13, 1964. It was reported there were thirty-eight people who were aware that the horrific event was occurring but did nothing to stop it. In a more recent occurrence in 2009, Dominik Brunner was murdered by two 18-year-olds. Dominik was trying to stop the violent teens from attacking other children. Unfortunately, his sacrificial gesture led to his death. Like the Genovese case, people witnessed the event, but no one physically intervened to stop it.
Of course, all is not so grim for humanity. There are plenty of stories demonstrating heroic acts by bystanders. For the most part, the research shows the bystander effect lessens when there are perceived real emergencies, when perpetrators are present, and when physical harm is imminent (Fischer, et al.). Nonetheless, the bystander effect is a genuine social phenomenon. Have you ever witnessed violence, a crime, a beating, theft, bullying, or other harmful acts and done nothing about it? Sadly, I know I have.
Why am I talking about the bystander effect?
It has been my contention that the traditional practice of petitionary prayer contributes to further suffering in the world. I know; it is quite the claim. I have a hunch, the bystander effect may be one dynamic among many behind this problem.
In my book, Divine Echoes, I define petitionary prayer as “talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand.” As I write in my book,
If people believe that praying to God in a certain manner, at a certain volume, and with certain words will convince God to single-handedly root out prejudice, reduce hate crimes, solve the problem of homelessness, heal drug addicts, stop people from committing arson, stop rapes from occurring, and so on, they are engaging in magical thinking and superstition of the worst kind.
Why is this kind of prayer “of the worst kind”? If people believe an all-powerful and controlling God is aware of the person or situation being prayed for, then it is easy for them to become passive bystanders. It is easy to believe, “Well, God is powerful. God has a plan. God is in control. And God is going to take care of it.”
That is exactly the kind of thinking some bystanders have when horrific violence is occurring: “Well, there are plenty of people watching. Surely, there are more competent people than me who are going to take care of it. I am sure someone has called 911 by now.”
When someone engages in petitionary prayer, God becomes the competent, grand Witness who diffuses human responsibility; the bystander effect is on full display. The problem is the bystander effect can have terrible consequences. Suffering increases exponentially. Death can be a result. If I believe the most loving and powerful divine agent is on the scene, then there is a natural easing of the direness of the situation. If God is taking care of it, then perhaps I don’t have to. I can lift my prayers up and then go about business as usual. But if God isn’t taking care of it, and we are not taking care of it, then what is the outcome of the situation being prayed for?
Let’s say a fierce and feared gang took children away from their parents. They are suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually. After hearing about this heartbreaking news, a well-meaning church comes together and prays:
“God, pour out your love on those children.”
“God, comfort those children.”
“God, bring justice swiftly.”
“God, I bind the enemy in Jesus’s name.”
“God, change the leaders’ hearts.”
“God, change the policies that are in place so this does not continue to happen.”
The prayers above are coming from sincere hearts. But, in this case, sincerity without action can perpetuate further harm and suffering.
You see, we already know God’s stance on the issue. God hates when children are mistreated (just read Luke 17:1–4). It is not God’s will for children to suffer such anguish. God already loves the children. God is already seeking to comfort the children to the extent they are able to receive God’s comfort. God already desires to bring swift justice. God already wants the enemy to be bound. God already wants policies change. God already wants leaders’ hearts change. God’s love transcends ours. If we want the wellbeing of those children, don’t you think God wants it exponentially more?
The problem is God cannot singlehandedly bring all of this about. Due to God’s uncontrolling love, God is constrained from forcefully changing hearts, manipulating people’s wills, and coercing people to change policies. God is not a puppeteer. Simply put, love does not control others. Therefore, praying for God to forcefully change people’s will or the outcome of circumstances is not going to achieve anything.
It is one thing to have a primary goal of sharing one’s heart passionately with God, which is a beautiful and intimate endeavor. It is another to believe those energetic prayers somehow equip, move, inspire, or empower God to love someone or single-handedly change the horrific circumstances we see all around us. As you can tell from history, justice comes slowly. That is not because God is intentionally holding it back. It is because an uncontrolling and loving God needs the freely given cooperation of human beings to bring it about.
If you feel moved to pray, then by all means pray. Share your heart with God. If you pray thinking God has got the person or situation covered or God is going to singlehandedly increase His love in the person’s lives, then that is not going to happen. That is not because God is mean or that he doesn’t care; it is because God’s love is uncontrolling. God’s just and loving will on the earth requires a joint effort. Therefore, let your passion energize you toward prayerful action. Become God’s hands and feet in the world. Let your voices be heard. God is already on the scene. God is just waiting for you to join Her in what She is already doing: seeking to love, deliver, protect, rescue, and restore comfort to those who are marginalized, oppressed, and in need of the basic essentials to survive and thrive.
Questions to Ponder
1. What do you think? Do some of our petitionary prayers contribute to the bystander effect and in turn contribute to the further suffering of others?
2. What would happen to those children if we just prayed for them and the tragic situation they are in and did nothing else?
3. Do you think praying, “God, pour out your comfort on those children,” actually increases God’s comfort in their lives? Would God not seek to comfort them if no one prayed?
4. Do you think praying, “God, change those leader’s hearts,” increase God’s ability to change their hearts? If so, do you think God could do whatever God wants to do and bypass people’s will if need be?
Here is a beautiful conspiring prayer, inspired by Divine Echoes, written by Jennifer Huffman:
Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.11th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2012.
Fischer, P., J. I. Krueger, T. Greitemeyer, C. Vogrincic, A. Kastenmüller, D. Frey, and M. Kainbacher. “The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies.” Psychological Bulletin 137, no. 4 (2011): 517–37.doi:10.1037/a0023304
Karris, Mark (2018). Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with an Uncontrolling God (Quoir Publications)
Anyone who picks up a copy of Divine Echoes, I will send them a free study guide.
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