Approximately 3:20 in the morning on March 13, 1964, 28-year old Kitty Genovese returned home to her apartment in Queens, New York. She parked her red Fiat, and walked to the building. A man grabbed her and she screamed.
“He stabbed me! Please help me!”
Several lights went on in the ten-floor apartment building, and a voice broke the silence.
“Let that girl alone,” said a man from a higher floor.
“I’m dying! I’m dying!” shouted Genovese twice.
Thirty minutes later, the police received the first call, and within two minutes they were at the scene. Accounts state that her neighbor called the police after deliberating with a friend on what to do. “I didn’t want to get involved,” replied the neighbor.
Why wouldn’t anyone come to the rescue of a damsel in distress? Why did only one person in a building full of awake people call the police? That night, there were no innocent bystanders.
Called the “bystander effect,” it is commonly taught in emergency response protocols. The socio-psychological observation states that people are less likely to provide assistance as the number of bystanders increases. Or inversely restated, people are more likely to do nothing in larger groups of people. When a first-responder generically asks for someone to call 911, no one does. But when specifically named or pointed out to do so, they will usually follow through.
Why didn’t the neighbors do anything? Or, why did they act so late? Was it because it was late? Because she was a woman on the street corner? Or was it simply normal New York behaviour? Regardless of the early morning justifications, there are no innocent bystanders.
“How much responsibility do I have for my neighbor?” is the question that humanity consistently asks itself throughout political and philosophical history. The selfish nature of humankind seeks to be alone and to live alone, without responsibility and ramifications. The reality is that we cannot subsist as monads; we were not created to be isolates; we were created in the image of the Godhead – the essence of community in a singularity functioning with complete unity.
Our human societies wrestle with this notion, swinging like a pendulum between monadic insanity and corporate mindlessness. The Hebrew Scriptures beg the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, while the Christian Gospels ask, “Who is my neighbor?” There are no innocent bystanders.
Whether the book of Obadiah should be called a book is open to discussion (because it only has one chapter), but the power in this short text is not. The historical background is also debatable (of the time period and who the invaders are), but the principles of social justice found in it are not. And the details of the author Obadiah are unknown, but the Inspirer and the audience to whom the counsel is directed towards is not.
Genesis 25 narrates an account about twins, one of whose descendants eventually end up in Edom, a 15 mile wide, and 70 mile long, piece of territory. From Jacob come the Israelites, but from Esau come the Edomites. And these descendants like their ancestors fought from the womb to their tombs. Saul fought against them, then David subdued them. Then they revolted again. For being a minor character, they show up often through the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Malachi. When God used foreign powers to enact judgment on Israel, Edom stood by in jealousy and spite, even adding to their suffering.
The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee, thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart, Who shall bring me down to the ground? (Obadiah 1:3)
“I’m safe in my own home, country, and family. I don’t want to get involved.” The clefts of the rock gave military defence. Their habitation was high, ensuring protection from dangerous aggressors. Corporate security is a good thing, but it tends to numb the senses to social responsibilities, a byproduct of pride. But this safety would pass (v. 4-6).
All the men of thy confederacy have brought thee even to the border: the men that were at peace with thee have deceived thee, and prevailed against thee; they that eat thy bread have laid a wound under thee: there is none understanding in him. (Obadiah 1:7)
“I’ve got my own family, circle of friends, church, culture, my people to depend on. I don’t want to get involved.” Confederacies, associations, membership, committees, conferences, counsels, teams, and organisations were established to promote collaboration and cooperation for common interests. But these socially-constructed edifices of mutual dependency were to fail by divine command.
Shall I not in that day, saith the LORD, even destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of the mount of Esau? And thy mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed, to the end that every one of the mount of Esau may be cut off by slaughter. (Obadiah 1:8-9)
“I’ve got my common sense; I’m educated; I’ve got it together by myself.” Whether it is intellectual capacity, educational background, years of life experience, or any life competency, these strengths also would prove to be an utter disappointment.
For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever. In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them. (Obadiah 1:10-11)
Why would God strip their advantages one by one? Rather than helping their fellow neighbors, the Edomites gloated and rejoiced over the misfortune of others. They didn’t lift a finger. They just stood by on the other side and did nothing.
But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress. Thou shouldest not have entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldest not have looked on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity; Neither shouldest thou have stood in the crossway, to cut off those of his that did escape; neither shouldest thou have delivered up those of his that did remain in the day of distress. (Obadiah 1:12-14)
Not only did they stand, they actively took advantage of them. The Edomites offered no help, and even turned people over to their attackers. What kind of brotherly concern is that?
For the day of the LORD is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head. (Obadiah 1:15)
“As you have done, it shall be done to you.” God’s ruling will fit the offence. First, if you haven’t caught on by now, there are no innocent bystanders. The New York City apartment dwellers did not set out to kill a woman early in the morning, just as the Edomites did not destroy the Israelites. But both parties were bystanders. They stood and watched.
When the other side suffers, God’s people must be on the same side of the oppressed. Matthew 25 specifically delineates them as the hungry, thirsty, sick, and naked. The Church may be innocent doing nothing, but it also may be guilty in doing nothing. Choosing to not get involved means you agree with the suffering.
Not as a political party, but as the body of Christ, we need to be extending our hands, rather than watching from our mounts or building walls. We need to be getting involved, denying the injustices done to fellow man, and letting our voices be heard. We need to give sacrificially to the cause of the “other side.” Whether this means giving up magazine subscriptions, decaffeinated lattes, sanctified lottery tickets, season tickets, or that extra bag of potato chips during lunch, we should feel a “hit” somewhere.
But upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness; and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s. (Obadiah 1:17, 21)
However, it is not awareness and noise that are the end goal. This is where many religious organisations have mimicked the civil rights movements of the past. Obadiah ends with these words, “And the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.” We serve a King who is on the throne. And He indeed is still King. Though Edom will be destroyed and though Israel seems to have been destroyed, Mount Zion will reign; Mount Zion shall be delivered; Mount Zion will judge the mount of Esau. Meaning, the side that we have ignored will be victorious.
This victory will not come about through demonstrations, marches, or hashtag revolutions. The King’s kingdom of Mount Zion will be established. It was come about through conversion, evangelism, and transformation – a concept that Jesus continually tried to convey, but which was never fully understood by His followers then, and now. This prophecy points to the kingdom comprised of a people that replicate the character of Jesus Christ, who will eventually “judge the mount of Zion.”
There are no innocent bystanders. For Jesus had at one point dwelt in the clefts of the rock. For He had stood upon a high mountain and among the stars. For He had confederacies, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and might.
But on that day, He didn’t stand by on the other side. He didn’t just look on the day of our calamity. He didn’t remain stationary on the day of our distress.
On that day, He was not an innocent bystander.
He came as a man.
He died as a man.
He arose as a man.
He now ministers and intercedes in the heavenly sanctuary for us.
And He commissions and empowers us to do the same for the rest of humanity.
In addition to the defending the poor and needy, it is the act of saving their souls that extends the Kingdom of God. In the end, the cowardice of bystanders does not mean doing nothing, not speaking, not acting, not thinking, or not praying. Cowardice is simply pride. Jesus Christ could have done nothing. But He did something. The Gospel is not an option; it is not a civil rights movement. It is the going forth of sacrificially delivering the message of salvation, the only life-saving message, to each person one-by-one. It is the refusal to be a bystander, the rejection of self-innocence, but to stand by the Lord Jesus in action, character, and on Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1).