In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, 28 year old Kitty Genovese returned home from work and, less than 100 feet from her apartment door, was brutally stabbed, raped, and murdered. In the days that followed her vicious attack, reports of the incident began to amaze investigators. Several dozen of Kitty’s neighbors had witnessed the attack, either hearing her screams for help or looking out their windows and watching as she was killed. One person said his father had called the police during the half hour Kitty was assaulted. Though stories vary as to how many people actually could have intervened on her behalf, in fact, just a handful could have been enough to scare off the attacker before he inflicted the fatal wounds. But not one single person actually stepped in to help. Some reportedly closed their curtains so as not to get involved.
The Kitty Genovese story has come to represent a sociological phenomenon now called Genovese syndrome. It only takes a few minutes of googling her name to come up with many examples of people who could have come to the aid of someone else but did not. Also known as the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility, sociologists have discovered that the more people there are who witness a wrong situation, the fewer there are who will actually stand up and say something.
There are four particular reasons, I believe, why people choose to respond as Kitty’s neighbors did. First, they may not notice that something is even going on. Many times people are so self-absorbed that they do not notice others’ lives, a problem, or even a crisis, when it comes along. Secondly, they also have to be able to see it as an actual problem. This has happened in cases of kidnapping where bystanders have assumed that a screaming child was being disobedient rather than trying to get away from a stranger. Thirdly, they also need to feel some sense of responsibility and desire to help rather than thinking they should mind their own business. And, finally, often they don’t get involved because they do not see it as helping themselves in any particular way and, further, they may even see it as detrimental to their own lives. Human suffering too often takes a back seat to someone else’s personal comfort.
If you research the broader implications of this kind of human behavior, you will quickly realize that some of the saddest examples we have of Genovese syndrome occur within the Christian community.
The first one that comes to mind is the abortion issue. While thinking Christians cannot see it as anything other than a life or death issue, others do not see it as their responsibility to get involved. I remember having an interesting conversation one day with a pastor who was deeply moved by the abortion crisis in our country and frequently preached with passion, hoping to stir the hearts of his congregation. As we talked, the conversation turned to the many young women in our community, both married and single, who had made bad lifestyle choices that often resulted in abortion. I had suggested that he might want to have the women in his church read Susan Hunt’s Spiritual Mothering book that encourages women to become mentors to some of these young women. His eyes filled with sadness as he shared “The women in my church would gladly donate a box of disposable diapers but they don’t really want to get involved as far as friendships with needy moms.” My guess is that he spoke for many believers. Some Christians don’t even consider the issue of abortion, some don’t see it as a problem, rather they see it as perhaps a necessary but legal evil. Some people see it as a problem but have decided not to get involved and still others don’t get involved because they fear it will get in the way of their own lives. And it sure isn’t just the abortion issue….consider sex-trafficking and the abuse of children and on and on the list goes.
The second thing that comes to mind is the rampant spiritual abuse that permeates so many relationships. Spiritual abuse is the opposite of putting into practice the one anothers of Scripture. We really need to examine our hearts and actions and ask ourselves if what we see around us produces relationships that bring us all to the foot of the cross as equals, one anothering each other for the glory of God or whether we promote the attitude of hierarchy, where overlording for vain and power hungry purposes takes place. Some Christians don’t get involved enough in the lives of others to even consider these things. Some don’t see hierarchy as even a problem while others see it but don’t want to get involved. And then there are others who wonder what is in it for themselves and their own comforts and reputations if they take on this issue. “Simply better to close the curtains,” they muse.
The third thing that comes to mind is how many Christians seem to refuse to confront sin when it comes by way of the popular, the charismatic, or those with celebrity status within the homeschooling world. How often have we heard excuse after excuse made for horrible behaviors, questionable ethics, disingenuous family lives, or outrageous language, and how often is that followed by condemning the messenger who points out the error? “Judge not,” is their battle cry! How often does someone go ahead, even knowing there are possible questionable issues, and write a check for conferences, workshops, conventions, curriculum, or books produced by those in question? How often do perpetrators, rather than responding graciously and recanting what they said or did, simply delete what they said from videos or blog entries because they know they can bank on the fact their followers have all fallen victim to Genovese syndrome?
Here is how it often plays out:
Some homeschoolers have never heard of anything going on within the homeschooling community so they figure it can’t and doesn’t exist. (“I have never even heard of Kevin Swanson and I have been homeschooling for twenty years.”) Others know false teachings are out there but aren’t really sure they are a problem. (“I don’t agree with the things so and so said but I think you are making too big of a deal of it. What the church needs is unity and peace.”) Still others recognize there is a problem but don’t really want to get involved. (“I have little ones who need my attention and besides we really like this curriculum, it doesn’t matter who wrote it.”) And then there are those who know that if they speak up or take action, there will be a price to be paid within their co-ops, their support groups, their families, their churches, or even their pocketbooks. (“We are trying to support our family by selling curriculum and our company is small and we can’t lose any sales and, besides, we are only concentrating on our own family.”)
A couple blog entries ago I shared Timothy Swanson’s research on the connection between some homeschooling gurus and racism. This week, as a result of talking with a concerned homeschooling mom, I have been looking into the infiltration of polygamists into conservative Christian homeschooling groups. Sadly, Genovese syndrome is already rearing its ugly head as homeschoolers are warned about these issues.
Let me encourage you to think about your life and your convictions in light of Kitty Genovese. Do you struggle with addressing false teachings because you don’t notice them? Do you not realize they are false? Do you not want to acknowledge them to be false because it might cause you to examine them in light of your own life? What do you have to lose personally if you acknowledge these things to be wrong? Where do you draw the line between between taking a stand and not?
I ask these questions because every single week I hear from women who have been left battered and bloodied by the false teachings I address on this blog. They are moms and sisters and daughters and grandmothers and aunts and friends who have been so deeply wounded by things many consider to be no big deal. They hurt and desperately need God’s grace in their lives, especially as given to them by their brothers and sisters in Christ.
They are Kitty Genovese and need us to listen.