Kitty Genovese Christians


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.


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  1. says

    I don’t feel called to have a platform specifically devoted to the purpose of calling out homeschool leaders and movements. However, I no longer have qualms about being honest about my strong belief that these elements (the patriocentrists you have written about, and others of a similar stripe) are highly damaging and even heretical in many instances. I used to keep quiet or be nervous, but I have seen the damage caused by these people and I won’t be manipulated or bullied into silence any longer. It comes at a steep price. There are people in my life who seem to have very much withdrawn since I have spoken plainly about my views, people that I have been very close to for many years. I have not bern obnoxious or rude about it, but like Chuck Swindoll says, it is ridiculous to keep silent in the face of legalists that masquerade as weaker brothers (or in these circles, “we are called by God to do this for our family” types).

  2. says

    Karen, thank you so much for your tireless work in this arena (the lion’s den). You have certainly been an inspiration to me both as a home school mom and a blogger. My contributions to the cause…

    Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence:

    We Can’t Ignore Domestic Violence:

    Child Discipline or Child Abuse?


    P.S. I have heard only a little about polygamy in the home schooling movement, but I did fly out to Salt Lake City five years ago to attend a funeral, and I met many relatives by marriage who are only a couple of generations down from polygamy. (My dad’s late stepfather was born into a polygamous marriage with 2 wives and 22 kids!) After that, I spent a good deal of time researching power/control dynamics in modern polygamous LDS splinter groups. That led into my more recent study about abuse of authority in churches, families and organizations. And that, in turn, led to leaving SGM (where, despite being home schooling proponents, gross mishandling of child molestation and domestic abuse cases has earned them both a nasty reputation and a major lawsuit). Finally, I started my Watch the Shepherd blog on the same topics of abuse of authority / advocating for the vulnerable. What a winding road! Thanks for all your help along the way!

  3. Teri Anne says

    The wife of the chief elder of my former church started bullying me severely during bell choir rehearsal. She would ridicule my politics because I supported a Democratic candidate, and even implied that I was not a Christian. Rehearsals became like cat fights, as I kept telling her to stop bullying me. No one intervened for me, not even the pastor’s wife who was the bell choir director.

    During our last performance, the bullying upset me so much that I suffered from a panic attack in which I could not breathe. After that incident, I quit going to church and was unaware that the bell choir had started rehearsing in September. I was one of the most proficient ringers, and the most faithful for attendance, but it took 2 months for the director to email me and ask if I still wanted to join. I think that everyone in the choir was relieved that I dropped out because it saved them the trouble of confronting the situation. As the wife of the chief elder, Teri was much more “important” than me, a lowly 55 year old widow.

  4. says

    I’m up for being a tad vulnerable at the moment…

    I guess I feel like the guy two blocks over from the street where Kitty was killed. I had friends over and we were discussing, at great length, issues important to their lives. I didn’t hear the cries. Didn’t see it happen. Only read about it in the papers today.

    So now what?

    When I read about situations like what you describe happening in the homeschool movement, I share it. When given opportunity–which is rare–I confront it. I do try to “pick my battles” so I don’t waste time and merely raise the ire of the supporters of certain ideologies.

    It feels much like world hunger. I can’t do much for the millions (billions?) of starving people around the world. But I can feed the kids who show up at my house and be involved in their lives.

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. But my impression is that, if it’s happening “on my watch,” then I’d best be doing something about it. But if I’m the watchmen of this city and the attack is happening over at the other city… I can’t do much about it. I can only call to open the gates and welcome the refugees when I see them approach.

    Does that make any sense at all? Or do you feel like I’m just “closing my curtains” by making up such “excuses”?


  5. Pressing On says

    Yes, keep on. There are some movements in Christianity that can be relatively benign, but when certain individuals take them to the extreme, they can get very, very bad. A know a few families who would call themselves patriarchial, but the fathers are humble men who seek the advice of their wives and they truly seek to be balanced in what they do. And then I know of the controlling ones, the men who seek to control every aspect of the lives of the members of their families with an iron fist. Same with homeschooling. Some are truly balancing the love for their children with academics that are appropriate, and some “love” so much that very little happens academically. Suddenly they have an 18 y.o. who can barely read.

    And so we need to speak up. Especially for those who can’t.

  6. says

    Stephanie, you go girl! Speaking to these things right where you are is sometimes the most difficult because it is up close and personal. And I know from experience that sometimes those who have disagreed with you the most and even taken a stand against you often see things down the road more clearly because you gave them their first glimpse of truth!

  7. says

    Virginia, to be clear about something, the polygamy I am now hearing about is NOT within Mormon camps. In fact, they specifically call themselves “Christian polygamists” and hold to the very same patriarchy teachings we are all familiar with.

  8. says

    Luke, appreciate your candor. I understand the “pick your battles” perspective. The first “battle” is acknowledging that there is a battle going on out there! Knowing what and when to address it requires wisdom and fortitude and, I believe, is different for each of us.

    I keep coming back to Luke 12: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Jesus warned his disciples (and us) that we are and will be held accountable, according to what we see and know. That is the wrestling point for me in my own life.

  9. says


    I relate very much to what you are saying. Part of it is the fact that we are exposed to SO MUCH today. Believers in the past would never have known even a fraction of what we read online every week.

    I agree that if something is happening on our watch we have a responsibility to act. For example, in the situation Teri Anne shared up above, if I had been there I would have had a responsibility to say something. What happened to her is just wrong on so many levels. It gets complicated when things happen that only impact us in a round about way (such as Mark Driscoll’s teachings or the Sovereign Grace lawsuit). Then it is harder to know how much to get involved and when it really isn’t my responsibility to say anything. The internet really complicates things.

    But I do think God puts it on our hearts when we have a responsibility to say or do something. He will give us a passion for a specific concern and I think that is His prompting.

    One thing I learned years ago is that just because someone else is passionate about an issue doesn’t mean I am called to be passionate about it too, no matter how much they talk to me about it or even bully me about it.

  10. Paula says

    I attended a homeschool mom’s day out and heard very racist things said to the effect the slavery was a good thing because it brought them into contact with the gospel. (never mind that more than a third died on the ships over and later more as they labored.) I am ashamed to say that I did nothing, except communicate with my friends afterward about how horrified I was. At that point, I realized that if I had stood up for what I believed in at least half of the people there would have supported me. I resolved never again to let something like that happen. The Lord then put me in a situation where he called me and my husband to rescue a young woman from her patriarchal lifestyle. This time I did what was right and despite the cost which still shadows are family, I am so glad I did!

  11. KH says

    Wow! This is SO TRUE! Sometimes don’t you just feel like their are just to many “battles”? I think we Always need to speak up for what is true and right.Before I came on here I saw something on fb that just sickened me.I guess I’ll tell you. One of the newly married young 20 something from CHURCH.. put up a picture of her new cookbook..”Fifty Shades of Chicken” of course..others started commenting about how funny that was and talked about the metal things that held the chicken on the front photo. Obviously..the title and joke of it all comes from the the trashy books..fifty shades of grey..and whatever the other ones are that are trash!

    While they all think it’s cute and funny..I am completely disgusted.I’m thinking..should I write something on there? Stupid huh..I obviously will now but the hardest part is..I know it will be taken as I’m attacking them..I have always done everything I can to try to encourage these younger women in the church. I just don’t get it!! It sickens me. That is just a little example.

    I know all this other stuff goes on too and we can’t ignore it. I will Never forget one of the young people who drove the bus and picked up kids..making a joke about black people.It was nasty..I stopped him dead in his tracks with one of my teen sons listening and anytime I hear someone start to make a prejudice joke..well..They don’t get a chance to finish.My kids have never forgotten that!!

    Haven’t heard the polygamy thing yet..ugg..but hardly anything surprises me anymore.It’s so important to not let our hearts get hardened with all of this.There is just so much out there. Thanks for writing about these things.I know it can’t always be easy. Darkness needs to be exposed!

  12. says

    I saw some of the “Christian” polygamy sites yesterday. I had heard of them before, maybe from you? Eek.

    So much crap out there in the name of Jesus. And so many gullible people who will suck it in. They wait for someone else to mediate and tell them what is Godly rather than understanding Scripture themselves. Or, conversely, they come up with and then promote their own weird interpretations that defy common sense and prudent discernment.

    I loved reading about the Petrobrusians and the Waldensians in my daughter’s Mystery of History lesson today. They taught the Bible in 12th century France when common people had little or no access to God’s word. Peter Bruis was burned at the stake as a heretic for this, and many of Peter Waldo’s followers were excommunicated and persecuted. They cared more about truth than popularity.

  13. Granddad says

    I remember Kitty Genovese quite well – I was a senior in high school. Karen, your observations are “spot-on”.

    Many years ago I started reading and teaching about pseudo-Christian groups such as the Watchtower and the Mormons. It was always disheartening to me to have Christians tell me they just shut the door in the face of these folks when thy come to their house. Not even a kind word and a 30 second message about the gospel.

    Now I am turning my attention towards Vision Forum, patriarchy, and Christian Reconstructionism. Making Christians aware of the problems associated with these movements seems to be much harder than my previous “work”.

    Because my kids are grown I have no direct involvement with the local home schooling network although I know several families who are. Perhaps it’s time I try to find ways to become involved with them.

  14. Hester says

    Polygamists? Outside of Utah?

    Just when I thought this couldn’t get any worse…

  15. says

    KH, if it makes you feel any better, the “50 Shades of Chicken” book was something that made fun of the “50 Shades of Grey” series. It didn’t support or promote the latter series; instead it made a mockery of it. Which I always think is a great way to react to a bad trend. When you’re laughing at a trend, that usually means you’re not getting sucked into it. 🙂

  16. Anthea says

    Hello Grandad

    You wrote:

    “Many years ago I started reading and teaching about pseudo-Christian groups such as the Watchtower and the Mormons. It was always disheartening to me to have Christians tell me they just shut the door in the face of these folks when thy come to their house. Not even a kind word and a 30 second message about the gospel.”

    I want to say that Christians can change their attitudes re JWs. I did, the Lord helped me to realise that they are needy lost people, and He helped me to develop more compassion. Since then, life has become so exciting, so many great encounters. I am praying this year for a breakthrough — although I love sowing seed, I would love to see some of these dear people come to Christ for real!

    It is sometimes the Lord who helps us stop our busy lives to get involved with some person or group that had been off our radar before.

  17. says

    Karen, I try to teach the truth to people as they come into my life, but honestly it is so very difficult to get through the layers of muck and mire….and there are soooo many misled people. I feel absolutely overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. I haven’t met polygymists…thank goodness! Rather, an experience I had a few weeks back sums it up well.

    A patriocentric, large family mom said, “I have the gift of prophesy. People don’t have a problem with me. They have a problem with the Word of God.” This very large family follows an extreme courtship model, mom is very outspoken….so it doesn’t quite fit the patriocentric model….but is a very legalistic authority driven household. (Growing Kids God’s Way, etc…) I experienced quite a bit of gossip under the ruse of “protecting others.” ie…you should know this so you can be prepared and protect yourself. Argh!!!!

    How do you help someone who is lost like that? How can you shed light when they are determined to be in the dark? How do you help others discern the truth when they are so good at spinning shadows?

    This mom and her husband lead a college group in our church. I’m concerned for the college youth. This family chose to teach because they told me that they didn’t fit in elsewhere in the church. They’d been “hurt.” I feel like they are preying upon the weaker members of our church. They are more malleable members – easy to shape into the church they want. Yet, I feel helpless because they are full of accusations towards others. They have a knack for using the Word as a weapon.

    What are we supposed to do exactly? I feel overwhelmed.

  18. says

    Yvonne, if the elders in your church allow the family in-question to teach, then either they agree with what this couple is teaching, or they have done a very poor job of vetting them. In either case you should arrange a meeting with your pastor to expression your conserns. If his response is unsatfisfactory (which i bet it will be) you and your family should give serious consideration to finding another church.

  19. says

    Yvonne, I completely relate to what you are saying and you put it so well: “muck and mire.” I feel like I am battling on multiple fronts as a Christian. There is the obvious bad theology and then there is the squishy bad theology that is more much difficult for people to recognize. Then there is the repeated returning to legalism, which is so hard to overcome for many people. And I see so many people making really bad life choices because of these things and then when they lament their lives, where do you start? For me, it has been best to wait to be invited into someone’s life to address personal things but to speak out boldly in more general terms, if that makes sense. I post daily on Facebook and most always address the pro-life issue because I see it as so central to how we live and relate to others. I continually weigh which battles to fight. I am ever learning and recognize that God calls each of us to do battle in the culture war wherever he has planted us and with the gifts he gives us. There are also seasons for each battle and the older I get the more clear that is. The point is to not shy away when the Lord places those opportunities smack dab in front of you. Does this make sense?

  20. says

    Yvonne, I also agree with Granddad. With all the craziness that continues to pour into the church, we must be ever vigilant and willing to move on if lines are crossed.

  21. says

    Thank you, both, for your wisdom. Karen, I know this is the answer. I suppose it is a matter of not becoming weary in doing good. Grandad, thanks for your encouragement. You are right.

  22. says

    Although it won’t always reveal potholes, reviewing a potential church’s Web page will likely contain a warning sign or two if you pay attention. What resources and other Web sites does the church recommend or link to? Is it a confessional church and if so which confessions does it hold to (i.e. Westminster, Belgic, London 1689, etc)? Does the church have its own Statement of Doctrine and do any of those statements seem unusual or appear to extend beyond Scripture? (I’m thinking of things such as, “Only the KJV is God’s word.”, or, “You must believe in the Rapture to join.”) What seminary did the pastor attend? (If he has ‘Dr.’ before his name does he have an earned degree or is it from a diploma mill like those in the Word of Faith movement?) You must “do diligence”.


  1. […] months ago, before any of this latest patriarchy nonsense came to light, I wrote a piece entitled Kitty Genovese Christians, encouraging us to be ever vigilant and pro-active when we see wrongs being committed against […]

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