I don’t think about this all the time, but frequently enough to find it unsettling.
With a strange combination of shame, curiosity, and bewilderment, I watched 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. & Mrs. Kraus. In 1939, Mr. Kraus was determined to use unclaimed German visas to rescue children from the hands of the Nazis. The documentary “tells the dramatic, previously untold story of Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia who followed their conscience, traveling to Nazi-controlled Vienna in spring 1939 to save a group of children. Amidst the impending horrors of the Holocaust, they put themselves in harm’s way to bring what would become the single largest-known group of children allowed into the U.S. during that time.” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website). Good golly, Miss Molly.
I could not identify with the Jews in this fascinating account. Their stories are not part of the fabric of my past. My grandparents never told or – to my knowledge – hid stories of their gruesome plight at the hands of oppressors. I don’t cringe when I see the swastika – I shudder and snarl, but I don’t have an involuntary feeling of nausea or revulsion.
This is not part of my past or my pain.
So as I watched the story unfold, I studied the faces of local residents filmed and pictured in the background, taken as parades of rigid soldiers marched through German towns. I tried to identify with the men, women, and children, living as spectators to a rise to power unparalleled in modern times.
Some simply watched from a distance, without a definitive expression. Neither approving or condemning. Simply watching from a distance.
But others raised their hands in approval and encouragement of a regime so despicable I cannot fathom its evil. Cruel and hate-filled people who must have truly believed, down to their core, that they – and those like them – were better. They saw themselves as a superior group who had the right, perhaps the obligation, to separate themselves from the less-than.
They truly believed that all they had been given was theirs and well-deserved. And even the leftovers were subject to their desires.
Some pictured may have been implicit in the atrocities. Some may have simply been too busy or distracted to understand or care.
I can’t help but believe, though, that some enjoyed a level of personal contentment so comfortable and easy that they could casually dismiss or even deny the growing evil … because it meant the preservation of the status quo. Life as they knew it would continue as usual.
Some just took the easy way out.
And then I asked the hard question: Could I honestly say I would not have been one of them?
God help me, I’m just not sure.
I like to think that I would have risen up with uncharacteristic energy and courage to fight for justice and speak out for the Jews and others despised and “eliminated” by the Third Reich. I hope that I would have not been a bystander – just another face in the crowd.
According to Psychology Today, “The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.”
How strange it seems: the more people present to witness us doing the right thing is the very thing that keeps us from doing the right thing.
The most unsettling for me, right now, today, with the issues we face with every news story and update is how much of a bystander I am. And the ones who are witnessing my lack of resolve are mostly those with whom I have much in common – especially my faith.
Although I can’t speak for everyone, I’m pretty sure I speak for most of you when I say “This is NOT okay – in any way, in any situation, or for any length of time.
I can’t imagine myself walking through the streets with a sign, arms linked with chanting protesters. I can’t because my family’s level of anxiety for me and my safety would outweigh whatever value I would add to the crowd.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t speak up with more vigor when things are said or done in my presence or within my circle of influence that do not reflect the love of Jesus. Just because I don’t defy an unjust system of law and order on the public square doesn’t mean I cannot make a difference in my world – or that I can’t show the littles around me that casual ignorance of evil cannot be excused and is definitely not the way of Jesus followers.
My lovelies, no matter how much we are doing, we can always do more or better. We don’t have to do it all. We don’t have to pick up the load of those who refuse to get involved or “mix religion and politics.” We need to do only that to which we are called, what Jesus asks us to do for the least of these and what we know to be right, even if it’s hard or costly. Even if it means our world will forever change.
Even if it means we will never go back to normal.
And maybe that is the best news story we’ll ever hear.