When we hear the story of the Samaritan who stops to help a dying man along the side of the road, our hope is that we would mirror his compassion and his willingness to endure whatever danger or inconvenience that accompanied his kindness. We’d certainly never be like the many who simply walked by.
But what happens when the stakes become a bit more dicey? Think about it. What those people walking along the road to Jericho encountered was pretty simple stuff. There was no apparent danger or threat to them; we’re given no indication that culprits were lurking in the bushes. This was occurring as people and donkeys walked along what would best be described as a path, a road at best; there were no cars or trucks racing by, and the associated danger, as we’d find on contemporary highways. The only danger was that of risking oneself, of losing time, of intersecting one’s life with that of a stranger, a terribly injured stranger.
Of course, in the same circumstance, you or I would stop. No question about it.
What if we were waiting on a subway platform in Manhattan, maybe on our way to work, and a man pushed another man off the platform, onto the tracks, as the fast-traveling train approached? Some of us, of course, would be physically unable; we might be too old or limited in our mobility. But not all, or maybe even most of us. Would we jump the five feet or so to the tracks and try to pull the man to safety, and clearly risk our own well-being at the same time?
Five years ago a New York construction worker became a hero when a man who seemed to be having a seizure fell onto the subway tracks from a nearly empty platform. Certain that the man’s limbs would be severed or worse, the soon-to-be hero jumped to the tracks, pulled the man between the rails, covered the man’s body with his own, and waited as the five train cars raced over them. The man’s name was Wesley Autrey. The story was re-told recently by columnist Joe Nocera in the New York Times.
He recalled that occasion of valor as a counterbalance to something that happened more recently. Two men were apparently have an argument of some sort and one of them pushed the other onto the tracks. As in the earlier incident, the train was approaching, about 30 second away. The platform was packed with people. Except for a man who took some gruesome pictures, no one did anything.
As Nocera observed in his column, we’d all like to think that we’d do what Wesley Autrey did. Sociological research suggests otherwise and they even have a name for this reality, the bystander effect. What researchers discovered was that the more people who witness a tragedy, who are involved in the scenario, the less likely it is that anyone will do anything. We might go along with someone else, but we don’t necessarily want to go first. We’d like someone else to lead the way.
Which may be what occurred — or didn’t — in the more recent subway platform incident. No one acted, other than the man who took the pictures or the people who ran away.
I’m not arguing that when Jesus gives his teaching on loving our neighbor that we are challenged to risk our very life to protect our neighbor, and yet I’m not going to suggest otherwise either. It’s easy to judge those who watched passively. It’s hopeful to think we’d have done more. Ultimately, maybe it’s not all about us. What other than God’s grace really allows someone to act as courageously and compulsively as Wesley Autrey did? TL