OH, BUT WE DIDN’T MEAN THAT

Becoming Better Bystanders

by Jeanine Elliott, Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ, Beaverton, OR

Some years back, when 9/11 was still fresh in our hearts, I was on a ferry in British Columbia.  Over on the far side of the ship a man of Middle Eastern ancestry was on his cell, talking loudly in his native language.  It was very loud.  People around me began a buzz of conversation, voicing concerns about manners and common courtesy.  Then we heard from across the way an English-speaking man begin to confront the man, not about his rudeness but about his ethnicity.  As he began to verbally abuse the cell phone speaker, using inappropriate racial slurs, the conversation on our side of the boat shifted instantly to a tone of regret and concern.  “Oh, but we didn’t mean that.”  Not verbalized, but seeming to be part of our response was “We wanted him to be quieter; we didn’t intend for him to be attacked. We didn’t want his ethnic background to be highlighted.”  In the meantime, someone had gone to find the first officer and order was quickly restored.   We had watched a “hate” moment arise, we had shared the “we didn’t mean that” moment, but we had taken no action.

 Where did it leave us who were the bystanders for this little event, an event which was in many ways a metaphor for many of our daily interactions?  I probably was not the only one to continue my journey with a feeling of unsettledness and uncertainty.  When we started our trip most of us would have been thinking about our own comfort.  When the loud one-sided conversation started we were annoyed that our quiet time was disturbed.  We certainly weren’t thinking about the fragility of the social contract and the rights of all, at least not until the abusive attack started.  When we reached the “Oh, but we didn’t mean that” level of thinking, we had added a level of cognitive complexity, i.e. we were thinking about what we did mean.  We still had not moved to action, but we had the potential for becoming  better bystanders.

There will be times when we are called to action, when we are the ones sitting next to a cruel interaction between or among people.  Someone called the first officer; another intervened briefly with the English-speaking abuser.  There will be far more times, however, when, as people of faith and justice, we may be called to be effective as a bystander, even for a few moments.  For example, I could have engaged the group in my area in a conversation about what we just saw and heard.  We could have built a short-term community of care.  As a result the cell phone caller might have received at least a nod or smile of affirmation from our side of the boat.  Someone might have spoken to the first officer about issues of civility on the BC ferries.  Small ripples of civility, justice, and care might emerge.  We bystanders have work to do.

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