In this week’s Gospel, Jesus shows authority not only by the way he teaches, but also in the way that he recognizes the shrieking man. In this story, Jesus is a man who knows his power and uses it for the health of the community. Imagine, for a second, this man shrieking aloud in the middle of the synagogue while Jesus is teaching. It is an uncomfortable moment. Jesus has a choice to acknowledge him or keep teaching. For that one instant, I imagine the others in the temple living in the awkwardness, wondering what he will do. They are amazed at how he acts on his authority, diffusing the situation.
As a young person, you may identify with moments like this. There may not be someone shrieking in the middle of a classroom discussion, but maybe there is an inappropriate joke told in the lunchroom, a bullying comment meant to intimidate made on Facebook, or an interaction between two people that does not feel right to you. What do you do? There is one awkward moment to decide. In your gut, you know that what is going on is wrong, even if it does not affect you directly. Will you claim your authority as a bystander and diffuse the situation? Or will you stay quiet and let the hurt set in or let it escalate?
Bystanders have more power than we know. We know that discrimination, bullying and violence happens on social networking, via texts and in the hallways. It is a pervasive problem that can ruin some people’s lives. Yet there are actually very few bullies in our community. They are by far in the numerical minority. The bullying is being done by a few people to a few people, and the rest of us, who have the real power, are standing by. Most of us are bystanders who decide to not speak up. It is very difficult to act in an uncomfortable moment, but that is what Jesus is calling us to do. If a few of the many bystanders, who have strength in numbers, decide to claim their authority, the health and safety of our community will go up right away. If you can be brave enough to be an active bystander, I promise most other observers really want to say something too, and will be quick to join you. Active intervention is contagious, and it can stop bullying quickly and effectively by changing where the power lies.
When I was teaching high school, my teacher friend and I ran a theater group that actually practiced becoming more active bystanders. Students would bring uncomfortable and hurtful situations to the group that happened, and we would practice ways of intervention to see how they could have played out. The students were amazed at how natural intervention became in their real lives by taking a little time to practice. The school I taught at also started the Green Dot program, which trained young people to turn “red dot” moments into “green dot” moments by strategic intervention. Through these two programs, students learned that there is no one right way to intervene. Some people like direct intervention, going straight to the person being inappropriate and calling him or her out. There are more subtle ways, however, to diffuse the situation that do not call so much attention to you or humiliate the other people involved. What I saw through the theater group and Green Dot was young people committing together to be proactive every day to make their community safer for all people. Making the conscious decision to claim authority as a bystander to dismantle discrimination has really made a difference.
Think about a hurtful event that you have witnessed that is still with you. What happened? What did you do? What are other ways you could have dealt with the situation?
Do you see inappropriate actions on Facebook? In your school?
Who can you partner with to commit to being a more active bystander?