Thursday, March 24, 2016

Memories IV: Parenting and the Bystander Effect

This memory is sparked by some writing I have been doing for a textbook.  So it doesn't start off in the same sort of very personal place that some of my other memories of Eli or Miriam have. (It will get there soon enough.)  Instead, what got me thinking was writing about research on the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect is a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology.  Suppose that someone is the victim of some kind of emergency (like a heart attack or a traffic accident or even an assault).  Then, the more bystanders witness the emergency, the less likely it is that the victim will receive help from any of them.  In 1968, social scientists John Darley and Bibb Latan√© conducted a famous experiment in which they showed that the chance of a single bystander intervening in a staged emergency situation was 85 percent, but this dropped to 31 percent when five bystanders were believed to be present. Somehow, the fact that other people are not intervening "licenses" me not to intervene also - even though, were I alone, I would clearly see my duty to help.

When I started thinking about the Bystander Effect, I wanted to talk about sustainability - how we license one another to live in ways that neglect and harm the Earth.   But today I want to make a different application.  I have a question that I want to ask Christian parents specifically.

If your child comes out as LGBTQ, will you be a bystander?

I admit, there was a long time when I was a bystander on this topic.  I felt uncomfortable with what the evangelical church was saying, and failing to say, to gay and lesbian people (bisexual, transgender, and the rest weren't even in my vocabulary).  I regarded talk about gay people's "choices" and "lifestyles" as mistaken.  But... I didn't know any young LGBTQ people (just one or two of my own older generation).  Whatever theological, psychological or physical violence was happening, I wasn't seeing it.  I was a bystander.

All that changed when our child came out to us.

There's a saying of the Roman poet Horace which Karl Barth often quotes: Tua res agitur, "the matter concerns you!"   That's how it felt.  We could be bystanders no longer.  We were needed, summoned, challenged to be there for our child, to embrace, to defend, to bind up wounds, to celebrate the extraordinary, brave journey that our child had been called to embark on.

That is our calling, parents! Or so it seems to me.  But many Christian parents apparently don't see it this way.  They've been taught that faithfulness to the Bible, or loyalty to the church, or something requires them to remain bystanders to their LGBTQ children.  Not to run and embrace their kids, but to "lovingly" explain how wrong this discovery is that they have made about themselves; or, worse, to respond with anger or rejection.

It breaks my heart to tell you this, but standard advice to young LGBTQ kids is to make sure, if at all possible, that you have an alternative place to live before you come out to your parents.  Because they may throw you out.  And (this is the most heartbreaking part) this is especially important if your parents are deeply religious.  They are the most likely to throw you out.  Yes, you read that right.  The more parents talk about God, the more likely they are to condemn their LGBTQ kids to homelessness and exploitation.

As the Apostle James says, These things ought not to be! It is like a spring that pours forth sweet water and bitter water from the same opening!

This idea that the bystanders are the ones who have it right - that parents who advocate for their LGBTQ children somehow are "too emotionally involved" or "have an agenda" - is misguided and dangerous. Think about Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), which could almost be called the Parable of the Bystander Effect.  The theological knowledge of the priest and the Levite, in that tale, serves only to license their bystander apathy - to insulate them from what they knew their duty to be.  It's the Samaritan who breaks the bystander barrier who is held out by Jesus as an example. "Go, then, and do likewise." (Luke 10:37)

But you lost your child in the end, didn't you?

Our beloved child is dead, yes. That is a grief that will never heal - not even though we believe that the end is not death, but the new life that Christ will bring to all things.  As long as we live, we will mourn Eli/Miriam.

But we were not bystanders.  We fought as hard as we knew how for our child's life and happiness.  No, being an advocate for your child will not guarantee a happy outcome.  We don't take the path of love because of guarantees. We take it because it is Jesus' path.  We take in obedience and hope. 

 I pray that you will do the same, and that your journey with your child will be full of joy and wonder - as ours, though all too short, was also.

Tua res agitur!

 A Note about Resources

You might say, You're talking to me!  But who can I ask about this?   Here are the websites of four national organizations who are active in the LGBTQ-Christian space, who may be able to help you.



Efton Park said...

Powerfully and beautifully written, John. Thank you. I am so sorry for your loss.

Julie said...

Love,love,love. Bless you for your words and sharing them with us. Your words help and inspire others. We are deeply sorry for your loss.

KSB said...

I want to share this amazing and beautiful message far and wide. Thank you for the invitation to bear full witness to one another. Thank you.

Elli Groninger said...


Diane Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane Thomas said...

I'm so sorry to hear about what has happened. My love to you, Liane and Nathan.