Interrupting Violence

Questions for Christians

  • How do I know when it’s time to intervene?

  • How do I know if my assistance is wanted?

  • Will intervening actually work? What if it makes things worse?

  • What if intervening puts me or people around me in danger, too?

  • What strategies are most effective in a potentially harmful situation?


Many people believe that the more people who are present when a violent crime is taking place, the more likely that a person being victimized will be helped. However, research shows that in public we are less likely to help another person in an emergency or threatening situation. This human behavior has been called the bystander effect (Darley & Latané, 1968). 

In the news and online, we see videos from eyewitnesses who captured threatening or violent circumstances, offering lots of opportunity to study human behavior in these situations. Sometimes these videos capture people intervening, regardless of their training or knowledge of how to diffuse what’s happening. Other times we watch as the event unfolds while the person behind the lens stands by. 

The bystander effect also happens in the absence of a threat. When other people are present, we are generally less likely to help others–even to pick up dropped change or hold a door.


Our default response to do nothing comes from a complex interaction of our fight-or-flight response, social norms, and external facilitators and barriers to action. Our brains receive more information than they can process at one time, so all people have a natural tendency to conserve cognition resources (Cleveland, 45). One of the ways our brain does this is by categorizing. Our brains categorize people into social groups and rely on information about that group to help us interact and predict behavior (Cleveland, 47). This might start as simply descriptive, but without exposure to people different from ourselves we begin to think more extremely and make value judgements about others (Cleveland, 27). This is just one of the many cognitive activities happening behind the scenes.


But the bystander effect can be interrupted, and all of us can play a role. While we cannot fully prevent every situation, interference or stepping in when something doesn’t look right can reduce harm. Forty years of research on the bystander effect tells us that people can influence us to do nothing in violent situations–but it also tells us that the bystander effect can be reversed (Fischer et al., 2011). When a group is held together by a shared, valued identity or experiences, the group can promote beneficence rather than undermine helping behavior (Levine & Crowther, 2008).

Nearly 66%

A bystander or witness is present in nearly two-thirds of violent crimes (Planty, 2002).

< 66%

Less than two-thirds of bystanders will act when there are five or more other people present (Darley & Latané, 1968).


70% of studies done with teen dating violence interventions were found to have some effect on knowledge and attitudes toward violence.


Why it matters

“We live our theology every day, intentionally or not” (Edwin Childs, personal communication, October 3, 2023). Our behavior and perceptions of the world are influenced by our core beliefs about God, ourselves, humans, and all of creation. We serve a God who modeled what it might look like to intervene and interrupt violence. Jesus was teaching at the temple when a handful of Pharisees shoved a woman in front of him (John 8).

The Pharisees publicly accused her of cheating on her husband and declared that the law of Moses required them to stone her. Attempting to trap him, they demanded Jesus answer whether he agreed with the law of Moses. Jesus did not say anything, but started writing in the dirt. When challenged again to endorse their violent actions, Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one the accusers left. Jesus’ response seems peculiar, but as a bystander it makes sense. Jesus came into the fray with the woman and responded amidst the crowd to distract the Pharisees, protect the woman, and diffuse the potential for harm. 

This situation reminds us of violence and sexual assault that are very real in our neighborhoods and on college campuses. Our bold action emulating Jesus as a bystander is not in vain–it is a testimony to the opportunity for life God gives us. God intercedes and intervenes for us so we have eternal life. And we do not have to wait for some coming day–we can have a new quality of life now. By intervening as bystanders, we can be witnesses to God’s desire to give life to others, even when they do not see it yet. Our action of a bystander is a tangible in-breaking of God’s Kingdom.


Can you imagine if everybody in your community possessed agency to say something when a situation didn’t look right? What if our youth groups or campus fellowships were known as the best folks to call when you need a safe walk home? What if our churches were known for interrupting violence? Our vision is to see all Christians possess the self-efficacy to intervene as a bystander, shifting our neighborhoods away from violence to places where everyone can thrive. 

What you can do

  • Attend a Bystander Intervention Training or lead one with your student group. See the list below for resources and self-led curricula that will help you learn how to be an effective bystander who intervenes when something goes wrong.
  • Remember the 5 D’s when you encounter an unsafe situation: Direct, Distract, Delay, Delegate, Document.
  • Learn what is happening in your neighborhood or state. There are many community-based initiatives that work to disrupt violence, build relationships, and support resilience of families. 

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.

John 15:13-14

Cat Calls? Comics to the Rescue!

By Jennifer Carpenter

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published Jun 27, 2019. Since then, the organization we interviewed has changed its name to Right to Be.  

“Hey, baby, come over here and let me look at you a minute.” “Smile, beautiful.” “What’s your name, little mama?”

I never know what to say when I hear this kind of stuff while walking down the street.

We Were the Least of These: Sexual Abuse and the Church

By Elaine A. Heath

It was the middle of summer, and I was preaching through a series entitled “Men, Women, and God.” While the congregation was accepting of me as their pastor, they still tended to have patriarchal views about gender.

Additional Resources

Bystander Intervention Trainings:

Self-Led Activities & Toolkits:

Other Resources:


Cited Resources for Deeper Reading
Cleveland, Christena. (2013). Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. InterVarsity Press.

Coker, A. L., Bush, H. M., Cook-Craig, P. G., DeGue, S. A., Clear, E. R., Brancato, C. J., Fisher, B. S., & Recktenwald, E. A. (2017). “RCT Testing Bystander Effectiveness to Reduce Violence.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52(5), 566–578.

Coker, A. L., Bush, H. M., Brancato, C. J., Clear, E. R., & Recktenwald, E. A. (2019). “Bystander Program Effectiveness to Reduce Violence Acceptance: RCT in High Schools.” Journal of Family Violence, 34(3), 153–164.

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4, Pt.1), 377–383.

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M., & Kainbacher, M. (2011). “The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies.” Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517–537.

Hortensius, R., & de Gelder, B. (2018). “From Empathy to Apathy: The Bystander Effect Revisited.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 249-256.

Levine, M., & Crowther, S. (2008). “The responsive bystander: How social group membership and group size can encourage as well as inhibit bystander intervention.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1429–1439.

Planty, M. (2002). “Third-party involvement in violent crime, 1993–1999.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.