“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” – Greek lyrical poet, Archilochus
Have you ever considered hypothetical scenarios and asked yourself how you would react in them? Sometimes, these situations are dramatic – a home invasion! Or perhaps the scene is subtle – a friend is uncomfortable with a joke at their expense. The reality is these situations are not only hypothetical, for we could also see incidents of discomfort, harassment or humiliation at any time at work, at home or out in the community.
Most of us would like to think that we would respond in some way. We may not imagine ourselves behaving heroically, but surely none of us could imagine doing nothing, right? But the quotation above speaks to the hard truth that, on the whole, we do not rise to the occasion; rather, we default to act in the way we’ve been trained. But what happens if we haven’t been trained?
This is the conundrum that Training Active Bystanders (TAB) addresses. TAB aims to give us the tools to respond to moments of crisis, whether large or small, in a peaceful and de-escalating manner. TAB has been implemented by MCC’s Restorative Justice team since 2019. In collaboration with 11 partners in Canada including Kindred Credit Union, Waterloo Region District School Board and Ocean Wise, MCC has trained over 2,000 participants across Canada.
In addition to being a practical tool for peacebuilding, being trained to be an active bystander to promote peace and reduce harm is, for many participants, a biblical call that reflects Jesus’ teachings of compassion and standing with the marginalized. This is revealed in the reflections that were sent to our RJ team from past TAB participants.
It is a tough choice to risk a job, friendships or connection to people to intervene for someone else’s best. After I learned about active bystandership, I highlighted the section in the training which resonated with me most:
“Moral courage is doing the right thing even though others may disapprove. Moral courage means acting on your personal values of what is right and wrong even if your actions go against the values, beliefs or expectations of people around you.
Negative reaction to bystandership can sometimes be extreme. Then the active bystander must also have physical courage. It is not always easy to predict the consequences of morally courageous action. So sometimes doing the right thing requires nerve and bravery.
It is also important that active bystanders do all they can to lessen the danger or negative consequences to the target, all active bystanders, or even the harm doer.”
As a Christian, I rely heavily on my faith in the aftermath of standing up as an active bystander. This last paragraph about “doing all I can to lessen the danger” to all involved is one of my guiding principles.
I’m thankful the Lord led me to the MCC peacebuilding course and for learning about active bystandership too.
Moral courage is doing the right thing even though others may disapprove.
The next story comes from Barb LeBlanc, a volunteer at MCC's own Thrift on Kent. It’s a great example of how being a gentle yet “active bystander” prevented not only a potential argument but turned into an above-and-beyond customer service experience!
I’m not sure if this would classify as an active bystander example but the situation did require some diplomacy. I work in the shoe section once a week which requires sorting, cleaning, pricing and putting out good condition shoes, sandals and boots. It’s difficult to keep up with the demand since we receive many new or nearly new excellent brand names. I was wheeling out a cart full of shoes one afternoon when two ladies each grabbed one Birkenstock sandal from the same pair! I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.
The smaller lady deferred to the larger one, handing over her sandal. I watched as the “victor” tried on the bargain-priced Birkenstocks noting the sandals were too small. When I exclaimed it was a shame the sandal didn’t fit, she said she’d take it anyway for her daughter. Meanwhile, the other lady had been waiting to see if she still might end up with the sandals. I took her aside and told her there were lots more in the back and I’d see if I could find something suitable (which I did). There was a potential for confrontation – thankfully it didn’t occur.
And finally, this person reflects that Training Active Bystanders has reminded them of the human behind the hurtful act:
I would say that somehow what I learned through the training, together with Nonviolent Conflict training [from MCC’s Applied Peacebuilding Certificate course], has been integrated in small ways whenever I run into situations where differences are being expressed. I find it a bit easier to see the human being behind actions or words that are hurtful in some way, rather than automatically falling back into my habitual reaction which is to try to convince them I’m right. I say “a bit easier”: these days I am so alarmed by the state of the world that I need to pay at least as much attention to my own emotional and spiritual state and to God’s undeterred movement toward shalom as I do to sensing how to love others. It’s hard work.
I thank you and bless you and your colleagues as you continue in your own hard work. May God give us all extra measures of wisdom, strength and patience.
Training Active Bystanders reminds us that good intentions are not enough. In moments of disagreement, crisis or harm-doing, it is loving, peaceful intervention that makes a real difference. Click here to register for the next TAB training on January 26, 2023!
Consider hosting a TAB training with your workplace, church, sports team or any group of community members who aspire to active peacebuilding. Contact Restorative Justice program coordinator Rod Friesen for details.
Training Active Bystanders is a Canada/U.S. partnership with Quabbin Mediation; MCC licenses the program to be delivered in Canada.