Recently Billy Bush expressed regret for engaging in a now infamous conversation with Donald Trump in which Trump bragged about groping women while Bush laughed at and went along with the crude talk. Bush now says, “I wish I had changed the topic on the bus. But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it. I was an insecure person, a bit of a pleaser, wanting celebrities to like me and fit in.” He went on to reveal that when the tape of this vulgar conversation was made public, his 15-year-old daughter said, “Why were you laughing at the things that [Trump] was saying on that bus, Dad? They weren’t funny.”
Why indeed? Bush attributes his behavior to not having sufficient “strength of character”; to being a pleaser; to wanting to fit in. Now whether Bush was a bystander or participant, his apology has made me reflect on the problem of bystanding and the need for moral courage.
Bystanding can seem fairly innocuous. After all, bystanders do not actively do wrong. They simply do not oppose it. Bystanding is a sin of omission. When it is a sin. Sometimes it is just being polite. Only cranks speak out against everything they disagree with. Balanced individuals possess both the moral courage to speak up, and the tact to know when to bite their tongues. Going along to get along does not always involve unethical compromises.
But sometimes it does. Bystanding can enable horrific evil. Witness the Holocaust. The Holocaust Museum devotes an entire section of its Holocaust Encyclopedia to “Bystanding.” Hannah Arendt famously argued that Nazi success in carrying out the extermination of Jews differed widely from country to country according to the willingness of non-Jewish neighbors to be bystanders. Bystanding was part of what Arendt famously identified as “the banality of evil.”
Two stories from the New Testament illustrate the sometimes not-so-banal evil of bystanding. The apostle Paul was a bystander at Stephen’s stoning. He did not throw rocks, but he held the clothes of those who did. Paul condemns himself for “consenting” to Stephen’s death: “And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death” (Acts 22:20; see also Acts 7:58).
Peter was also a bystander at the house of Caiaphas when the Lord was arrested. All New Testament gospels recount the story of Peter’s failure to stand up for the Savior. Luke alone, however, includes a particularly poignant detail. Luke records that as the cock crew, “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.” This excruciating moment of shame reminds me of what Billy Bush must have felt when his daughter reproached him saying: “Dad, why did you laugh!” How painful to be confronted with such a question or such a gaze from someone you love.
May we never to face such recriminations from those we love. Let us have the moral courage to refuse to become a bystander to evil and injustice.