It was 3:20 in the morning on March 13, 1964. Catherine "Kitty" Genovese drove home from work, parked her red Fiat in a lot adjacent to the Kew Gardens Long Island Rail Road Station, and began the 100-foot walk to her apartment door.
She noticed a suspicious man in her path and changed direction, but the man caught up to her and stabbed her. She screamed for help, and someone from within an apartment called down, "Let that girl alone!" The assailant did, but just for a moment.
The murderer, Winston Mosley, returned a second and third time, fatally stabbing Genovese. The police didn't receive a phone call until 3:50am, and when they arrived two minutes later, Genovese was dead.
A Moral Stain
The murder of Kitty Genovese left a moral stain on the city of New York. In the aftermath of the incident, local police expressed how easy it would have been to intervene. "A phone call would have done it," a detective said. Lieutenant Bernard Jacobs, who led the investigation, commented, "We can understand the reticence of people to become involved in an area of violence...but why didn't someone call us that night?"1
In the decades that followed, the murder didn't disappear. Journalists would return to the event to ask if humanity had changed at all. Douglas Martin of The New York Times asked in his 1989 article, "Would New York still turn away?"2
More recently, in 2010, a 31-year-old homeless Guatemalan immigrant died on a Queens street as people passed him by for over an hour.3 The New York Times likened that incident to the Kitty Genovese murder and questioned if people had any moral obligation to help someone in need.
Further research and investigation has gone to show that coverage of the Kitty Genovese murder was over exaggerated and misunderstood. 4 However, March 13, 1964 still remains a night marked by human passivity. So here's the question: if you had been in the neighborhood on the night Kitty Genovese was stabbed, what would you have done?
As a child of God, you have been called to be part of what God is doing, right here, right now. You have been invited to minister to lost and confused people living in a broken world. But I'm afraid that for many Christians, myself included, we have fallen into passivity.
Even though the Spirit of God has given us eyes to see and ears to hear the brokenness of the world, we still live as if we're too blind and too deaf to act. Why? I'm deeply persuaded that we have become all too satisfied with things that we should never be satisfied with. God isn't satisfied with the current state of things, and He's committed to redemption, but we often fall into a shrink-wrapped version of life and miss out on what God is doing.
Sin causes all of us to shrink our lives down to the size of our lives. Sin makes us all too satisfied and passive, living in the claustrophobic confines of our worlds. Maybe in a crucial moment of life-and-death like Kitty Genovese, we would resist passivity, but in the 10,000 little moments of everyday life, the temptation for passivity is very strong.
It's pretty clear in Scripture that human beings were created for transcendence. We were made to be part of something bigger than our own lives. Matthew 5 is a great example - Jesus likens us to salt and light. Salt was used, in biblical times, to retard the decay of meat, and light is used to drive away darkness.
Why does Jesus use these illustrations? Because He wants us to know that we are instruments of grace in a fallen world. But salt and light only work when they're exposed to decay and darkness. That means you need to step away from the passivity of your little kingdom and step out in faith to the bigger kingdom that God is calling you to be a part of.
There will be some days when you're motivated by the Kingdom of God, but there will be many days where you'll be motivated by passivity. You won't want to hear or see the brokenness. You will be perfectly satisfied with your own little kingdom.
Don't be afraid to admit your passivity. The grace of forgiveness will meet you in every moment when you have failed to be a tool of God's grace, and the grace of empowerment will strengthen you for the task at hand.
God will never call you do be part of what He's doing on earth without going with you and giving you everything you need.
1 My recounting of the Genovese murder has been adapted from the original New York Times article, "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police" (Martin Gansberg, March 27, 1964).
2 The New York Times, "About New York; Kitty Genovese: Would New York Still Turn Away?" (Douglas Martin, March 11, 1989).
3 The New York Times, "Questions Surround a Delay in Help for a Dying Man" (A.G. Sulzberger and Mick Meenan, April 25, 2010).
4 Business Insider, "How The Murder Of 28-Year-Old Kitty Genovese Became America's Most Misunderstood Crime" (Erin Fuchs, March 12, 2014).