How Active Bystander Training Changes Our Witness

Congregations can show up in their communities with this training

man talking to group

As an interim, my pastoral work is more about systemic change in a congregation and less about changing the world. Yet when a mosque in our area was threatened in 2016, obviously our mostly white church needed to respond as good neighbors. Today white congregations find ourselves in a similar environment. 

At the time we attended a rally and later were invited by the mosque and a synagogue to offer Active Bystander Training. To be honest, at the start we simply were willing to offer our space. On two different Saturdays groups of fifty people sat in our basement learning how to teach others to be Active Bystanders.

We had read Waking Up White by Debbie Irving, and the congregation had engaged in other discussions of race, but Active Bystander Training was helpful in offering clear action steps we can take to reduce racist and other oppressive behaviors. 

Bystanders and Interlocking Forms of Oppression

Racism and other forms of oppression are carried out in four different but interlocking, ways. Cultural racism is more “caught” than taught—it is the norms and standards of our culture that identify things that are more white as more right, better, and advanced. Institutional racism is laws, policies, and procedures that are either racially biased or are unequally applied. Interpersonal racism plays out between individuals and in small groups. Personal racism takes place within ourselves—it our inner dialogue and emotional reactions. 

Engaging all four manifestations of oppression is important, and they build on one another. Ervin Staub’s research, presented in The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil, suggests that work at reducing interpersonal oppression can change our culture. What starts as unkind jokes and personal bullying, when accepted as normal, hurts the target of those jokes, but also isolates the harm-doer and those that observe the behavior. It leads people to accept conduct that is increasingly damaging to individuals and to the community. Interpersonal racism, when left unchecked, increases cultural and institutional racism.

Staub found that interrupting even small acts of harm-doing changed the culture to one that would not accept violent language or actions. Bystanders—that is people who witness harm-doing—have the most important role in creating that change. While many bystanders remain neutral, which encourages harm-doing to continue, Staub’s research shows “it is possible to create a world in which people care about other human beings, caring that is expressed in helpful actions …” (p. 1). In short, we can learn to actively intervene. 

Active Bystanders

Active Bystanders are people who see or hear interpersonal interactions based in oppression and choose to act to make it clear that the interactions are not okay. They do this by assisting the target or by interacting with the harm-doer, and they may act during the conflict, after the conflict, or even by adjusting circumstances beforehand to prevent negative behavior. Active bystanders do not escalate the situation or label the harm-doer as racist (sexist, classist, etc.). Active bystanders simply make it clear that interpersonal oppression is not okay.

The training includes brainstorming scenarios where active bystanders are needed and learning from psychological research that it is normal to resist intervention, but also that there are strategies to overcome these inhibitors. 

Resisting intervention can look like:

• Pluralistic Ignorance: We are trained by society to avoid responding to uncomfortable situations.

• Diffusion of Responsibility: We think it is someone else’s responsibility to respond.

• Ambiguity: In many situations, it is difficult to discern exactly what is going on.

• Fear: Concern that we are doing the wrong thing, or that we will be judged by others.

• Danger: Situations that include physical violence, or when a persons job is at risk, or when the harm-doer has power over the bystander.

Working in groups, people in the training find strategies to overcome these inhibitors and practice those responses. Our ability to become active bystanders comes from internal promoters of care for others. The list of promoters is worth bringing into all discipleship conversations. Those who have been active bystanders describe their motivation as self interest (helping others because I expect to be helped myself), empathy, a sense of responsibility for others, or a sense of inclusive caring. Inclusive caring involves drawing the circle of people important to us widely, thus including people we don’t know or understand.

One Church’s Experience

Significant to congregational work, active bystanders are asked to display moral courage—to do what is right even when it feels risky to do so. Discussing moral courage opened our congregation to new ways of seeing the world around us but also new ways of seeing each other. Jesus’s instruction to “take up our cross” took on new meaning during this secular training. By practicing useful responses to harm-doing, we learned to recognize racism and other oppression in more situations. This helps us see institutional and cultural racism and to acknowledge when our feelings are examples of personal racism.

At the same time, supporting the Active Bystander Trainings developed new leaders in our congregation, and some of our long-time leaders learned new skills in addressing conflict of all sorts more directly. By offering the workshops to the community, we strengthened our ties to our neighborhood; the local police came to one of our sessions, allowing us to build new relationships. There are many paths for predominantly white churches to improve our work to overcome racism and other forms of oppression. Active Bystander Training is one place to start.

Photo by 祝 鹤槐

  • Elizabeth Mae Magill

    Elizabeth Mae Magill is pastor of Ashburnham Community Church, a trainer for Active Bystanders, and the author of "Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing a Relational Food Ministry". Find more of her work at

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