“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
– Attributed to Edmund Burke
In the final episode of the 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer witnessed a man getting carjacked at gunpoint. Instead of helping him, Kramer filmed the crime on his camcorder as they cracked jokes, then they walked away. The victim observed this and told the reporting officer. These four main characters were then taken into custody for violating a Good Samaritan law that requires bystanders at the scene of an emergency to provide reasonable assistance to a person in need. A lengthy trial followed, during which many characters from the series were called upon as character witnesses to testify against the group for their many selfish acts.
When we think about various sins, we typically have in mind the “thou shall nots:” “Thou shall not murder… Thou shall not commit adultery… Thou shall not steal…” Such sins are sometimes categorized as “sins of commission,” as in sins that we actively commit. But a large category of sins has to do with “sins of omission,” that is, with failing to do the good that God calls us and commands us to do.
Just as Seinfeld and his friends failed to take action to help a fellow human in need, sins of omission include the shutting of one’s eyes to injustice or pretending to be ignorant of evil. Such sins can include parents who neglect their children, breadwinners who abandon their families, adults who neglect their elderly parents, tax-evaders who flee overseas to avoid prosecution, soldiers who go AWOL or are derelict in their duties, or witnesses to crimes who fail to help or intervene. In short, when people defect from goodness they involve themselves in moral and spiritual evil.
The Heidelberg Catechism offers the following response to the question, “Is it enough that we do not kill our neighbor?” “No… God wills us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can.” Certainly, not being a murderer is a fine thing. But as Christians, we are also taught against fleeing our responsibilities or evading our duties. May we hear and take to heart the warning of James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”