Joe Paterno seemed untouchable. Penn State, the university where he was the head football coach, until this past Saturday had not played a football game without Paterno on the coaching staff since 1949! He has been the head coach since 1966 and has won more games (409) than any other division I coach in history. Throughout his career he has had a reputation for integrity, for running a clean program. Laurie and I have friends who have become personally acquainted with Mr. Paterno and his wife and have told us on several occasions how impressed they were with them. Our friends say they have found the Paternos to be good, genuine and charismatic people. How terribly sad that Paterno’s coaching career ended in disgrace when he was fired last week amid the spreading sex abuse scandal that has exploded at Penn State, his reputation no doubt forever tarnished.
I have had a number of thoughts while watching with great sadness as this scandal has unfolded. It is clear that while all the facts of the case are not known, university authorities believe that Joe Paterno knew that Sandusky had committed a crime and did not do nearly enough to deal with the situation. We can speculate as to why. Perhaps he wasn’t sure, perhaps he felt that it was the responsibility of others to handle the situation, perhaps he feared smearing the name of a friend if the allegations against Sandusky proved false, or maybe all he cared about was the success and reputation of his football program and didn’t want it besmirched by scandal. At this point I have no idea why he didn’t respond more actively. But there is an important lesson in this for all of us. He should have done more, and we all know it. We all have a responsibility to protect the innocent, especially children. The message is that whatever Paterno thought, first and foremost he should have acted to protect children from such abuse. He should have at least called in law enforcement to investigate the allegations. I have personally had to deal with Christian organizations that tried to sweep incidents of sexual abuse under the carpet because they were afraid of the scandal and the negative repercussions that might result from openly confronting the problems. Such a cowardly response is reprehensible and inexcusable, and it further victimizes the victims of abuse. There is a lesson here for all of us. We must be careful in the church to guard against such a thing ever happening in our midst. Most of the time we don’t think such a thing could happen in our church. But isn’t that always the case? Isn’t such a thing always unthinkable? Yet it happens. So we must be wise and make sure our children are never placed in a situation where something like that could happen. And if we hear a report from someone about such a thing happening, we must act to intervene, even though it might be costly to do so. We have a responsibility to protect the innocent.
That much is obvious, I suspect, to all of us. But this incident sparked a couple of other thoughts in me. One thought is that these events present a conundrum to the prevailing moral philosophy of our society. It is no secret that we live in a culture steeped in moral relativism. Postmodernism rejects any attempt at setting up an absolute moral standard. But when something like this happens it smacks moral relativism square in the face. I have not heard anyone saying that this was merely an alternative lifestyle choice. I hear no one saying Jerry Sandusky did what was right for him and Joe Paterno did what was right for him so what’s the big deal? Simply stated, we know this is wrong. It is wrong for Jerry Sandusky or anyone else to sexually assault young boys, if in fact he did what was claimed, and it is wrong for others who know of such assaults to do nothing to stop them. Even the universities of our land, those staunch bastions of relativism, respond with high dudgeon in such a situation. They are quick to lop off the heads of those tarred by the scandal. Oh, there might be a tiny element on the fringe of society who object that there is nothing wrong with men forcing themselves sexually on children, but the overwhelming majority of people even in our degraded culture react with revulsion at this kind of horror. We know deep down in our gut that this is just plain wrong. It is more than wrong, it is egregiously offensive and it must be stopped!
Our guts tell us what we ought to admit with our minds. Some things are wrong and we know it. But as soon as one admits that this is so one has also just acknowledged that there is some moral standard that exists apart from our personal opinion. There is some moral law that is outside of us, that somehow seems to force itself on us. Where does this independent law come from? In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis makes the case that it is evidence of the existence of God. Whether one accepts his argument, it seems to me that at the very least the events that have transpired at Penn State call into serious doubt the premise of moral relativism. It reminds us of what we all know to be true, and that is that some things are just plain wrong. There is right and there is wrong in this world.
There is one other thought that this incident generated for me. All have acknowledged that Joe Paterno himself did not do anything wrong. He did not commit any morally wrong act. His error was not one of commission (something he committed), but one ofomission (something he should have done but failed to do). There is a reminder here that goodness and rightness are not purely negative things. They are not only matters of avoiding the wrong things, but of also choosing to do the right things. This, I believe, is an especially important truth for followers of Jesus, for historically religious people have had a tendency to concentrate on avoiding sins of commission. It is common for Christians to define obedience to God mostly by what they don’t do. In his book,Chasing Daylight, Erwin McManus wrote, “We have put so much emphasis on avoiding evil that we have become virtually blind to the endless opportunities for doing good. We have defined holiness through what we separate ourselves from rather than what we give ourselves to. I am convinced that the great tragedy is not the sins that we commit, but the life that we fail to live.”
Perhaps one positive thing we can take out of the awful events at Penn State is a reminder to think at least as much about the good that we can and should do but might easily neglect as the evil that we seek to avoid. True goodness, true godliness, does involve some negative prohibitions, to be sure, but it also involves keeping our eyes open to opportunities to do the right thing, to do a good thing that might make a difference for someone in this world.