Black, White, and Collateral Damage

It doesn’t go away. It only worsens.

What’s next? The removal of the name from the library? The one to which personal funds were donated, rather than being spent on extravagant homes in seclusion from the masses? The expunging of NCAA record books to satisfy Jason Whitlock? Just how far will misplaced moral outrage take us before we pause to reflect on what all of this tells us about our culture and ourselves?

I sit yet again in stunned disbelief as my MSN homepage reports that the Paterno statue will be removed from its location outside Beaver Stadium. I confess that my eyes are not dry, my demeanor is not calm, and my confidence in our ability to deal rationally and fairly with people is entirely broken. It seems entirely irrelevant to most people that Joe Paterno did not molest children, did not witness the molesting of any of them by anyone else, and has not been charged with any crime. At worst, he miscalculated the potential damage that could be done by someone else. Even that has not yet been demonstrated. Jerry Sandusky has not worked for Joe Paterno for twelve years. It seems likewise irrelevant that Joe has positively impacted the lives of literally thousands of people directly and many more indirectly. For anyone who thinks his image has been overblown, that is not his own doing. To anyone who is not aware of the entire legacy, look it up. The case is now being treated in a manner that denies that anything good has been accomplished at all by this man, and that no recounting will ever stack up against what has taken place at the hand of another.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect to me is that this opinion is so widespread. It’s just a few of us with our heads in the sand and our hearts long ago locked up somewhere in Joe and Sue’s attic who think the rush to judgment has been unjust. Or those few who believe that everyone is due the benefit of the doubt, their day in court, their chance to speak, their opportunity to face their accusers. Supposedly, we were all among such a class of people; it was the kind we described ourselves as aspiring to be, the kind that has built a system of justice and judgment that goes out of its way to see to it the right to defend oneself is in need of the greatest protection we can offer. Yet how rare those folks are these past ten days. Where have they all gone? Who has kidnapped them? What principles have been given to us that have been convincingly argued to be superior?

Let’s be clear. This phenomenon has not begun in the case of a well-known football coach. This is simply a highly visible symptom of a societal trend started more than a generation ago. We now seem much more interested in proving the heroes to be flawed than we are in finding someone worthy of admiration if not imitation; it is much more interesting to bring them down than to lift them up. And when we bring them down, we are not content with bringing them to our level and seeing that they are just like us; no, we feel the need to lower them and highlight their flaws rather than their virtues, in the process concluding that we ourselves are better than they after all. We do it with political leaders and candidates, sports figures, and anyone else who cares enough and works hard enough to excel in anything. And once the train leaves the station, it isn’t coming back, picking up an overflow of travelers at every stop.

One of the causes of this malady, I submit, is our moral and spiritual confusion. It is moral confusion in that it implies a very black-and-white construction of moral action, even at a time when we are most uncertain as to where our moral values come from and how they ought to be ordered. In a time of supposed moral relativity we nonetheless hold a particular value as of highest importance–and expect everyone else to implicitly agree with it and recognize and condemn its violations. We can become so fixated upon one particular rule of moral conduct that we judge everything else in that light alone; and we condemn anyone who has broken this rule and anyone who does not echo the same. We are either oblivious to or unconcerned with the damage that is done to people caught along the tracks where this train might run. There are no other perspectives, there are no conflicting values with which persons had to deal, there is no defense for violators; there is only branding. It is spiritual confusion in that we so easily forget to apply the same black and white standard on ourselves, and fail to take seriously that we, too, are among the “all” who have sinned and come short of the glory of God–the One who alone could judge by black and white but does not. He judges by taking our place in His Son.

No doubt there are those who will think that I am minimizing the horrific nature of the sin that has been committed. No. I do disagree with the implication that any amount of collateral damage done to others in our anxiety for justice is acceptable. If further dismantling of a reputation would undo the damage done to the boys involved, I might calculate the moral questions differently. Even then, however, I would hope to leave the discussion more fully aware than ever of my own need for the grace of the Son.