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.

4 thoughts on “Black, White, and Collateral Damage

  1. Brother, we talked about this today, serial child molestation accusation is the ultimate culture wide moral test, then rape, closely followed by coverup-conspiracy and perjury, and abuse of office. But you are being manipulated by the media. PSU (as of five hours ago) denies this is on the table.

    Even I flinched yesterday with the removal of paterno’s name from the big 10 trophy, questions about his alma mater’s trophy, and then this. This is a Greek tragedy, Aeschylus is scribbling furiously on a tablet right now. But the point of the classical tragedy is that some great crime was committed, such as with history from Herodotus, the outcome in this generation is due to choices made earlier, even in previous generation(s).

    As always I disagree with you in a couple of areas:

    1) this isn’t about one issue, molesting, it is about a whole list of issues, as above, they are all in play. right now we ?know? that Sadusky showered with a bunch of boys by his own admission (that was really creepy, you and i missed that in highschool and college sports), and that Joe “should have done more” using his words. And we know they worked closely for decades, and that a coach saw “something” at 10pm i believe between sadusky and a young boy. (this is like Act 1)

    2) the media made Paterno, the cult of personality sustained him, and they are unmaking him rapidly. that shouldn’t be a surprise. he was a great coach in the 70s, linebackerU and all that. but was he really all that so many celebrated, a football emperor to be deified upon death like an imperial roman . I don’t think so. didn’t that bother (this is like Act 2)

    So Act 3 is when “all” will be revealed, I don’t have that sense that there is going to be some grand vindication of Sandusky, Paterno, etc…. But I hope that the righteous will be vindicated, failing that I’ll have to hang with Habakkuk, or maybe Joel, that the day of the locust will be recompensed (by God, in His time).

    Yep, we’ve all sinned, me more than you, I worry about stuff like this in my life, I pray for the removal of my ill effects on people. I want people to flourish, while I diminish. This was the John/Jesus situation, what a REALLY good teacher is all about, a REALLY good parent is all about. I’m 1% down that road.

    The Paterno story is the classical Roman Story, I succeed by attaching myself to those who succeed. This is not an important story, its background.

    You can’t see the forest for the trees. You think this is about some cross product of the english/american justice theory wrapped around retributive justice.

    This is about a normal american success story being the basis of way too many people’s lives, action, money. emulating the classic roman story as approved by cicero.

    We all know where this story is going to end, we’ve seen it end before, Paterno myth was a false hope, that was/is the problem.

    • Yes, MSN got me this afternoon, along with many others. The major points of the post, however, still stand (I think). Yes, those are the tacit taboos about which “everybody knows.” We seem to forget, however, that they do not stand alone in that grand thing C.S. Lewis referred to as The Dao. It’s when we reduce moral action to those few things which at any given point in a culture everyone recognizes that we run into trouble; its a minimalist list which then is viewed as black and white, violations constituting the end of discussion. Moral action is never simple, as you well know–simple in the sense that only one norm is in play. Minimalism and its implicit black-white way of judging does not serve us well at those times, with even cherished legal principles or individual rights being trampled. By the way (unless I’ve been duped twice in one day, which would really tick me off), the strength of this black-white phenomenon was seen today when Franco Harris was fired as a casino spokesman for his public support of Joe.

      I’d like to do some further study on what social psychologists have to say anout our need for heroes, even if it is ultimately only to bring them down again. Neither Paterno or anyone else gets the elevation without a culture that thinks it needs and wants such figures. On one hand we want to have them–and, yes, there is money to be made by providing them; on the other, we don’t quite know what to do with them when they stop being intetersting. What more convenient way to dismiss them and solve the problem than to have a scandal do the dirty work for us?

      I have admired Paterno; and the things for which I and others have done so have not gone anywhere, in that it was deeds done. They happened. But I do not worship him, thinking that he always does the right thing. I would hope we would not have that expectation of anyone; nor should we exempt them from what is due to blameworthy as well as praiseworthy actions. But we should grant them due process before the judgment.

      Whether I package my perceptions of the events improperly or not I will not comment on.

      • Now we finally have a candidate!

        Franco might be the first layer of righteous suffering (following the children and families of course), maybe we can see him in Proverbs 17:17 “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” There maybe more of these to be revealed.

        In these past weeks I’ve been trying to think through the systematic problems that would be recognizable through the divine witness of the canon. Those that are prior to the implications of the law, prior to failure. How did we get here?

        I’d like to believe that my Franco connection is a good one. :-)

        Let me try to be the most positive I can imagine about the entire PSU culture, program, spirituality, ethics, etc. (undoubtedly not as positive as others might be).

        Do you perceive the people we have been talking about as courageous? Can we see them as a Barak, that needs a Deborah to do the right thing (maybe i’d cast the AG as Deborah, maybe I’d cast one of the mom’s)?

        As for hero’s, it seems the vast majority of them due retire well. Could it be that sexual crime/sin is in fact special (“against your own body”), that it is a sign (2peter) that there is no belief in judgment. I’ve read a bit of the FBI profiling books in the past, and I was struck by the one off the record police statement: “pedophiles don’t believe they have done anything wrong, they just want to explain it”, given the revicism rate of 99% is this just a “Romans” kind of situation? My interaction with pedophiles, which is way to0 extensive, would lead me to some very dark considerations here.

        Using Dr. Dorsey’s hermeneutic, when I consider under the Law that the perjurer basically received the same punishment as the offender or what was at stake within the law what would be my take away?

  2. After the dust settles, when the next “big thing” comes along, when time clouds the public memory, some make it back into the graces of society…Bill Clinton, Michael Vick, Jim Bakker, Chuck Colson.

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