When the Piling On Is Over

I’ve tried mightily to resist. The issues regarding my alma mater have been beaten to death in so many places, by so many people, so many times that it seems pointless to add another few words. But the resistance has lost.

My intended focus, however, is on what we as a society will do with the experience, and more so with how we will have handled the experience after a few months or years will have passed. Presently, the very suggestion that there needs to be a bit of perspective brought to the discussion is itself met with charges of being soft on child sexual predators, having head securely buried in sand, having drunk the Penn State Kool-Aid, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. The idea that some semblance of perspective is needed is obvious to anyone associated with the Penn State University and to anyone else who cares about the kind of people we would like to be in this culture.

There is due outrage, to be sure. First, outrage toward Jerry Sandusky; then outrage that seems to be of an even higher order directed at those individuals singled out as having worked diligently to cover up the facts of the incidents. Even if all the interpretations included in the Freeh report are true (there is reason to question some of the findings as under-determined by the evidence), the rate at which people have been lining up to paint everyone associated with Penn State as somehow complicit in the events is staggering. If we weren’t directly involved, all of us are at least deemed guilty of being suckers for the fraud of the football program and its evil, conniving head coach (right, David Jones? Jason Whitlock?).

For the record, I am not returning my degree in protest. I’m not even relinquishing my season tickets. Penn State, contrary to the cynical remarks made even by people in the state, is not football. Not even close. It has been, and remains, a world-class university with a half million graduates serving in all corners of the world in all disciplines. We studied there as much, and in some cases as little, as students anywhere else. We had competent professors, more than adequate facilities and resources; we debated the issues of the day, formed lasting friendships, argued inconclusively at ridiculous hours of the morning, got into trouble, went streaking, protested the Vietnam War and the government research contracts. And on a few Saturdays in the fall term, we gathered for the fun of a major college football game, played by guys who really were fellow students. And it hasn’t changed all that much (for the good of all, the streaking craze didn’t last). The suggestion, however, that Penn State is all about football is an affront to every professor and administrator who did her or his job in teaching, and to every student who buckled down enough to graduate and contribute to family, community, and society. Football was an event, a big one; but it wasn’t (and isn’t) the sum total of college for anyone. Personally, it was the place where I was introduced to the intellectual history and vitality of Christianity, a discovery without which my faith would have evaporated. It’s special. So we continue going back, yes for a good football game and the whole aura of those fall Saturdays, but also because of our unwillingness to relinquish ties to what is really Penn State.

The ranters would also have it that Penn State should not be allowed to play football again, at least for a few seasons. So in order to properly punish a deceased man, a displaced president, and two other administrators, we should take away the employment of hundreds of other people, damage the businesses of scores of others, and take away the scholarships of players now on the team, forcing them to disrupt their education to go elsewhere. For maybe the first and only time, I find myself in agreement with James Carville on that one. But if that would undue the damage done to the boys once under Sandusky’s terror, so be it; alas, it would not.

But let’s get back to that perspective question. What will we have found out about ourselves as a society when there has been a little more distance between the horrible events (and the mishandling thereof) and our thoughts about them? For one, I would hope that we will have learned that sportswriters make lousy moral authorities. It is sickeningly ironic that some of the very ones who decry the importance of sports in our cultural life are the ones who have taken it upon themselves to make sure it stays that way. And the same ones are unsatisfied to tell us what happens on the field, but assume the right to tell us what ought to be done about any and all of the moral issues that arise, all, of course, without ever studying ethics, logic, moral reasoning, etc.

More importantly, I trust we will have been reminded that we are moral creatures, and are so necessarily by nature. There are very few taboos remaining in our culture; most of the ones largely recognized by all have to do with sexuality, particularly with children. We are right to react against violations such as those committed by Sandusky, and against efforts to shield the discovery and prosecutions thereof. But are these the only (dare I use the term) sins that disturb us? Could it be that our moral instincts have so atrophied that little other than the most obvious violations arouse our disapproval?

And perhaps we will be bold enough to learn to be honest with ourselves. We are all both capable of significant good, heroic, and altruistic actions and yet prone to great darkness at the same time. In Luther’s terms, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously just and sinful. We don’t handle this well about ourselves or about other people. We want to read all the good things in light of the evil deeds others have done (David Jones, Patriot News, loves this approach); or we minimize the evil and view it as insignificant in light of the good. We wear the mantle of moral judge poorly, undoubtedly because it is the vestment of another greater than ourselves. We would do well to remember this, even as we attempt to discern where the violations are and what must be done about them for the betterment of all.

And, as has been noted by many commentators, we should hope to have learned to take better care of and more interest in the welfare and treatment of others. One wonders how things might have been different if this had been a concern a little more than a generation ago, when Jerry was young. Who did things to him about which he may have been told to be quiet, as was the approach of a not-so-long-ago time? Monsters are seldom born; they are created. Let’s not make any more of them and do what grace allows to transform those in the process of being made.

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Freedom at 236

Some of us have a habit of taking stock of our lives when those annual reminders known as birthdays roll around to tell us we’re not getting any younger; and the more often it happens, the more urgent becomes the attention we are willing to give to areas that need to be addressed, not only for our own benefit but for that of the people we will eventually leave behind.

I don’t know how a nation does the sort of soul-searching individuals do. Certainly, there is no shortage of volunteers to make the assessment and pronounce the cures for all ills discovered in the process. But the agendas attending these pronouncements are generally quite transparent; and those agendas all too frequently have little to do with a sound understanding of what we once were, what founders set out to create, or what changes in the initial vision have been necessitated by the movement of times, ideas, philosophies, and the means by which any of these are communicated, instantiated, or defended. Yet where we go from here has to begin with where we’ve come from and how we got from there to this point, unless one holds the notion that history is all irrelevant–in which case there is no way to discern either where we are or where we ought to go.

Many of us learned and even memorized the words of such an assessment made eighty-eight years into what became known as the Grand Experiment. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address included several lines that have never left my memory:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.

How long, and under what sorts of duress and circumstances, can the vision endure? How does it fare? I suspect that how we answer such questions has more relevance in a presidential election year than at other times. But it seems that we are very close to a point in national/cultural history at which freedom and equality are seen by too many on either side of a great political divide as irreconcilable pursuits. What I fear is that freedom is viewed only as the absence of restraint on what one desires, regardless of the merits of those very desires. One wants to be free from restraint to become as wealthy as possible; another wishes to engage in whatever pleasurable activities happen to be in vogue, create whatever relationships strike the fancies of the moment. To such a mindset, equality consists only in the opportunity fo each person to do the same with his or her freedom.

How we negotiate the claims of freedom on one hand and the guarding of equality on the other has much to do with what we believe freedom to be and to what extent we will protect the rights of others from being violated in our chosen pursuits. I would also suggest that it has to do with what we perceive human beings to be in the first place. This, honestly, is the source of my deepest concerns for our future: we have lost the grounding of both the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address, namely that we are the intentional creation of God. I am hard pressed to think of solid grounding for human dignity, freedom, and therefore mutual concern and protection absent this foundation. This is not to suggest that people without such a belief are unable to act in ways that are honorable and responsible to freedom and equality; there are ample examples of such people, and I am thankful for the fact. Whether they can give a satisfying reason for their nobility is another question, and it is a question being more and more frequently asked by another generation, one which finds anything having to do with sacrifice and hard work too much of an imposition on their freedom.

This is not intended as gloom and doom. It is yet another call to Christian people of all political stripes to pay greater attention to our humanity than to our party, and to engage in the hard work of helping a culture think through its options. Are we up to it?

Oh, and Happy Birthday to us!