Exploring the Nature of Evil through the Penn State Scandal – part 2

In my previous post, I explored how the ethical principle that adults ought to put the interests of children before their own, and ought not to sacrifice the well-being of children to their own ambitions was not only violated by the responsible parties in the Penn State scandal, but is commonly violated throughout our society, especially in problems related to debt and marriage.  Among the chief interests adult may be tempted to pursue at the expense of children is power, or more specifically the preservation of power.  Sports journalist Howard Bryan (espn.com) diagnoses the Penn State scandal as being fundamentally a problem of power:

Schultz, Curley, Spanier and Paterno [all major figures in the Penn State hierarchy] are unwilling to admit being blinded by the power of Penn State football. That power prevented other, less powerful people from coming forward. Their first, fatal reaction was the impulse to protect the program, keep it from embarrassment, to protect personal relationships and now what’s left of the precious, sacred institution.

Sandusky’s alleged paedo-sex crimes, or more accurately the public revelation of such crimes, were a threat to the power interests of the said leadership, whose power was derived from the popularity and economic vitality of the Penn State football program, a program that enjoyed not only a reputation of winning, but of winning in a morally upright fashion.  For public knowledge of such actions by a major figure in the program (Sanduskly was the defense coordinator for nearly 30 years, including on Penn State’s two national championship teams) would shame the program,  threaten revenue streams (not likely from ticket sales or TV contract, but more likely from alumni donations), and perhaps result in firings.  Ironically, this is what happened anyways, and if the problems with Sandusky, which were known by the leadership for at least a decade, were dealt with immediately the damage would have been far smaller than it is today.

Bryan insightfully looks beyond Penn State football to uncover the same root cause in other child sex scandals:  the Catholic church, the Church of Latter-Day Saints (I had not heard of this scandal), and Boston Red Sox coach Dan Fitzpatrick.  He even broadens the scope of his critique to include public scandal not involving sex, such as the cover up of police misconduct in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the New Orleans police department. The common moral theme in all of these instances is that “each institution committed the fatal mistake of believing that power was not a privilege to be handled with great care and humility but instead a license to be above trust. The powerful often have forgotten whom they are supposed to serve.”

Thus, the ethical principle concerned here is broader than the treatment of children; it concerns how those in power use their power in relation to the powerless (or those with less power)In each of the said cases, those with power used it for self-preservation, without regard for the effects of their decisions on the powerless:  crimes against the weak were concealed in the interests of maintaining power.  The principle that people in power ought to use their power to serve the powerless rather than exploit them is central in Scripture.  This principle is seen in God’s commands to His people about how they should treat the powerless, typically represented in the categories of the poor, widow, and orphan, and more vividly and powerfully in the way Jesus, the Son of God, used his power.

Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, is replete with such commands.  Consider just a sample from the book of Jeremiah:

This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place (Jer. 22:3)

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD. But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion (Jer. 22:13-17)

I included the second passage to show that these are more than just rules to follow for giving to the poor; rather, God equates knowing Him with defending the cause of the weak.  Concern for the weak and commitment to their well-being characterizes the heart of God.  Thus, we see these qualities in the Son of God, Jesus, who reveals perfectly the character of God in a perfect human being who is at the same time both fully God and fully man. These qualities are not merely displayed in Jesus’ teaching on how we should treat the poor or in his example of acting compassionately toward the sick, lame, and downtrodden (these things by themselves would make him indistinguishable from other religious and moral leaders throughout the ages), but shine more supremely in his redemptive mission to overcome evil and death and accomplish salvation for all nations.  In this achievement of this mission, we see true, utter humility in his use of power (Philippians 2:3-11):

3Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Years ago I heard a pastor explain the phrase ‘a thing to be grasped’ as having leverage over others but not using that leverage to one owns advantage.  Jesus’ ‘equality with God’ means that as a man he possessed supreme power.  Perhaps his greatest struggle was to resist the temptation to use this power to exalt Himself by establishing a kingdom on earth and becoming a political ruler (Satan tempted him in this manner in the wilderness and even his followers held the expectation that He would overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to greatness).  Yet he never caved into this temptation, but rather defeated evil by an act of ultimate humility:  death on the cross.  He defeated evil not by grasping after power, but by conceding power.  Through this humility, though, he has been exalted above all names and is promised global acknowledgment of his greatness for eternity.

Bryan concludes his analysis cynically: “This is what power has become. More accurately, it is what power has always been, in existence to protect itself.”  While he correctly describes the inclination of the human heart to use power for self-preservation, he ignores that reality that the supreme power of the universe, concentrated in the life of a single man, has not been used for self-protection, but for the defeat of evil and the salvation of humanity through a self-sacrificial act of humility.  May those who trust in Him exercise power in the same spirit of humility!

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