In my previous installments on the Penn State Scandal, I identified two of the key ethical principles at stake in the associated moral failures: 1) adults’ have an obligation to put the interests of children ahead of their own; and perhaps a more fundamental principle that 2) people in power have an obligation to humbly use that power to protect and not exploit the weak. In this final post on the topic, I will look at a more difficult issue to conceptualize: the danger of projecting utopian expectations on certain places or institutions and of imbuing specific individuals with imagined moral perfections.
The main text I will interact with is an article by Michael Weinreb(of GRANTLAND.com), a sports journalist who grew up in Happy Valley, PA where Penn State is located. His classmates included both Paterno and Sandusky children (the latter’s were adopted). Thus, he brings a deep personal perspective into the analysis.
Weinreb describes his hometown in Shangri-La terms and Paterno as its mythical king (emphasis added):
Everything in State College — even the name of our town — was one all-encompassing, synergistic monolith, and Joe Paterno was our benevolent dictator, and nothing truly bad ever happened, and even when it did, it was easier just to blot it from our lives and move on….Those were great years [late 70s-early 80s], and Penn State was in its heyday and Joe Paterno was the Sportsman of the Year and State College was a community that never gave in to the ethical lapses of the ’80s and early sounds apt enough…Sometimes we were guilty of regarding him as more deity than man, as if he presided over us in mythological stand-up form. He was as much our own conscience as he was a football coach, and we made that pact and imbued him with that sort of power because we believed he would wield it more responsibly than any of us ever could. Maybe that was naïve, but we came of age in a place known as Happy Valley and naïveté was part of the package, and now that word isn’t in our dictionaries anymore.
A degree of realism set in as children matured into adulthood, but nonetheless a deep trust in Paterno and the football program endured:
It [a powerful force] is never quite as benevolent as you imagined it to be. In order to acquire power, you have to be at least a little ruthless.All you can hope for is that those who do acquire power operate by some sort of rough ethical standard, and even if I no longer deified Paterno, I continued to believe that the monolith I’d grown up inside was essentially a force for good. They did things I found untoward, but I always presumed they did them for the right reasons.
Something deep within the human psyche wants, or perhaps even needs, to believe that such places and people exist. Nostalgia is a similar mindset (and is even expressed by Weinreb, at least explicitly) projected on the past. Most people have nostalgic longings for times and places in their past that they idealize compared with present realities, believing that the circumstances today would be so much better if we could somehow recapture the past. The biblical worldview accounts for such longings in the origin’s story of Paradise and the Fall of Man. We were created in a perfect state to dwell in an ideal place, but as a result of sin we have exiled from Eden, and thus live in a state of cosmic exile, of homelessness. This feeling of alienation is often accentuated during the holidays. As Pastor Tim Keller writes
The memory of home seems to be evoked by certain sights, sounds and even smells. But they can only arouse a desire they can’t fulfill. Many of the people in my church have shared with me how disappointing Christmas and Thanksgiving are to them. They prepare for holidays hoping that, finally, this year, the gathering of family at that important place will deliver the experience of warmth, joy, comfort, and love that they want from it. But these events almost always fail, crushed under the weight of our impossible expectations. There is a German word that gets at this concept- the word Sehnsucht. Dictionaries will tell you that there is no simple English synonym. It denotes profound homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones (Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith).
My purpose is not to judge feelings of nostalgia as sinful, but to expose the perils of seeking to fulfill this desire in utopian places lorded over by deified people. The reason why such horrific crimes could continue unchecked for so long in Happy Valley was that no one believed this kind of thing could happen there. Perhaps the reason why Joe Paterno and other men in power failed to confront these crimes was that no one dare admit that such gross evil could ever be associated with such a cleanly-run football program led by a man who was revered for his moral leadership. The natural of evil is that it loves the darkness: it flourishes most when it is denied, suppressed, covered up. Thus, the Apostle John writes,
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7Butif we walk in the light,as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins andto cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:5-8).
Utopias say they have no sin. Moral demagogues like Joe Paterno are believed to be above sin. Such claims are deceptive because the deny the truth that we live in a corrupt world that mirrors the inherent corruption of human hearts. Evil is strengthened when it is denied, but weakened when it is exposed by light. The ‘blood of Jesus his Son’ beckons us to bring evil into the light, knowing that because of His sacrifice our sins can be forgiveness and our corrupt hearts can be transformed. Only as we honestly admit and confront the reality of evil in the heart can evil be overcome.
Weinreb closes his essay solemnly: “We’ve come to terms with the corruptibility of the human soul in State College, and we’ve swept away the naïve notion that this place where we lived so quietly was different from the rest of America.” In recognizing this terrible reality, let up hope the Penn State community has taken the first step toward dealing with the problem of evil in its midst.