Earlier today, Joe Paterno (affectionately known as “Joe Pa”), the Penn State football coach, and quite possibly the most iconic coach in the history of college sports, announced that he would be retiring. It isn’t because he’s now 84-years-old and he’s finally had enough or is unable to handle the responsibility anymore (his team is currently ranked 12th in the country). Rather, he is stepping down due to perhaps the most sickening scandal ever in college sports.
In short, the man who was once considered the next in line to the Penn State head coaching position, Jerry Sandusky, has been, to date, recently charged with 40 accounts of sexual abuse against 8 boys over a span of 15 years. These boys came from troubled backgrounds, which means that they didn’t have the same natural authority figures looking out for them that most have, making them even more vulnerable. What’s worse is that there were many in the Penn State organization that seemingly could have intervened, but didn’t. In 2002, a graduate assistant with the team reported to Paterno that he’d witnessed Sandusky molesting a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers. The grad assistant’s first reaction was to go call his dad. Understandably, there is public outrage that this graduate assistant didn’t intervene. Eventually, the grad assistant told Joe Paterno. Over the course of the next weeks, Paterno reported the incident to higher authorities at Penn State. Sandusky was asked to leave his position, but no further ramifications were issued. Understandably, the public is furious about this as well. The sin of omission (failing to do the right thing in a timely manner – graduate assistant, Paterno, Penn State authorities) is just as offensive as the sin of commission (doing the wrong thing – here, Jerry Sandusky’s sexual misconduct). The whole thing, still a very fresh news story, makes people sick and angry.
I’m not interested in lambasting the character of each of the individuals involved here and the case is a long way from over, so there may be some considerations still before total blame is issued. But everyone mentioned has been cited by police involved in the investigation as, at the very least, having demonstrated shortfalls in moral responsibility. This deals a tragic blow to a program that went by the motto “Success with Honor.”
So, how does this happen? Where does such evil come from? Who is really capable of such atrocity?
I’ve linked here an interview with Matt Millen, former Penn State player under Joe Paterno, former NFL GM, and current ESPN football analyst. When asked about his former position coach Jerry Sandusky as a person, Millen described him as follows: “Jerry Sandusky is your next door neighbor. He’s the guy you’ve known your whole life. He’s a helpful guy. He’s a light-hearted guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a willing-to-help person. He’s everything you want……I can’t imagine this.” In other words, he sounds like the rest of us.
A Christian’s reaction to this painful story is a little different from the rest of the world’s. We share the same anger over ungodly behavior. We share the same disappointment in authorities who seemingly completely failed to offer attempts to rescue children. Of course, we share sympathy with the boys who were victimized as well as with their families.
The difference for Christians, however, is not mere sadness and anger regarding those miserable people who did such bad things. While the punishment for that behavior is obviously directed at specific individuals, the sadness and anger is perhaps more over us miserable humans. You see, pride and religion teach us to point to the faults of others and, by comparison, without ever verbalizing it, perceive ourselves as better. This has been a recurring tone in almost every news program I’ve heard thus far about the Penn State scandal. The gospel of the Bible teaches us something different though. The gospel reminds us that we’re all guilty of sin and therefore equally deserving of God’s wrath. This is the truth that allows the Apostle Paul, the most prolific Christian missionary ever, to write words like “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15) Interestingly, the Apostle Paul doesn’t call Jerry Sandusky the worst sinner. He saves that title for himself.
One of my favorite quotes regarding the universal nature of sin is from the famous 20th century English writer and Christian author, G.K. Chesterton. When a local newspaper had posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ Chesterton wrote in a brief response letter: ‘Dear Sirs: I am.’ Sincerely Yours, G. K. Chesterton.
You see, the world’s religious approach to sin goes one of two ways. It generally starts by reducing, redefining, or relativizing sin. The thought is that we all should just “be true to ourselves.” Then, when tragedy strikes and the reality, prevalence, and deadliness of sin is undeniable, as has been the case in the Penn State story, we tend to think in terms of “good people” and “bad people.” The problem with that thinking, however, is that every single one of us is guilty of the most heinous crime in world history.
As the world chokes up thinking about the abuse of innocent young boys, Christians do so likewise, but also recognize the abuse of another innocent Son.
Jesus public abuse was not as a child, but it was no less sickening, as he was even more innocent than the sweetest of children. “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matt 27:28-31) They stripped him naked, mocked him, gave him a beating/flogging within an inch of his life, and then actually took his life in the most painful execution possible – crucifixion.
Beyond the physical pain for Jesus was the pain of betrayal. In the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse case cited above, a team assistant watched it happen and went and told someone else. He didn’t intervene as he saw a child getting molested. How does that happen? Answer: he was more concerned about himself than the child. Now think about Jesus’ disciples and friends. Where were they during his crucifixion? Same answer. Now perhaps they simply were held back by Jesus himself from physically intervening (Matt 26:50-54). But that doesn’t excuse their absence, their lack of support at the time of his arrest or the time of his execution. All except John fled because they were concerned about themselves. And quite honestly, I’d like to think I’d have done better, but if most of Jesus’ disciples chickened out, I honestly don’t know that I would have had the guts for the situation either.
And beyond both the physical pain and the personal betrayal, for Jesus, the worst pain was the torment of hell – true separation from his Heavenly Father (Matt 27:46). And that all had to happen as a result of…..OUR sin. We committed the evil that murdered God’s Son.
News stories like this one with Penn State aren’t as much about those awful people over in ___________, as they are about the awful fallen state of humanity. The unfortunate reality is that I’m more dangerous, more broken, more of a murderer than I’d ever realized. However, the fortunate reality is that I’m more loved, more forgiven, and now by the grace of God, more of God’s child than I’d ever dreamed.
Despite my flaws, your flaws, or anyone’s flaws, all of us who killed Jesus have the grace of God extended to us. We have the innocence of God’s perfect Son credited to us, ironically, through the same execution that we carried out. We’re capable of great evil, but the good news, the gospel of Jesus is that Jesus’ goodness swallows up and devours our evil every time.
Hearing the news story at Penn State shouldn’t make us feel morally superior. It should lead us to recognize the depth of Christ’s love. Can God’s grace extend all the way to the depths of lost, perverse, evil souls? It did with us.