Monday, November 14, 2011

Joe Paterno and Habakkuk?

"With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more." (Joe Paterno)

This is more than an epitaph on the career of one of college football's greatest legends, it is an indictment on all of us.

I am not interested in writing too much about the Penn State scandal. In fact, I hesitate to write anything at all, as the emotions it generates within a youth pastor and new father are so raw that a blog post neither does justice nor brings appropriate healing. Moreover, the vileness of child sexual abuse should speak for itself. It should. But it doesn't. Instead, like most forms of injustice, abuse, violence, and oppression, the issues are engaged and the victims find advocacy only in hindsight.

I confess: I have been enamored over the past week with the constant streaming of interviews, anecdotes, updates, and press conferences that have regarded the Sandusky scandal, the Paterno firing, and the grand jury report that brought both to the forefront of all news stations (I cannot bring myself to actually read it). However, as I have contemplated the atrocity I have also found it ironic that at the same time our youth ministry continues to engage the prophetic and woeful visions of Habakkuk:

“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,

setting your nest on high

to be safe from the reach of harm!”

You have devised shame for your house

by cutting off many peoples;

you have forfeited your life.

The very stones will cry out from the wall,

and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.

---Habakkuk 2:9-11

This is what I wrote for the students as an introduction to a contemplative and prophetic exercise, which engaged the above passage:

Often we interpret sin as when we do the wrong thing. But is it possible that sin can be understood as not doing the right thing? We are exposed to so many forms of suffering, abuse, evil, and injustice, whether they are in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, or schools. Even when we turn on the news it hits us: we live in a world that cries out to be made right and eased of its pain. Yet, how many times do we distance ourselves from these cries in the attempt to save ourselves, our stuff, our reputation, and our image? We have set ourselves apart from others harm only for the stones and plaster of our security to cry out on behalf of the weak and wounded of this world.

So what does Habakkuk have to do with Joe Paterno and Penn State?


Again, "with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

If we pause to consider the plethora of injustices and acts of violence that take place "on our watch," we would find that not only is Joe Paterno to be held accountable, but also each one of us. It is easy to demonize a fallen hero, much more difficult to listen to the cries of the stone and plaster walls we have constructed around our own reputations, families, goals, and lusts for security. We prefer to separate and ignore, isolate and overlook versus engage and advocate on behalf of a wide range of sufferings...and the list goes well beyond sexual abuse. How long must we cry never again and promise "not on our watch?"


Sexual abuse.
Domestic violence.
Oppressive schedules.
Declarations of war.

The list could go on ad infinitum. Yet what will it take for us, for me, to respond and engage suffering and injustice before any one of us has to offer our own statement, "I wish I had done more."

There are many reasons that have been suggested for Joe Paterno's forced exit. Some have suggested that it was the Board of Trustees best opportunity to make a coaching change that has eluded them over the past 10 years. Others have demanded his resignation or termination with a level of hostility that would make one think that he was the actual perpetrator.

But I wonder, is Joe Paterno not only the scapegoat for a University and community that failed to respond to one of, if not the greatest manifestations of evil, but also one who now bears the guilt of all of us who have ever failed to do something. In other words, is our anger not only warranted, but also the projection of the shame each of us carries in light of our ignorance and silence in the face of so many forms of human suffering near and far.

If that is true, may this scandal no longer focus on a football program, a university, or legacies that have evaporated right before our eyes. Instead, may this be the opportunity for us to allow the stones and plaster of our communities to cry out on behalf of all those who suffer from whatever form of injustice, oppression, and marginalization. Still more, may we no longer ignore these cries but choose to echo and reverberate them.

May we prefer to act out of foresight versus hindsight.[1]


[1] As a youth pastor, I encourage every person who works with children to challenge their ministries, organizations, and institutions to revisit their child protection policies. This must be done not just to protect and preserve institutions from legal threats and accusations, but primarily to educate and inform people how to interact with children safely and responsibly. This may be one of the most compassionate extensions of our missional vocation, i.e. protecting children from abuse. In Pennsylvania each county has a Children and Youth Service organization, e.g. Chester County: . On a national level, a great resource is:
[2] Also, a great sermon by good friend Tony Sundermeier: "Not So Happy Valley: Power, Abuse, Leadership, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."