Unimaginable?

December 07, 2011

Thoughts on the State College Scandal, by Rev. Dr. William Edgar


The first public reactions to the sex abuse scandal at State college are telling. Joe Paterno, record holder for the most winning seasons, a coach’s coach, masterful fund-raiser, father figure to hundreds, went down in disgrace. Students were outraged, demonstrating through the night raising “We love you Joe” posters. State College, an American icon, known for producing scholar athletes, roiled by Sandusky accusation. So let’s make the laws clearer. What about college football?

A few, but only a few, were outraged for the children’s sake. The biblical tellers would have begun here. As a father and a grandfather, I begin here. Even at its worst, ancient Israel had a sense of the atrocious. The violation of the master’s concubine by Gibeah’s gang was called “abomination and outrage in Israel” (Judg 20:6). Righteous Job protests that if he were enticed toward a woman, it would be “a heinous crime… an iniquity to be punished by the judges” (Job 31:11). The prophets garner particular outrage against the abuse of the vulnerable. “Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor,” the Lord tells his people through Zechariah (7:10). Particularly vulnerable are children. Receiving a child in Christ’s name is receiving Christ. But, better to drown in the sea with a weight around the neck than to cause a little one to sin (Matt 18:6). The Bible is not romantic about children, but it does consider them a most precious group.

They are vulnerable, not only because they are weak, but because they naturally do not dare challenge those in authority. Why did the State College scandal take so long to unfold? Even though it appears from all reports that abuse had been taking place for years, no one had dared come forth and remonstrate. Why not? Abuse victims know perfectly well. They fear the shame, they fear being intimidated, they fear not having evidence, or maybe they misunderstood what was happening...Not only is it hard to question the actual abuser, but in this case there are systemic evils which make complaining all the harder. In this sordid case it appears that a charity for young boys is complicit, making it even more improbable for the voice of the hurting to be heard.

If outrage is the only credible place to begin, how do we continue? May we even dare speak about healing? Three steps, not necessarily in order, can be outlined. First, the young boys and their families are going to need lots of help. Specialists in cases of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, tell us the damage is usually extensive. Indeed, rape may be the ultimate violation. And it is horribly common. A woman is raped every six minutes in America. Homosexual rape is somewhat less frequent, but appallingly, one in six boys will have been abused or raped by adulthood (even though most same-sex rapists are actually heterosexual). Only the most gifted counselors will be able to walk them through to a place of peace and healing. The Gospel is marvelously relevant here. Joseph was abused by his brothers and sold into slavery. Yet in the end God brought good out of it (Gen 50:20). Jesus Christ was himself a victim of abuse on Calvary’s cross. The point of that form of death was public humiliation, yet the shame involved is not unlike the shame of a rape victim. “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows but Jesus.” The alleged perpetrator is also in line for therapy. Most predators of this sort have themselves been violated in the past.

Second, justice must be done. A careful investigation should be conducted with a goal of finding out all the facts and then bringing all the appropriate people to justice. Not an easy task. Witnesses can get it wrong. Perpetrators can hide behind people and systems. As I write, Jerry Sandusky claims to be innocent of pedophilia. He faces 40 counts of the abuse of 8 boys. Justice means getting it right, as a man’s life is at stake. But so are the lives of many others, especially the children and their families. So also are those of college administrators and the machine of Penn State College football. Justice requires investigating deep into the inner reaches of the system. Who knew about the abuses? Who should have known? Whom should they have told? Again, the Gospel is powerfully on the side of doing justice. God judges impartially (1Pet 1:17). The magistrate, according to Romans 13, is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4). But it must respect all of the contours. Pitfalls abound. Human anger can lead to miscalculations. So can misguided loyalty. Compensation is hard to determine. Still, let justice roll down like waters (Amos 5:24).

Third, and perhaps the hardest, how can these things happen, and how can they be prevented? The Gospel tells us sin and depravity are far, far deeper than most of us imagine. Perhaps this incident in “Happy Valley” is only one of many, where the horror broke up onto the surface. According to Augustine, we are “a mess of sin.” Reflecting on Paul’s concept of sin, John Owen says, “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.” [i] Yes, but surely not child abuse, you say. That is simply sickness, a derangement. Or is it? While you and I may be completely repulsed by the idea, remember we are talking about sexual gratification as an abuse of power. Do we not engage in some form of this every time we even look at the opposite sex to lust? (Matt 5:28) Furthermore, the Reformed view of sin teaches that it is systemic. We all belong to networks. The sad reality is that the potential for this kind of evil is omnipresent, in our hearts and in the society where we dwell. The State College network, the children’s charity, and our entire culture are complicit. We live in a seriously oversexed culture. From the internet to the film industry to corporate life, we are deeply lacking in chastity. Were the Nazis just bad Germans? No, they were human beings, put into a pressure cooker, to be sure, but fallen creatures nonetheless, participants in a culture that had become more and more permissive. Are we just bad Americans? No, we are fallen creatures entangled in a culture that increasingly permits privilege and gratification.

Nothing short of a massive cultural change is required. The pessimist might say, impossible. But is anything too hard for the Lord? This is a call to the church, to seminaries, and to any Christian who is serious about engaging the culture. We should wait upon the Lord and gird up for action, for we have all the grace we need (1Pet 1:13). Not only should we be hopeful, but we should expect the Lord to move, since he cares far more about these matters than do we: “Behold at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (Zeph 3:19).

William Edgar


[i] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, Lexington, KY: A Puritan Guide, 2009, 15.

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