Punishing Penn State


(Picture taken by Wayne Gillespie at Historic Hannastown in Pennsylvania)

The news has been filled with scandal. Many people hadn’t even heard of Jerry Sandusky a few months ago. Joe Paterno was admired for his accomplishments; and, when anyone mentioned Penn State, people thought about a solid university that’s known for good academics and great football.

But it’s different today. We think about “something else” when someone mentions Penn State. I’m sure that, when someone mentions Penn State, most of us think about about a man who molested children and about all of the people who kept it a secret. And that happens because what happened at Penn State was both horrible and inexcusable.

What happened at Penn State violates every rule of human decency and it’s disgusting. And yet, the same thing happens every day. The U.S. Justice Department reports that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-6 boys will be molested before the age of 16. The Justice Department reports that what happened at Penn State happens every day, and much of it isn’t reported because the victims of sexual crimes are violated – and other folks don’t want to talk about it.

Bad things happen when leaders fail. People suffer. Things happen that shouldn’t happen. There’s always pain when leaders fail. And that’s what the Bible says in the book of Jeremiah. The kings of Israel and Judah made horrible mistakes and worshiped false gods. The kings had allowed their children to marry “foreign” spouses, had endorsed phallic Asherah poles, had led people into disbelief, and had even killed prophets. And the kings, and the people of both Israel and Judah, were punished for that failure.

Many people don’t like to admit that God “punishes” – but in Jeremiah 23:1-6 – “punishment” is what we see. Bad behavior brings judgment. The judgment we see in the book of Jeremiah is focused and severe because, when bad behavior occurs, the “magnitude” of the punishment reflects the “seriousness” of the crime. Jerry Sandusky is in jail. People who hid Sandusky’s crimes are being punished. There is no excuse for what happened at Penn State. We, as a society, cannot allow that kind of behavior to go unacknowledged. We must punish those who sexually abuse children and we cannot allow anyone who knows that a child is being molested to walk away without saying a word to the authorities.

But then, God flips the coin. There has to be more than “punishment for punishment’s sake.” The failed leadership is clearly punished, and the punishment is harsh and severe. But then, God moves on. God speaks about “bringing the flock back together” and about His flock being “fruitful” again. God says that He’s going to raise-up new leaders. “Deserved punishment” is not something that endlessly continues. God speaks of “restoration.” God points toward a “new community” that’s marked by justice and righteousness. He tells us that “Judah will be saved” and “Israel will live in safety.” And, as hard as it may be for us to accept it right now, that’s what we need to remember as we think about the future of Penn State.

The “offenders” are being held accountable for their actions and Jerry Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in jail. Is that enough, or will our need for justice only be satisfied through the sanctioning of a football program that’s filled with “innocent” people? Will we insist that the NCAA impose a “death penalty” that will undermine businesses in State College that are owned by “innocent” people? Will we insist upon the revoking of scholarships that have been given to “innocent” students who may not be able to attend college without financial help? If we solely focus upon creating justice by imposing penalties – when will we say, “Enough is enough”? How does the cycle of punishment end?

I am NOT saying that those who were responsible for the outrageous crimes at Penn State shouldn’t be held accountable. But I AM saying that we need to look beyond “punishment” if anything good’s going to come from this mess. I am NOT saying that we should “sweep the mess under a carpet” and “move on” as if nothing happened at Penn State. But I AM saying, “If anything good is going to rise from the ashes of this horrible mess, we need to understand that it’s NOT going to come solely through the “punishment of the offenders.”

If something good’s going to happen, it’s only going to happen after we move past the gut-level temptation to focus solely upon retribution and when we start to consider how things we have learned through this tragedy can reshape our communities. We will only find healing when we discover ways that this “tragic mess” can help us to reshape our society and help us to think about child molestation in a new way. Perhaps, the tragedy at Penn State can help us to create a “new” and “more informed” community

  • Where people are more sensitive to the fact that child molesters are all around us – and that they’re not just on the football field at Penn State
  • Where people don’t close their eyes when they know that crimes are being committed against children (or adults) because they “don’t want to get involved”
  • Where children who are molested don’t have to feel “embarrassed” to talk about what has happened to them
  • Where people are more able to “talk about things that make them feel uncomfortable,” so that the victims of sexual crimes can get the kind of help and support they deserve.
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About Wayne Gillespie

The Reverend Wayne Gillespie has served as an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for nearly 25 years. He firmly believes, as a pastor, that our primary calling in life, as Christians, is "to know Christ and the power of the resurrection." Pastor Wayne also believes that, as we come to know Christ more deeply, we can experience a higher level of intimacy and connection with God, and greatly improved relationships with those who share our lives. Pastor Wayne's blog about Christian Spirituality and Prayer can be found at: http://theprayerchair.org He, also, has started a blog about relationships and healing which can be found at: https://wgillespie.wordpress.com/
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