“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke
It’s been painful to watch the fallout of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. The subject has inspired numerous Christian blog posts. One of the best I have read is from a Penn State Campus Crusade for Christ staffer. You can read it here. Probably enough has been said, yet unraveling the answer to the question of what causes good men and women to do nothing at times in the face of evil seems important to me.
I love football and have respected Joe Paterno as a coach over the years. It saddens me to see his incredible career end in such a way. What saddens me most is that I think, in terms of character, Joe Paterno is a respectable man. Yet, this respectable man allowed a very bad thing to go on under his nose. And not just him – there’s a whole slew of men who should have known better who allowed the worst kind of abuse of a minor to happen on their watch. They closed their ears and turned away. How did that happen?!
Some have expressed concern about how Paterno and others have been treated in the wake of the allegations. I think this stems in part from the disturbing idea for many of us that we might have reacted exactly the same way. We too might have wrestled for days over what to report to higher ups and how to paint what we did report. We too might have let it go after doing the bare minimum needed to ease our conscience. I could easily see myself at certain stages of my life numbing my conscience on the issue with words like “Well, I reported it to my authority. I did what was required of me. I can’t help it if they don’t do more. I’ve done my responsibility.”
Penn State’s football program is legendary. Joe Paterno ran a tight ship. The men in charge of that program–Athletic Director, Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Defensive Coordinator, and so forth–were respected and revered. They were obeyed. It was not unlike authoritarian church and ministry structures with which I have been involved over the years. In those systems, the good guys are the ones who respect authority. They buck it up and contribute even when they dislike an order. Respect, cooperation, and obedience to your superiors are fundamental to the entire system. I have empathy for the young graduate assistant who first witnessed his boss raping a minor in the locker room. I’m sure he was shocked and horrified. What do you do when your authority in this authoritarian system is the one doing this act? The GA didn’t intervene. And I fear that when I was his age, I may not have intervened either. At least not immediately. Now 41 years old and the mother of children myself, no one could stop me if I witnessed that today. But back then, I valued respect of authority so much that I fear I would have been paralyzed in the moment, to my life long regret.
The graduate assistant finally told his dad, and his dad helped him tell Coach Paterno. Both seemed to meet their minimum legal requirement. Yet neither stopped the cycle of abuse that continued for several more years. Why? The Campus Crusade pastor points out in his article the deficiency of love for the victim. That is the fundamental, root issue. But a secondary issue is that they all thought they had more to lose by standing up strongly for the victims than they did by protecting the program. Obviously, they were very, very wrong and have lost much more by covering it up. The urge to stand up for a little guy none of them knew faded in the shadow of the behemoth that was the Penn State football program.
Good men do nothing a lot. Good women too. We do nothing sometimes out of self protection. But more often, I think we do nothing because we value protecting authoritarian systems more than we do standing up for the victim. I’ve experienced this before in various Christian ministries—a leader with authority does wrong. But the reputation of the institution and those associated with it seems more important than seeking justice for the one abused or oppressed. I could write out a long list of names of good men and women I know personally, men and women of proven character and good reputation, who did not stand up for victims and instead protected a program or ministry. I’ve done it myself at times. Rocking the boat didn’t seem a Christian virtue in that moment.
Though good church people often value submission to authority over advocacy for the oppressed, God is clear on what we need to do with abusive authority.
17learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
God calls us to step up for the poor and defenseless. Be aware of our propensity to turn away and hear clearly God’s command to engage. And if you have been silent or turned away, humble yourself and make it right. If the gospel is truly our foundation in Christian ministry, we have hope for redemption and transformation when we choose humble responses that seek to correct our mistakes. Humble repentance, not defensiveness, is the absolute key to dealing with past failures, and meditation on God’s strong admonition to do justice for the oppressed is key for the future.