I Am Joe Paterno (And So Are You)

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer

I don’t know about others, but most Disciples don’t do confession. I don’t know why that is, but we just don’t do it. I’m guess it’s because of our low-church/simple liturgy.

But sometimes I wish we did it more. I’ve heard this confession used in Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic services. What draws me to this particular confession is one phrase: by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

What we have left undone. I’ve been fascinated by all the self-righteousness that has poured out in the wake of the scandal taking place at Penn State. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the event. The general one is that someone, anyone should have stopped what was going on and they blame the “machine” of college sports or the macho football culture or something.

We all wonder why folks would allow such an evil as the sexual abuse of children, and it reminds us the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church over the last decade.

This all boils down to one point: if I was in charge, things would have been different. I wouldn’t have just told my superiors as Joe Paterno did.

Oh, really?

The sad fact is that most of us would have probably done the same thing: look the other way and lie to ourselves that we had done enough. Why? Because we do it all the time.

Blogger Meagan McArdle has been thinking about the Penn State scandal and has come to the conclusion that the reason Jerry Sandusky was allowed to abuse with impunity was because to many folks on the football staff he was someone that was a known, a friend. She writes:

I have been thinking some more about the Penn State case, and why McQueary and Paterno did what they did.  And I have come to the conclusion that most commentators are overlooking a rather obvious contributing factor: they liked Sandusky.

McQueary grew up in State College; his family was friends with Sandusky, and of course, Sandusky had coached him.  Paterno had worked with Sandusky closely for years.  And if you think about what you would have done in a situation where you caught someone you love and respect in that position, is it really so obvious, as the chest thumping punditariat proclaims, that you would have leaped into the shower, beaten the snot out of him, and frog marched him to the police station after you rescued the kid?  Really?  You’d have done that to your father, your favorite uncle, your best friend, a beloved mentor?
Think about what that really entails: overcoming all the shock and horror, the defensive mechanisms that make you question what you’re really seeing.  The total destruction of a long relationship as soon as you name it out loud and accuse him to his face.  The actual physical logistics of grabbing a naked sixty year old man, detaching him from that child, and then pounding on him for a while as a ten year old you don’t know watches.  The fact that the minute you go to the police, you will have utterly ruined this man’s life: he will be jobless, friendless, and branded as the worst sort of pervert by everyone in the country–oh, and also, in protective custody so that the other inmates in jail don’t, like, kill him.
That’s a pretty huge emotional hurdle to leap in the ten seconds or so that McQueary had to do the right thing.  Isn’t it quite understandable that your instinct might be to get away?  To look for some way that didn’t have to involve jail?  Wouldn’t it be a huge relief to tell your superiors and let someone else take care of it?

She then moves on to talk about what happened during the Holocaust. While most of us would like to think that we would have swooped in, beat up some Nazis and saved tons of Jews, the reality is very few actually put their lives on the line:

Have you ever polled your friends about how many of them would have been sheltering Jews in Nazi Germany?  In the casual conversations I’ve had, the percentage of people who say that they would of course have helped runs somewhere between 85-95%.  Actual number: about 10,000, according to Yad Vashem.  Of course, that number is incomplete, and includes only those who actually risked their lives.  But multiply it by 10; multiply it by 100.  You’re still at what, 1% of the people who had the opportunity to defy the Nazis as they accomplished the most comprehensive ethnic cleansing in history?
Was this because 99% of Germans, Poles, French, Dutch, and other peoples were “depraved”?  Or were they frightened people in a brutal state, with rather ordinary levels of cowardice and indifference to the plight of others?
Oh, well, that’s an extreme example, you may say; McQueary was at no risk of life and limb.  Fair enough, but one can name dozens of less dangerous situations where only a small minority actually does the right thing, but everyone believes that they woulda.  Consider, for example, child abuse (sexual or otherwise) in families.  How often is the offender actually reported to the police, and how often do the families simply keep the kids away from Grandpa because, well, you know.  I’m sure at some level they worry about other kids Grandpa might be touching–but they also worry about what would happen to Grandpa in jail, and the rest of his family in the court of public opinion.
When you find out that someone you know is a pedophile, that doesn’t erase your knowledge that they’re also a human being.  It does in the public mind, of course, but it’s very different when you know them.

If you want to know such things as the Holocuast or slavery took place and why no one did anything, well, here’s your answer. It’s one thing to see a stranger as a demon, it’s another when the person committing the crime is a dear friend or relative that you’ve known over the years.

David Brooks is correct that the sin that takes place here is one of deception. We are decieved into thinking we would act braver than we actually do, and we deceive ourselves into thinking that the purportrator didn’t really do what our eyes just saw:

People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do. As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”

Joe Paterno and others at Penn State should have done more than what they did and it makes sense that he had to lose his job for failing to do the moral thing. But there are reasons why they probably didn’t and they are reasons that you and I would do the same thing.

None of this is to say that lying to ourselves is okay. But it does show us that we are all fallible beings and it is so easy to just ignore the steaming pile of crap in front of us instead of trying to clean it up.

Which gets me back to the confession. There are some versions of various confessions that people don’t like because they are “downers.” We don’t like to focus on our hideous sins, we’d rather think of ourselves as decent and nice people.

But we all have dark sides. I’m not saying that a whole host of us are going to molest children, but we can see a wrong and tell ourselves not to get involved. We do that all that time. I’ve done it and so have you.

The act of confession in Christian worship is not to tell us that we are no good, but to remind us that we do have flaws. It rips away the lies we have told ourselves. It reminds us that while we might shirk our responsibilities to each other, God does see all of this and knows us beyond our lies.

In the end, Paterno had to go, I don’t question that. But I won’t get on a moral high horse and think I would have done otherwise, because I am Joe Paterno.

And so are you.

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About Dennis

Dennis is the Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, MN. He is the husband to a wonderful man named Daniel, staff to two cats, lover of cars, the Detroit Tigers and all things Star Trek.

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