I’ve been keeping up with the recent abuse scandal at Penn State with some interest, especially as it concerns Joe Paterno. I’m not interested in being yet another judgmental voice, clamoring to be heard above the media din. Obviously, numerous people committed egregious wrongs that need to be reconciled. Real people have been hurt. And while it’s difficult to see a successful coach like Paterno retire in this way, I never swore an oath of allegiance to him. If he was wrong, he was wrong.
The main reason this case interests me is not the future of Penn State football, but the public outcry caused by the scandal, particularly in the media, and what that tells us about America’s current ethical framework. I honestly found it surprising to hear CNN contributors and anchors use terms like moral, right, wrong, etc. Opinion columnists repeatedly stated that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibility, but completely failed his moral responsibility. Talk show hosts and anchors spoke in shocked tones about the moral depravity and the categorically evil actions of all involved. Moral responsibility? Seriously? From media sources who go out of their way to report on oppressive religious systems that shackle their adherents and society with bothersome ethics?
Perhaps I should take heart that we still has some sense of ethics, regardless of how far we’ve strayed within that sense. But I know better. Morality, like most other 21st century American virtues, is based solely on fashion appeal. And, as is true for most fashion trends, the church is only a few years behind.
Earlier this year I read through the Pentateuch which, of course, includes laborious pages of the Levitical law. Not all of the reading failed to inspire, however. Especially the grand indictments against the oppressors of the poor and the widows. God has something to say to those who take advantage of the poor, and it’s not too pretty. God obviously cares about socioeconomic justice as evidenced by sabbath years and the Year of Jubilee. Farmer’s are supposed to leave the corners of their barley fields for the poor. The foreigner is to be welcomed. Slaves are to be respected and offered freedom at some point.
The laws that didn’t connect with me much were the ones about how to bathe before a ritual. Or the ones about who can touch what in the tabernacle and how. Or the ones about when, where, and how to defecate. I don’t mean to be crass, it’s there. We enlightened moderns, postmoderns, or whoever we are cringe when we read these laws because they feel so burdensome and pious. So puritanical. So religious. So Amish. So unspiritual. People who live this way aren’t real. We just need to come to God as we are with all our messy baggage and let him sort it out while we go make more messes. Messy is the new holy. We suspect the morally upright person of hypocrisy but absolve without question the one who works for social reform in a developing nation.
If former generations have failed to appreciate the gospel’s social impact, my generation’s failure will be our depreciation of the gospel’s personal impact. We are masters of worthless dichotomies. The trouble with paradigm shifts is not the shift but our inability to zoom out as we do so.
So the question is this: Does our current sensitivity to public morality demonstrate a better and broader (I refuse to use the word “robust”) understanding of the Gospel and the Kingdom, or does it demonstrate our tendency to take our moral cues from a system so confused that today’s evil could become tomorrow’s good?
The Levitical law reveals a God who makes no distinction between public and private ethics. Jesus reveals a God who came to save sinners and proclaim justice to the oppressed. Same mission, different ramifications. James sums it up nicely when he says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (1:27, ESV).”