Thursday, November 10, 2011

Obedience and Scandal: Football, Military, Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian made a connection in the life of faith between believing and obeying.  To believe is to obey. To obey is to believe.  There is an inherent trust in the act of obedience.  The practices and habits of developing the virtue of obedience will also likely tie people very closely to the ideals of the organization but also to the structure of the organization itself.

There are a number of organizations that seek to develop obedience.  This has become clearest unfortunately in the aftermath of scandals.  The church, the military and football programs, most recently and horribly at Penn State University.  These organizations seek to develop obedience because trust or faith are important aspects of the life of these organizations.

The church seeks to develop obedience to God and this can hardly be accomplished without some structure around it.  Whether there is a distinct authoritative structure or a less authoritative structure, as people develop their obedience to God, they become enmeshed in the structure itself.

The military seeks to develop obedience so that the organization may move smoothly even in times of great stress and crisis.

College football programs seek to develop obedience so the players will perform at an incredibly high level.  People I have spoken with who have played top level college football say that in those programs the coach's word is akin to the word of God.

I have pondered the situation at Penn State, and have been surrounded by the sex abuse scandal in churches (when I was serving my internship, I ended up going to court to support a refugee member of the congregation and it happened to be the same day that the John Geoghan was having one of his first hearings in the Cambridge courthouse).  I am convinced that the issue is our understanding of authority.  Clearly the priests who abuse children, as well as Jerry Sandusky allegedly, have misunderstood their authority and taken advantage of it.  But what about Joe Paterno?

I had been placing his failure to do more in the light of hearing allegations from a graduate assistant/former player who said something about a close friend he has known for quite a while.  Joe reported what he needed to and nothing more.  It boggles all of our minds as to why Joe did not do more.  Part of it might be due to his friendship with Sandusky, but I think there is more, but not necessarily with any nefarious intent on Joe's part.

Joe served Penn State for decades in a position where he wielded incredible authority.  If football coaches speak with a god's authority, then Joe has existed in a position where he does not wonder if people will do what needs to be done.  They just do it.  I have heard of tales where Joe was able to bar then President Spanier from the locker room and the board backed him up.  Joe speaks and players, coaches, and just about everybody else listen.

Except of course the administrators who are not part of such an environment where obedience is unquestioned.  They are less worried about obedience and try to cover up any scandal so the school is not tarnished.  Many steps were taken but not proper ones.  The administrators misunderstood their authority to be a subordinate authority to the government and believed they could save the school's reputation.  If they understood their authority properly they would have hopefully done what was required.  They mistook their authority to be greater than what it was and in the end the institution was rocked by a far greater scandal and they are going to pay a price as well.

None of this reflection should be understood as an excuse for the inaction by Joe or the cover-up by the administration, campus police and likely others.  There is surely something to be learned here for organizations that exist with structures of authority and obedience.  Soldiers cannot simply rely on "we were just following orders" anymore.  Football coaches and priests cannot understand their authority outside of the particular relationship each holds with its institution.  And when their institution must interact with others who do not hold such a high view of obedience and authority, they must not take for granted that everyone will share the same perspective.

All in all, the authority of any human being cannot own the obedience of any other when it seeks to thwart justice.  In the end, while many questions have been raised and much needed conversation will take place, not everyone will receive the appropriate human justice.  We can trust that God's authority will eventually be heeded when judgment is executed. 

In the meantime, I will pray for all involved: the Penn State community, the perpetrators and the victims. 

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