So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State? An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger
every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning. Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.
The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago. I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis. The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days. After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order. “What will that do?” I asked. “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.” So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.
Things have changed for the better. But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought. There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals. In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.
There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here. College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too. When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere. Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.
There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves. It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young? Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently. In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.
Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy. The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs. According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,
Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.
As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners
to be so modest. They nearly always say, “I just did my job.” The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success. Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on. He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle. A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died. The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”
At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers. It is that trust in each other on which lives depend. Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life. Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?
Duty is not always glamorous. It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification. Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world. It’s all about the money, too often, for us. Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside. We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness. We reap bitterly from this harvest.
Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable. Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it. So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile. Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.
Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era. He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.” His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides. He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day, not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us. Without doing our duty, can we long survive?