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Rev. Emily C. Heath

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Jesus, Penn State, And The Second Mile

Posted: 11/13/11 08:25 AM ET

When news of Jerry Sandusky's indictment came down I learned for the first time that the name of the charity he had founded to help boys and young men in need of support, the same one he allegedly used to find his victims, was the Second Mile. I was immediately struck by the irony.

The Second Mile takes its name from a parable told by Jesus. (You know, the same guy who said of those who would hurt children that it would be better for them to tie a millstone around their neck and be thrown into the sea). Jesus tells his disciples that if anyone forces them to go one mile, they should go a second mile. In other words, the bare minimum, even in the face of a difficult task, is not enough.

We can all agree that Sandusky's alleged actions were reprehensible. The fact that he committed his alleged acts under the guise of a charity which used Jesus' words to name itself is especially ironic. And yet I keep being drawn back to this phrase of his own choosing, this "second mile". It explains nothing to me about Sandusky's alleged behavior, but it tells me everything I need to know about why the inaction of seemingly everyone else at Penn State has been so deeply and ethically troubling.

I have always respected Joe Paterno and his image as a coach who valued character as much as he did athleticism. Paterno was famed for telling his players that he expected more than just the bare minimum from them, both on the field and off. And yet, when faced with devastating information about the victimization of a child, he did just that: the bare minimum.

The same is true of then-graduate assistant, now assistant coach, Mike McQueary. Most of us, when confronted with what he described to the grand jury, the brutal rape of a child, would have down whatever we could have to stop it. And yet, in what is one of the most gut-wrenchingly horrible parts of the 23 page grand jury report, McQueary states that both Sandusky and the victim saw him during the act. And instead of saving the child, a child who had seen that he had seen what was going on, he left and called his father.

Neither man went the second mile. They seem to have done only what was required of them by law, and no more. And, unlike the tasks Jesus was referring to when he told his disciples to go the extra mile, tasks like unjust forced labor mandated by the Roman occupiers, the demands of the laws both had to follow were incredibly just. Protecting children is one of the easiest demands our laws make of us, and yet our basic humanity should compel us to do more than just the bare minimum required by the spirit of the law.

We should be willing to go the second mile to protect children not out of legal obligation, but because our conscience compels us to do so. Reporting a former player and coach to the police may not have been pleasant for Paterno or McQueary, but it shouldn't have been in any way a moral gray area.

Instead, we are now left with the feeling that when it was written that, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing," it may as well have been written about the coaches and administrators of Penn State.

But what happened at Penn State is not new. It's just the newest example to be picked up by media outlets everywhere. We've heard it before when Kitty Genovese was killed while bystanders watched, or when genocide has occurred in plain site, or when gross civil rights violations have occurred and ranks are closed around the perpetrators. Inaction in the face of evil and injustice is nothing new.

And yet, when I woke up on Thursday morning to news that some (though certainly not all) Penn State students had been so angry with the trustees decision to fire Joe Paterno that they flipped over a car, it seemed unbelievable. I love watching football, but how had the game been raised to such a level of idolatry? How had the greatest outpouring of emotion after a revelation of prolonged sexual abuse come not out of compassion for the victims, but out of anger that there were consequences for failing to go the extra mile for children?

I don't condone the destruction of property, but if you really must flip cars is this the greatest injustice you can think of here? Instead of flipping cars, why not flip onto its head a culture that allows good people to be silent in the face of the abuse of children? Why not flip a set of priorities that valued a lucrative college football program over doing the right thing? Why not flip from a worldview that asks you only to fulfill the letter of the law, to one that requires you also pay attention to the spirit and then do no less than what is demanded by that? Had these flips taken place on the Penn State campus long before this week, that university's name would not currently be synonymous in the public mind with providing safe harbor to child abusers and their protectors.

There have been other Penn States. And there will be more. Some are happening now in the most unexpected of places. I hope that the lesson those who will be in a position to report abuse take away from this one is not that ethical decisions bring angry backlash. I hope it's not even a morality tale about a beloved coach whose legacy is now forever tarnished by his inaction. I pray it's simply this: When it comes to protecting children, the bare minimum is never enough. We must go the second mile.

 

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