On Penn State and the Courage to Cause Conflict

From the Gburg PO by President Michael Cooper-White

So much has been said and written already about the tragic child abuse and cover-up at Penn State University.  On behalf of our Seminary community, I add my voice to the millions crying out, “Lord have mercy!  Have mercy and bring healing especially to the young men and their families, whose lives have been devastated.”  

Amidst the flood of feelings unleashed, most of which seem a blend of appropriate compassion for the victims and outrage at the perpetrator and those whose inaction enabled his sick and deeply harmful behavior to continue for years, are there some theological and pastoral perspectives  that might be offered?  Surely there are, and most certainly from pulpits and in counseling conversations throughout the land many colleagues sound hope for healing, issue calls for justice, and seize teaching moments to reinforce safe boundaries, develop stronger protective policies, and exercise greater vigilance about how we steward the sacred treasures that are our human relationships.

Perhaps the Penn State tragedy (and let it be stated clearly that the vast majority of students, staff, faculty and all associated with that great institution are good and honorable people) might give us pause to ponder why it is often so difficult to speak up in the face of unambiguous unhealthy and even vicious behavior.  Some recent reflection with students on the broad topic of “conflict” reveals that, as is the case for most folks, those of us drawn to churchly vocations by and large don’t like it and tend to avoid it if at all possible.  Coupled with this common conflict-aversion is widespread piety that suggests causing conflict is ungodly and manifests our fallen sinful nature.  While there may be a measure of truth in this pervasive folk piety, it can also lead to the very kind of inaction that seems to have marked multiple potential whistle-blowers who could have stopped the abuse at and around Penn State years ago.

We need to face the hard truth that being stewards of the gospel sometimes simply means that we not only cope with and seek healing and reconciliation amidst struggles, but we must actually CAUSE CONFLICT.  For those for whom that seems ungodly and anti-Christian, I point to the Bible (which I have called the “book of conflicts”) and the ministry of Jesus.  Time and time again, our Lord stood up to the religious and civil authorities when their attitudes and actions oppressed the “least of these,” whom Jesus felt especially called to serve.  The Bible concludes with the book of Revelation, a “mega-movie” that reel by reel reveals a conclusive cosmic conflict between God’s infinite goodness and all the forces of evil ever unleashed upon creation.

In the aftermath of deeply painful events, like those that have finally been brought to light in and around State College, Pennsylvania, many good Christians want to rush to forgiveness.  “We need to forgive the perpetrator(s) and those who made bad judgments or were just too timid to blow the whistle.”  Many of such forgiveness-prone persuasion may have been among the mob that rioted in support of deposed coach Joe Paterno.  “Joe’s done so much good for so many; we need to forgive a few mistakes that, while unfortunate, surely were motivated by his love for our university.”  There will be a time to assure the truly repentant wrongdoers of God’s ultimate forgiveness.  But for now, any blithe cheery premature offers of forgiveness make a mockery of the enormous suffering caused to so many.

“To whom much is given, much will be required.”  This short Scripture should haunt and hound every gospel servant every day of our lives.  Sometimes that which is required of us simply is bound to cause conflict.  If we are unwilling to do so, then we must prayerfully and profoundly ponder our vocational calling.  In some future revision of the rites for rostered service (ordination, consecration, commissioning or whatever such blessing orders of service may be called), I hope there’s the addition of a question to the effect of: “Are you ready and willing to confront unhealthy and evil behaviors wherever you find them, even when so doing is guaranteed to provoke conflict and get you in all kinds of trouble?”   
Posted: 11/16/2011 2:36:27 PM by John Spangler | with 0 comments

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office

by Michael L. Cooper-White

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