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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Christians Can Learn From The Penn State Scandal

As expected, the reaction to the punishment handed out by the NCAA by some from the Penn State community is one of anger. Some are angry over what is perceived to be the unfair treatment of Joe Paterno and his legacy. Some are angry over what is perceived to be unfair treatment of the players and coaches. Some are angry due to angst over possible ramifications of the loss of income from the football program. But all fans are angry because of the tarnishing of the group that provides them significance. The question then becomes, are these Penn Staters angrier over the sexual assaults and coverup than they are over the sanctions.

The reaction of Penn State fans to the punishment is due to group identity and loyalty. We join or become fans of groups because of the significance and/or sense of security they appear to offer. We join or become fans of groups that we identify with because of what the group does. In America, we have been trained to join or become fans of groups from right after birth. The names of our groups are on our clothes and on our treasures. We pick sports teams to root for and fan clubs to join. We invest a great deal of emotional energy into our groups. One of the biggest groups we will ever be a member of is our country. And when group loyalty and allegiance runs deep, talking down about another person's group is the same as talking down about someone's momma in that it can start a fight.

When our sense of group identity is strong, we like to flatter our own groups because, in so doing, we flatter ourselves. When we have a strong allegiance to a group, we have problems with either admitting to what our group has done wrong or being fully connected with what was wrong. At best, we reluctantly acknowledge what was done wrong but our emotional reaction is weak if it exists at all. Why? It is because of the dissonance that comes from the sense of significance we get by associating with the group and the demands of justice; and people react to dissonance by taking the easiest way out.

For the Christian, there is an even more important problem. That problem is the stronger association we have with a group, the more likely we practice group idolatry. That is right, idolatry. The more importance we gain from a group, the more likely that that group has become a god to us.

I use to be a very rabid Penn State football fan. In fact, a former minister from one of my past churches constantly suggested perhaps my love of Penn State football was idolatrous. I ignored those comments of course. After all, JoePa and Penn State football was the embodiment of what was good. It was specially blessed by God. And it was my job, as a devoted fan, to defend their honor. Then came the losing seasons at the beginning of this century and I realized that being an avid sports fan is just another way of being a manic-depressive. But when I became an activists in 2005, I realized that there was real suffering in the world and that those problems should draw more of my ire than when my team loses or is underrated.

After the 1994 season, I was livid that Penn State was not awarded a share of the National Championship with Nebraska. I was willing to go on a crusade to right this wrong. But my world was small then and so was my god. I was angry, not just because my team was cheated out of the recognition it deserved, I was mad because I was deprived as well.

What can group identity do to us? When we are a fan of a group that does well, such as a fan of a championship team, we can be loud and proud as if we deserved partial credit. We definitely feel a high; but it is a cheap high. It is a high we have neither earned nor sacrificed for. And we Americans have learned how to live off of cheap highs. We are addicted so we join as many groups as we can. But when one of our groups does something wrong, such as what some did at Penn State, we can experience a tearing battle with dissonance. Here, we must either acknowledge the wrong and let our idol be blasphemed, or we can minimize the wrongdoing by either rationalizing it or suffer a disconnect from seriousness of the injustice. And as horrible as the immoral acts that were done at and covered up by Penn State, what has been and is continually done in the name of our country during wars and other military interventions is far worse.

How do we know when group identity has morphed into group idolatry? It starts when we employ pedestals. It starts when the group and its reputation becomes more important than morals. It starts when what happens to the group becomes an escape for us from what is happening in the world. If we want to know how important belonging to groups, and even admiring individuals, should be, then we should read what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:1-11. For then, Paul belonged to one of the most prestigious groups he could have belonged to. And unlike being a sports fan, the group he belonged to required participation. He was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (vs. 5) and a keeper of the law. And yet, this meant nothing to him because his significance came from Christ and Christ alone.

Certainly, we cannot go through life without belonging to groups. Paul used his Roman citizenship in order to gain an audience with the Roman government. I, myself, am an American, a Socialist, a Red Sox fan, and so on. In addition I belong to Occupy Wall Street and the International Organization for a Participatory Society. This issue here is not the mere belonging to any group; it is self-serving worship directed toward any group we become fans of. And this worship can be so subtle as to be undetectable at times. If more people at Penn State had Paul's dedication to Christ or were more committed to justice or had little to no group identity issues, perhaps the coverup might have never occurred. In other words, the beginning of the coverup may have just started with yelling, "WE ARE ...


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