The Common Good

Say It Ain't So, David

I thought about naming this post, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” but that phrase seems to have been overused recently. And for a good reason.  

Maybe you’ve heard about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, where an assistant football coach, defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, has been charged with 40 counts of sexually abusing eight boys over a period of 15 years.

Sandusky, 67, retired in from the Penn State in 1999, but reportedly at least 20 of the alleged assaults occurred while he was employed by the university. Some of the alleged abuse may have happened as recently as 2009.

There are plenty of people who are furious about the Penn State abuse scandal and rightly so.

I cannot possibly begin to fathom the suffering of the eight boys.

What exacerbates our shock and our anger is that people had the power to stop it, and yet did nothing. Legendary Penn State head football coach, Joe “Joe Pa” Paterno and at least one other member of his coaching staff (who allegedly witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy in the locker room showers), knew about the abuse but never told police.

They never did anything to stop it or prevent Sandusky from abusing more children.


An eerily relevant story comes to us from the book of 2 Samuel:

 

David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David’s son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, ‘O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?’ Amnon said to him, ‘I love Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.’ Jonadab said to him, ‘Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, “Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.” ’ So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, ‘Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand.’

Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, ‘Go to your brother Amnon’s house, and prepare food for him.’ So Tamar went to her brother Amnon’s house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them* out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, ‘Send out everyone from me.’ So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, ‘Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand.’ So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, ‘Come, lie with me, my sister.’ She answered him, ‘No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.’ But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she was, he forced her and lay with her. ...

Her brother Absalom said to her, ‘Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart.’ So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house. When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.* But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar. (2 Samuel 13:1-22 NRSV)

In the  NIV translation of the passage, Tamar's words "vile" is translated as "wicked," and "scoundrels" as "fools." Tamar uses such strong words to describe the people to whom she’s comparing her brother. They were not just wicked, and not just foolish. They were wicked and foolish.

Nothing was recorded in the text that would indicate whether King David actually did anything to punish Amnon. He didn’t scold him. He didn’t revoke Amnon’s access to the royal chariots or give him a curfew. There was no fine, no punishment, no confrontation. All we know is that the king was “furious.”

David’s feelings of outrage simply weren’t an adequate response to Amnon’s behavior. His son’s crimes were abhorrent — violent, twisted and profoundly abusive — and yet the scriptures are silent about what David might have done to stop or correct them. Perhaps that’s because, like Penn State’s Joe Pa, he did nothing.

He knew and yet he did nothing.

Abuse of physical strength and power hasn’t been limited to the locker rooms at Penn State. Nor is it limited to middle-aged men. It's in every culture, every city and state, and in every generation. And, I might add, it is both wicked and foolish.

I think we’ve been given enough examples of such abuse being handled incorrectly—to be swept under the rug instead of dealt with directly. The silence of witnesses only allows the abuse to continue. When I spoke with Daniel Walker, author of the new book God in a Brothel, about child slavery and prostitution, he noted that the men who oppress women and children don’t need to be ministered to as much as they need to be held accountable.

Joe Pa, 84, who had coached at Penn State for more than 45 years, has been fired, and the university’s president has resigned over the abuse scandal. Both actions were reactive responses to a problem that really needed proactive intervention.

ESPN Sportswriter Rick Reilly might’ve said it the best: “No, this isn't about 84-year-old Joe Paterno not taking more steps that might have stopped it. It's about everybody not taking more steps that might have stopped it. Not parents, not teachers, not uncles, not friends, not counselors.”

Reilly’s right. It’s about our unfortunate tendency to respond to individual actions without responding to a systematic problem.

Maybe you’ve been in a situation where you’ve thought, “I wish I could do something more” or, “Well, it’s not really my place to do something about it.”

I guarantee you this: Someone else is going to wish that you had done something about it.

 

James Colten is a campaigns assistant for Sojourners.

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