Joe Paterno and the Banality of Evil

Recent news out of Penn State University is, of course, horrible.  No one who has […]

Matthew Stokes / 11.22.11

Recent news out of Penn State University is, of course, horrible.  No one who has read the news reports has managed to come away without a sickening feeling.    Commentary in print and on radio and television has been mostly somber, as the crimes are so outrageous that everyone has been measured in their tone.  I say, mostly, however, because there has been an obvious air of self-righteousness to the news of the cover-up, usually accompanied by some version of “Why on earth didn’t he report…” or “I would never fail to stop…”

Before I wade into this swamp, let me get a few things out of the way.  Anyone guilty of committing a crime in this case should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  Despite having a soft spot in my heart for Joe Paterno – a dear friend to my own alma mater’s beloved coach – I have no objection to the PSU Board of Trustees removing him from his position.  This whole awful mess is a stain that undoubtedly taints the storied career of a man who is, by all other accounts, a good and decent human being.

But that, my friends, is precisely the point.  Joe Paterno is, by any human standard, a good and decent human being.  He is not a moral monster.  He isn’t even an imposing football coach.  He is a normal looking man; dull, even.  The fact that many of us look at Joe Paterno and see a kindly old uncle should make us uncomfortable. It should afflict us, because if Joe Paterno can turn a blind eye to the horrors of child sex abuse, we may find that we ourselves are not immune to wearing blinders in our own lives.  Of course, there has already been one fine post on this topic already – refer to it early and often.


Hannah Arendt saw something similar in the trial of Nazi leaders.  Her famous and controversial concept of the “banality of evil” did not excuse the horrors of Auschwitz (nor the Penn State locker room), but instead exposed the potentiality of the heart of darkness that could be unleashed as men and women fall in line with their orders and expectations.  We find ourselves behaving in a way that any logical, reasonable person would obviously decry as wicked.  But that is precisely the problem; at some point, perhaps somewhere deep within, sin has marred us and left us as illogical and unreasonable.  We are left with seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinarily wicked things.

““The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” 

It is the normalcy and familiarity of Joe Paterno that should leave us so disturbed, and running to the Cross.  Thanks be to God that we are not so indifferent as to ignore abuse and murder, but let us never, ever forget that we are sinners, capable of the gravest injustice as we seek so desperately to ingratiate ourselves to the world around us.  The problem with Eichmann, as Arendt saw it, was not thorough design for evil, but a failure to recognize what he was doing.  He was blinded so many things – the weight of bureaucracy, the desire to find value in his work – that he is at once fully culpable for his horrendous actions and yet so utterly careless that it could be said that he was not fully grasping the magnitude of his wrongdoing.  Sin is ultimately, as the great Roman Catholic priest and theologian Richard John Neauhuas once put it, our fault, but not our fault.  We must therefore proceed with great caution and grace towards others.  It might have just as easily been us.

Let’s be clear on the issues of genocide and child sex abuse – lots of people would not turn a blind eye on this.  I truly believe that.  We all know of stories where people stood up against wrongdoing and prevented a terrible thing from happening.  Think of Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda on a grand scale, and there are stories of common heroism everyday.  I would even argue that the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer provides a greater sense of right and wrong in a great many instances.  But even if we find ourselves standing tall against genocide or human trafficking or sex abuse, let us never lose sight of the fact that we remain enslaved to our sin and our bound desires.  There is always something that is out to get us, chasing us, compelling us, even, to give in and justify ourselves.  Maybe it is a church institution.  Maybe it is a business or non-profit organization.  It may even be a college football program.

Those who heard Gil Kracke’s excellent talks at the recent Mockingbird conference in Birmingham recall his reference to the U2’s great b-side “Salome.”  (See Devotion No. 1 here.)  Listen to the Edge whispering, “got to got to getcha…”  We are all so desperate and eager to please.  Please whom, you ask?  I have no idea, and you may not either.  But you’ll get there, and I will, too.  Like Herod, so desperate, so pleading.  Begging for affirmation and recognition, only to find that we have given in to something we know to be wrong. We are all giving in to something.

We are all pulled in a million different directions.  Thanks be to God that by his grace we are not covering up genocide or sex abuse.  But we are blind to evil in other days – in our sports, our politics, our arts and entertainments, our families and relationships.  If the news reports and grand jury testimony are accurate, Jerry Sandusky and possibly others deserve to be imprisoned.  Joe Paterno deserves to be fired.  Yet we must be ever so careful.  Our hearts are wicked things, prone to all sorts of carelessness, indifference and even malevolence.  We are all fallen, all broken, all of us guilty of things “done and left undone.”  We are all condemned before a holy God, and yet we are all delivered at the foot of the Cross.  Sufjan Stevens said it well a few years back; even our best behavior is horrific.  Enjoy this, and be thankful.