Jerry Be Good

I’ve been keeping up a bit on the Jerry Sandusky trial, wondering how it is that a university with such a stellar reputation could have let such (alleged) crimes occur for so long. Perhaps this is how one’s reputation stays stellar for so long—you keep the skeletons buried deep.

In a New York Times editorial last Sunday, Maureen Dowd took aim at the Sandusky trial as an opportunity to comment on the issue of failed character. In doing so she quoted (somewhat in length) James Davison Hunter, the University of Virginia sociologist who has made his name applying Christian faith to issues of culture and society.

Dowd cited his book, The Death of Character (Basic Books, 2001). Hunter writes that while most people “think of their lives in moral terms and want to live good lives,” we “are more uncertain about what the nature of the good is…. We used to experience morality as imperatives. The consequences of not doing the right thing were not only social, but deeply emotional and psychological. We couldn’t bear to live with ourselves. Now we experience morality more as a choice that we can always change as circumstances call for it. We tend to personalize our ideals. And what you end up with is a nation of ethical free agents. We’ve moved from a culture of character to a culture of personality. The etymology of the word character is that it’s deeply etched, not changeable in all sorts of circumstances. We don’t want to think of ourselves as transgressive or bad, [so] we tend to personalize our understanding of the good.” As Dowd began her editorial: “Everyone is good, until we’re tested.”

I was struck by Hunter’s mention of being our unable to live with ourselves. In the days before spin and damage control, there was a more commonly held assertion that choices had consequences. You reap what you sow. Our theology and our legal system have been based on this. I’ve come to realize how much moral conviction is dependent upon social cohesion. Individual conscience, as noble as they sounds, is just too easy to manipulate. It’s why the prophet Jeremiah warned about the dangers of self-deceit. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9; ESV).

The problem, of course, is that we not only live in a society where societal cohesion is a elusive (and some would argue it should be given the realities of pluralism), but it’s elusive in churches too. “We are more uncertain about what the nature of the good is” even in communities where “the good” is our stated goal. The upside is a diminishment of shame and guilt. The downside is a diminishment of shame and guilt.

University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that shame, “our most primal emotion as humans,” ironically “tells the truth that certain goods are valuable and we have failed to live up to them.” She asserts that shame can serve as a “morally valuable emotion, playing a constructive role in development and social change” for both individuals and societies. And for churches too. The injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion was intended to rouse shame on the parts of its perpetrators—not only the Romans and the Jewish authorities—but all whose sins made his death a necessity. For Christians, a proper response to Christ’s death on the cross is not sympathy for his suffering as much as our shame for having caused it—a proper shame that properly motivates us to become people worthy of his having died to redeem us.