Thursday, July 05, 2012

Sandunsky verdict provides opportunity for punditry and metapunditry

By D. G. Hart | Published: July 2, 2012

The news of Jerry Sandusky’s conviction for child molestation has some Christians beating their breasts over their faith’s influence on western civilization. Joe Carter, one of TGC’s aggregators, has a quotation from a piece at the Catholic World Reporter that argues Sandusky would not have been found guilty in the ancient worlds of Greece or Rome:

If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything. He would not even have been noticed. His actions would have been entirely unremarkable. There would have been no disgust, no anger. The verdict would have been innocent, and in fact, the notion that he was guilty of anything would have been unintelligible.

Carter jumps on the bandwagon:
For 2,000 years, the influence of Christ has had a profound—yet underestimated—influence on all aspects of Western culture. We often take for granted that without the “salt and light” of Christianity, behaviors that we consider disgusting and taboo would be accepted and commonplace. But what will happen if the influence of Christ and his followers continues to wane?

Discerning which is more remarkable here — the bad taste or the theological blunder — is difficult to say. Why would someone use this occasion to boast about the cultural effects of one’s faith? Why not show a little humility, mixed in with a dose of compassion for both Sandusky’s family, not to mention the victims (and their families), and back away from exploiting this story in the culture wars? Is this really going to persuade anyone on the other side or will it confirm the Religious Right’s reputation for self-congratulatory righteousness (and thus inspiring the faithful)?

Well, it wouldn't be the first time someone connected to the Gospel Coalition in some way had used this kind of argument from history.  I was less than thrilled when someone in Seattle came up with a comparable argument in 2005:

See, after church tonight you will go home and you will eat chicken, not human, because of the spread of Christianity. You think I’m kidding, go to a country that hasn’t had the spread of Christianity. They’re having human for dinne

This is not exactly the best case.  A lot of things did change with the development of Christian thought and ethics in the West.  Some very good and some very bad came of ideas within early Christian teaching and thought.  Let's not give the Enlightenment the decidedly less credit a lot of contemporary evangelicals want it to get credit for in the realm of proposing better circumstances for people.  Yes, I know the arguments that the Enlightenment developed within Christian this and that.  it was possible for elements of the Enlightenment as well as more conventional Christian belief to coexist in someone like Edwards. None of that is to suggest that today you and I don't eeat human today for dinner because of the Christianization of the West.  It's a big stretch to say that only those societies that were influenced by Christianity do not have taboos about cannibalism.  It's not as though the Donner Party situation didn't play out in a setting where people were informed by Christendom.

That Sandunsky is guilty has been established. What has also been established is that protecting the peace and reputation of the institution is not considered worth the silencing or slighting of those who have experienced ineffable harm. It can't be said of a university that no person, no matter how badly harmed or sinned against, has no right to speak regarding injustice and abuse.  If this is true about a university it may prove to be the case about churches as well and yet there is a very real possibility that within evangelicalism that this observation will become the subject of special pleading.

It may be well and good that a university or a Catholic church does not have the right to pass over or ignore the abuse and harm experience by others at the hands of abusive power systems but that's because those are worldly institutions are not really Christian churches.  When the shoe is on the other foot the reputation and peace of the institution may prove to be worth more than the ruined lives of any number of people who were sacrificed at the altar of the peace and reputation of an institution. If moral equivalence applies then it applies across the defense of institutions at the expense of people who have shared stories of abuse.  Avoiding a theology of Job's comforters does not just entail avoiding a defense of God's reputation it can also involve refraining from defending what Protestants would normally proclaim to be a fallible church in the wake of a series of disasters.

By way of observing a comment it can be established that even within the pre-Christianised West cannibalism was considered off the table for insults.  Or at least such is the case made by David No in the following comment.  If accurate it would suggest that there's no reason to suppose the only reason we in the West have chicken instead of human for dinner was because of Christianity.

Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink
Are there any citations for this quote: “If Sandusky would have lived 2000 years ago, he would not have been found guilty of anything”? I don’t find any on the TGC page. Or this one: “In Rome, as in ancient Greece, homosexuality was completely acceptable.” It’s a gross over-simplification of these societies and their customs.
Standard operating procedure in Roman politics and oratory is to demonstrate the guilt of one’s opponent for action A by first demonstrating their depraved character. Depraved character leads inexorably to depraved actions. The typical charges to prove one’s opponent has a debased character are: 1.) alcoholism; 2.) homosexuality and pederasty 3.) incest. The one charge that neither Greeks nor Romans seem to have touched is cannibalism (made them too ‘Eastern’ and was connected to human sacrifice).
If the article’s author wants to see that he is mistaken about Greek and Roman culture, if he has those cultures in mind, he could read Cicero’s Catilinarian speechs, his speeches against Verres and the Philippics against Mark Antony, as well as Demosthenes first and second Philippics. If he has the stomach, he could also read the Roman poet Catullus, in whose works the charge of homosexual behavior is that which you use to mock someone, in very lurid detail.
It’s true the Greeks, though not Romans, tolerated aberrant sexual behavior more than we, but it is false that they would not have seen Sandusky’s actions as wrong or that the moral category of pederasty would have been “unintelligible.” It’s an uncharitable thing to say about the dead whose morals were often better than ours.

Rather than scoring points about how the West has supposedly developed to a point where Sandunsky would be considered guilty of something we should consider the implications such a ruling may have for those who would place the defense of an institution's reputation above the safety and welfare of minors and other individuals. Evangelicals should beware that on this subject we are not pots calling kettles black.

Finally, Hart links to the following article for those who might want to follow that thread of thought which states that the pursuit of happiness is in any way commensurate with the path of a Christian.

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