It hit me yesterday that what bothers me about the Penn State scandal is that the people involved did not exhibit normal courage.
I don’t ask for heroism. I admire heroism, and I pray that I
would will have it if and when it’s needed (and I have premonitions that martyric heroism may be required of true Christians during my anticipated life). But I don’t despise people who turn out to lack heroism when circumstances call for it.
I do ask for normal courage, though, and it seems to me that normal courage, when the damnable bureaucratic buck-passing (that all institutions require) produces less than a slap on the wrist, requires saying “So much the bureaucratic shuffle. I’m going to the police now.”
I take this seriously because I know, from close experience, that institutions love paper-shuffling, bureaucratic whitewashes. I know that rejecting the whitewash and pursuing the truth requires at least normal courage, if not heroism, and that the whistleblower may pay a heavy price. Bureaucracies have a large pallet of ways to punish people they disapprove, short of smoking gun illegal retaliation.
There are times when legal requirements do not meet moral requirements, and by “requirements,” I mean the things the pertain to ordinary courage, not heroism.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, people are asking what Christian beliefs and behaviors are optional and which ones are fundamental and non-negotiable. This doesn’t seem like an entirely new topic to me.
From the term “Fundamentalist” (the claimants to which term have a short list of “fundamentals” that are de rigeur – never mind that a few are dubious historically) to any Evangelical or mainstreamer who asks “must I [believe or do this or that]?,” people are as parsimonious with God are they are with legal compliance – in both of which cases, exceeding the bare requirements requires some courage and counter-cultural independence.
What do you think God will think, at the great and fearful judgment seat of Christ, of those who were looking for the “sweet spot,” where they’d secure their place outside of hell (if not exactly in highest heaven) while getting all possible toys and money and erotic pleasure?
I invented a little aphorism for such religious minimalists: “If you’re trying to do the minimum God requires, you’re not doing the minimum that God requires.” God requires all your heart, soul, mind and strength. You can look it up. (It’s one of today’s Gospel readings, new calendar Orthodoxen.)
Christianity is not for slackers. I used to be a bit puzzled by the accusation of “cheap grace” (Bonhoeffer, if memory serves), since my then-tradition talked a lot about free grace, and you can’t get much cheaper than “free.” I thought the accusers must have some errant notion of earned salvation, of perhaps were talking about people who “pray the sinner’s prayer” and then disappear, never to be seen at church, but falsely assured that they’re good with God. Surely you need to show up at least at Christmas and Easter, or something like that.
But I know what the accusation means (or should mean) now, because I see how we’re all a bit grudging with God, but some traditions have cheap grace built right into them — “Do this and you shall live” where “this” is something other than “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”
That’s from the wind-up to the story of the Good Samaritan, by the way. You remember him, don’t you. He did a bit more filing a report with his superiors when he saw a victim by the road.