Is Sandusky Really Such a Bad Guy After All?

David B. Garner
Penn State University's recent scandal and consequences have saturated the newspapers, blogs, and radio and television stations. Sandusky's heretofore-private encounters with young boys are now anything but private, and his years of sexual exploits have ignited societal outrage. If reading of Sandusky's actions in locker rooms and his own basement was not enough, now the public must lug the weight of publicized institutional, personal, and legal sanctions. 

Visceral responses continue to explode in the wake of the punitive measures exacted upon the university, with some finding the consequences too harsh and others finding them too lenient. Many, it seems, believe Coach Paterno should pay posthumously. Not all agree how, and the well-publicized removal of his idolized statue is not happening without a fight. Nearly all believe that Sandusky's exploits are perverse and that he should be punished. Not all agree how. Virtually all find their hearts stirred with compassion for the victims and their families. But what does one do for such families? Can our legal system really effect restitution, reconciliation, and restoration? 

While emotions still boil to overflowing, the prospect of gaining satisfactory and satisfying solutions is growing increasingly dim. The unrelenting judgment is that something should be done, but disturbingly, we don't know what must or even can be done. Aware that legal retribution can go only so far, our initial outrage now blends with a growing sense of the inadequacy of any reparations. Initial shock ignited anger, then anger spread to a wrenching grief, and now grief is turning to settled cynicism. This mounting disillusionment now fills the void left by our outpoured anger.

But let us for a moment return to the outrage, to the shared fury about a man who has carried out these sexual exploits with young boys. There was not only a ghastly beast in the showers; there is now also an elephant in the room. Let us focus for a moment on the matter of the sex acts themselves, and ask some likely disturbing questions. What is the real source of such fury? Why is everyone so shocked and so angry? In a society that celebrates sexual freedom and personal rights to sexual expression, why the collective outrage over Sandusky's acts? Does not today's ethic insist Sandusky has a right to his own sexual fulfillment, however he chooses to attain it?  Does he not have the right to engage in sex where he wants, with whom he wants? After all, is not unbounded sexual freedom the last vista of our cherished personal autonomy (i.e. self-law)? Do not quickly pass over these questions. 

And before we land this plane back in our cultural comfort zone, let me point out that if we are honest, we will admit that Western moral consensus finds no real problem with (any) sexual acts in themselves. With thanks to the sixties' audacious cries for sexual freedom, to twentieth century formative ethical theorists like Joseph Fletcher, who gave cogent rationale for our lusts, to cultural icons like Lady Gaga, whom we now pay millions to flaunt unrestraint under lights and cameras, our moral compass finds magnetic North in essentially any sexual act. We may still feel certain expressions of sexuality strange, even alarming, but like Pavlovian pups we retreat to essentially unqualified personal autonomy in matters of sexuality. To each his own, we believe.

So, wherein lies the moral outrage? If not in the inappropriateness of the sex itself, what summons our shared sickness of soul about Sandusky, Paterno, and company? The shared outrage is driven by an unwritten but deeply felt cultural consensus: everything is OK unless someone gets hurt. Put otherwise, our societal moral boundaries are not defined by principle, but by pain avoidance. It is not acts that are wrong in themselves. It is their assessed consequences that bear our corporate commendation or condemnation. The current outrage stems from the discerned abuse, from Sandusky's tormenting domination of non-willing participants. 

In short, social sympathy lies with the children. This driving sympathy is surely commendable, but why? We have yet to reckon with the grounds for our fury, our sympathy, and our sense of sexual autonomy.

Moral barricades preserving sympathy to the underling, though oft unspoken, are not hidden. Organizations like the North American Man-Boy Lovers Association ( draw their moral line at consent. They, in lock step with our culture, have determined that in coercion lies moral reprehensibility. Even the debate with NAMBLA is not finally over the sexual relationship between men and boys, but over the psychological capacity of youth to make independent decisions regarding their own sexuality. At our particular historical juncture of evolving societal norms, most still determine that children lack the psychological wherewithal to make personal judgments about such things, though even that conclusion continues to morph in alarming ways.

The goal here is in no way to question the propriety of protecting children, but rather to probe why we must do so. What is the basis for prohibiting our children from enjoying the very autonomy we prize? Would not an earlier foray into sexual activity merely give them more opportunity for personal pleasure? Would not our ethic of sovereign self-gratification promote the modification or even the elimination of the age of consent? Do we not love our children enough to give them pleasure earlier in life than we enjoyed? Though most might find themselves deeply troubled by the very questions, sophisticated and armchair ethicists have already sought to build such a case. 

But what is it about our ethical paradigm than enables them to do so with veritable impunity? The reason is critical to grasp. It is because our authority for ethical decisions extends from us. Our vice grip upon moral independence is unyielding. While ethical boundaries fluctuate, the determination that the boundaries belong to us has been driven like pilings into our corporate conscience. Non-negotiable is my ownership of ethics, a commitment which makes wholly negotiable the ethics themselves. 

Thus, our conception of ethics necessarily functions on a continuum; ethics are fluid, as the culturally acceptable bubble drifts over months, years, and decades. Combine such floating with our practical disdain for self-reflective and self-critical history, and one finds a formula for the ethical elasticity of anything over time. Children are really not as safe as our current collective indignation about Sandusky and company might lead us to believe.

The implications are unsettling: Sandusky is simply the scapegoat now, because his actions operated outside our self-defined bubble of acceptability. Too bad for Mr. Sandusky the bubble hasn't floated far enough his way. It surely will one day, but he is a man ahead of his time. Man/boy sexual relations (pederasty) were celebrated in ancient Greece. They were too in Rome. Barring radical intervention, such will undoubtedly be the case here one-day too. 

Look at us, after all. Who would have imagined only 10 years ago that homosexual marriage would become mainstream and that people who speak out against it (or even speak only in favor of heterosexual marriage!) are neophytes, homophobes, or worse? Who would have believed 15 years ago that 90% of colleges and universities would operate with co-ed dormitories, and some with co-ed bathrooms? Who would have believed 20 years ago that (loving?!) parents would provide their children with contraceptives, encouraging them to practice so-called safe sex? Parents not only fail to sink their heads in sorrow, they pay for the rooms with their own credit cards.

Perhaps a generation from now, sex in the showers with a 10-year-old boy will be viewed as healthy for a football coach. For some already, the ethic of sympathy for the weak militates against smashing and tackling others on a football field; perhaps sexual contact with young boys will be seen to tenderize overly aggressive masculinity. As preposterous as that may sound, it is consistent with the logic and rhetoric in some academic circles and fringe movements. And while such logic might seem presently unthinkable, remember we are never immune from the fringe finding itself within the bubble. Only a few short years ago, what is now mainstream was then on the margins. The culturally conditioned consensus changes. The acceptability bubble drifts and shifts. It always has and it always will. 

I hear the protests now: comparing Sandusky's escapades with consensual homosexual sex, co-ed dormitories, and parental license is intolerable. It is, in fact, repulsive; it is immoral. But bear with me a bit further, before drawing the curtain on any seeming incongruity or non sequitur. Despite the legitimacy of distancing sexual violence from sexual freedoms, there is a critical connection here, and it goes to the very foundation of our shared sense of how ethical decisions function.

As it stands now in our society, rape is viewed as unethical because the sexual partner is commandeered. On the other hand, all forms of voluntary promiscuity are fine because they are private fun and not public concern. If no one gets hurt or if I don't mean to hurt anyone, then I am free to do what I want - as long as I force no one else to participate. So serious are we about advancing our sexual autonomy that we now celebrate "Sexual Freedom Day" annually in the USA. Ivy League universities like Yale now host "Sex Week," which includes graphic instruction by porn stars. Resistant undergrads receive ridicule for their squeamishness, and many feel forced into awkward and unwanted situations. On a daily basis, medical providers coerce young teenagers, despite the protests of wiser parents, into sex counseling and STI inoculations. Yes, young people and their parents are pressured to conform. Come to think of it, I guess not all forms of coercion are taboo. They are indignantly demanded.

What of this? Can our Western culture sustain itself on a floating ethic grounded in the demands for moral self-law? Beneath this vital practical question is the fundamental question of authority - the question of epistemology, or the theory of how we know what we know. Who established the cultural standard that ethics are decided by consequences rather than standards? Who decided that consensual sexual expression is OK, but certain forms of coercion are not? The answer, it seems, is both revealing and unnervingly arbitrary. We did. And we continue to do so.

Herein lies the systemic and insurmountable problem, one with a laundry list of implications. We will mention only a few.

For starters, our ethic of "whatever works," doesn't work. Such pragmatism simply isn't pragmatic and it protects neither us, nor our children. We stubbornly claim, "as long as it does not hurt anyone else, it's OK." Really? Let's assume this mantra correct, that in keeping with our self-appointed tutors Jeremy Bentham and John S. Mills (modern influential utilitarian ethicists), calculated consequences determine what is right and wrong. But how can we be so sure that our judgment about consequences is right? What formulas are foolproof? Is it not flatly preposterous to think that I possess, on my own or even under the influence of the immediate community around me, the intellectual ability and sufficient empirical data to make infallibly informed moral decisions?  

We mustn't deflect these probes. Are we sufficiently self-conscious to measure the impact of our own decisions even on ourselves? Have we not all made decisions willingly that we regret later? Is the claim that sexual encounters are consensual sufficient to make them beneficial or even acceptable? Is so-called free sexual activity really free or are we not bound by our cultural and intellectual limitations? Is no one really hurt by our practices of unbounded consensual sex?

Albeit often imperceptibly at first, our actions change us, our commitments, our values, and our souls. And such movements are never isolated. We live in community, and our decisions unavoidably influence others, not just our bed partners. Several other questions unrelentingly surface. What about the initially (or even enduring) indiscernible social and psychological impact, for example, of expressed sexual freedoms - homosexuality, bisexuality, orgies, friends "with benefits", and so on? Are we so self-absorbed to think that the only persons impacted are those in our own beds and not also their families, friends, and children? What about the impact of our bedroom decisions upon future generations? 

Any historian or social analyst worthy of the titles will acknowledge the long-range public impact of allegedly private decisions. We are at best blindly ignorant to believe otherwise; secretive ethical decisions simply are never finally secret. They mold our worlds into our own moral image. And note well, it is not only the media-blasted Sandusky's of the day that press this imprint upon our social psyche. All prophets and practitioners of free consensual sex are in bed together, coercing the public, and collectively repositioning the ethical bubble of our own and future generations.

Perhaps we have sought blind refuge in the teaching that we are only evolved biological machines. According to this view, we are merely living material with chemical impulses, making sexual actions nothing more than physical stimulation. The millions invested in safe-sex campaigns across our nation stem from the philosophical commitment to this materialistic monism, persuading teenagers that safety in sex concerns only disease prevention. Yet, deep in our souls we know we are more than a mass of cells, and we also know that we lie in no position to weigh the full impact of our perceived and practiced sexual freedoms. We deceive ourselves and our children, declare the soul-crushing fallacy that we are nothing more than collections of chemicals, and brazenly drown out the poignant significance of genuine human dignity. 

What is more distressing indeed is that many of us do not care. We want what we want and if no one is bothered enough to stop us forcibly, we will keep feeding our raging lusts, even if they involve the undiscerning, the weak, the child, or even the dead. Such determination to self-fulfillment exposes our naked selfishness. Engaging in autonomously defined sexual freedom is nothing less than flagrant and foolhardy moral attention seeking. This display will produce societal consequences, something even a cursory glance at history and cultural analysis will demonstrate.

How then do cultural norms actually change? Precisely by those pushing the boundaries of acceptability standards, publicly and privately. In the process, many are dragged unwillingly and unwittingly into new moral parameters. How, in one generation, does one move from dwelling contentedly with friends and neighbors to actively or passively killing them off because we now deem them weak and inferior? Ask Hitler, Himmler, and the Third Reich. We are not nearly as far from declaring Sandusky a self-made, trend-setting hero as we might self-righteously imagine.

My point is this. A culturally constructed sexual ethic entrenched in "as long as I don't hurt anyone," is terribly, tragically, and disastrously naïve. It is incapable of addressing the Sandusky scandal, the societal scandal, and the scandal of our own souls. It is incapable of sidestepping the infliction of serious soul defining and culturally defining pain. Those who are affected extend beyond our bed partner(s). Sexual exploits deliver impact well beyond simply the biological level. At the end of the day, no person can fully measure the devastating impact of selfish sexual actions. As the empiricist philosopher David Hume pointed out, left to ourselves, we simply do not have access to sufficient data to speak or act with any final certainty. 

What mulishly surfaces here is our culture's failed ethical model itself. Currently configured, ethics stem from floating cultural norms: our autonomous yet fluid sense of right and wrong, continually molded by our lusts, our decisions, our actions, and the media's envelope-pushing (im)moral guidance. Such an ethical "standard" really has no boundaries other than insatiable human wants. The corresponding threats to adults and children alike are boundlessly grim. As evidenced by the recent scornful outcries against Chick-Fil-A - an organization characterized by a rigorous financial commitment to underprivileged children - coercion and intimidation have not vanished from our ever-drifting ethic. Rather, they have just changed their objects of contempt. Contemporary ethics are not quite so concerned for the marginalized and oppressed as many would have us think.

There is a solution. A perfect One. It is not another ethical stance derived from our flailing and failing culture. It does not come from us. It comes to us. It is not culturally divined for our narrow worlds, but divinely given to all cultures around the world.

Despite, and in fact, because of our relentless resistance to being told what to do, we had better listen to what has come to us. Our souls' longing for independence and autonomy has blinded us to the very Source of true liberty. We have convinced ourselves that freedom comes in self-determination, and failed to reckon with the fact that freedom and design are inseparable. For example, a fish is free to swim only when it is in water where it belongs. No fish I know would rebel against water and demand the freedom to dwell in the desert. He might be happy (as a clam) for a moment as he flops about with no inhibition, but such "freedom" is a death sentence. A happy, free, and living fish is one that swims in the waters, just as God designed it to do. 

Humans also have design, a God-given one. Humans thrive when they operate according to divine purpose, not when they push back against it or seek to push out of it. To demand to run our own lives is to deny who we are: creatures - dependent and finite, in the image of God. To pursue autonomy is to leave the ocean of life-giving provision; it is to carry out our own death sentence. God has kindly given us instructions, moral and spiritual, and we only live truly when we live according to our divinely bestowed purpose and parameters. To be free is to swim only in the waters for which we were created. A happy, free, and truly alive person is one that swims in our God-given waters, just as he designed us to do.

Real freedom is not found in rejecting God's laws, but delighting in them. Contrary to a firmly held present-day conviction, the God of heaven is not a cosmic killjoy. In fact, far from constraining, the parameters that the God of Scripture gives to sexuality are actually freeing and deeply satisfying. After all, the God that made us knows what is best for us. He created sex. He created the sexes. He created marriage. He ought to know how these ought to go together. Furthermore he has told us!

But we have chosen instead to assert our own norms, to flee the perceived constraints, and to gyrate without inhibition. And are we really any better off, any happier, and any freer because anything goes in the bedroom, the pressroom, and the green room? No legitimate case could be made that a fish out of water is anything other than dead, rotten, and smelly. And by all reasonable measures, such we are.

So, how then should we live? Life-giving, freedom-producing ethics derive from the God who made us, not from the ever-changing (and changeable) cultural consensus. Right decisions about sexuality and about treatment of children come from God. Ethics grounded anywhere else will lead us to destruction and to bondage, to manipulation and coercion. While we ourselves cannot ever predict the consequences of our actions, the God of heaven can and he has already told us what they are. To put it bluntly, we are fools to think that we know better than he. He has stated both the standard and the consequences. It is time we listen.

So then, is Mr. Sandusky really that bad? Measured by today's norms and today's blogs, he's a certifiable scumbag. That's today, but what about tomorrow? Given another day and another time, Sandusky could find himself the poster child for moral self-expression. Our dominant cultural ethical paradigm turns such plausibility into likelihood.

The truth of the matter is that Sandusky is really bad, and in fact, he's much worse than the nastiest of our current cultural fury imagines. No matter how persistent it may be, no amount of societal indignation, legal consequence, or ostracization is commensurate with the perversion of his wickedness. Yes, lives are damaged, families wrecked, and a highly respected and now badly beaten educational institution reels on the ropes. It is all ugly, despicably ugly.

But none of that tells the truly gruesome story. Sandusky's final court is neither public opinion nor even the Attorney General. He is not bad because our current shared sentiment declares him so. Sandusky's sin is first a sin against God, his Maker. His moral accountability is comprehensive and his guilt pervasive. He will give an account. His moral failure was not finally his violation of our floating cultural norm, but a violation in heart and deed of the law of God. Mr. Sandusky is a man in the image of God and made for the glory of God. He has fallen well short of the revealed divine standard. His sinful heart and his cruel life expose rebellion, deeply rooted and personally intractable. He has leapt from the ocean of divine moral prescription, dragging others with him. His life reeks of this rebellion, and left to his own, he cannot come back.

The media have, for good or ill, streamed his sexual escapades to the living rooms and the iPhones of millions. He is dirty, and his now public filth has dirtied us. But here is the real rub. The dirt does not come only from Sandusky. It's in us too. To put it starkly, if he came in contact with us and our hearts, his life would be further stained. 

Thus his disturbing story screams for our attention, directing us not finally against him, but rather toward us and toward our own moral compass. Americans must take this moment to look in the mirror and to think probingly, to peel back the layers of our own hearts and reckon honestly with our own obstinacy and bondage, and to acknowledge our own perversions for what they are. We need to stop talking and start listening to the voice of One who really knows and defines the moral scoop.

So then, the real question becomes: who are we before God? Have we like Sandusky claimed ourselves free, when in fact we have been duped into thinking freedom is found in rebellion against God rather than submission to him? Have we created sophisticated schemes to eclipse the dirt of our lives, our words, our hearts? Have we reckoned with the scum or sought to whitewash it with the filthy rag of dishonesty: "I'm not as bad as him?" Our hopeless devotion to self-determination and self-defense themselves reveal our own smutty and stinky rebellion. 

We must come to terms with who we are and what we are doing. No doubt coming to terms with God's law will inevitably lead us to tremble before him. We do not and cannot measure up. In fact, we have not kept the law. We have not even wanted to do so. Honesty will force us to see our consummate failure. Moreover, our constant, determined, and blatant resistance make us dirty, irretrievably stained, contorted, and condemned. We have tried to launch ourselves outside the waters of God's laws, and though we flopped around freely in the sun for a few moments, our out-of-water rebellion has killed us spiritually, morally, and culturally. The stench of our rotten spiritual lives wafts wildly and indiscriminately. 

The Bible pulls no punches in assessing us. The prophet Isaiah tells us that we have all gone astray; none is guiltless (Isaiah 53). Another prophet tells us that are hearts are wicked, and so badly so that we cannot even comprehend our own distortion (Jeremiah 17:9). In the New Testament, we find our sinful autobiography penned with painful precision (Romans 3); we are even described as "dead in our . . . sins" (Ephesians 2:1). Scripture presents a uniform message. Though our particular sins differ, our desperate problem is shared - our hearts and lives are characterized by rebellion against God. I am Sandusky and so are you. We are all thoroughly guilty and all aggressively complicit in our attempted spiritual cover up.

It all sounds pretty dark and hopeless, until we discover from the same Bible, as Paul Harvey used to put it, the rest of the story. Penetrating the darkness of our Sandusky-like hearts, there is a light, a blazing light, an exposing yet cleansing and freeing light. To change the metaphor, there flows from God's Word fresh and exhilarating air to breathe. The God who made us, who requires righteousness of heart and life from us, and against whom we have defiled ourselves - this God is compassionate and merciful. The God offended and rejected has also provided forgiveness, real forgiveness, and real restored freedom. He marvelously resurrects us, returns us to the seas of blessing, and charts for us a course of moral freedom directed by his ever perfect, life giving purpose. By reconciliation with the God of the universe we discover true freedom - freedom to be and do what we are designed to do. Grateful and hopeful delight explodes from our souls, as we swim in the seas of God's grace.

This forgiveness and freedom come and can only come from the same God against whom we have rebelled. Our sin and its bondage are gruesome, so gruesome that only the death of God's Son could restore and cleanse. And this is precisely what God has done. Jesus Christ, God's very own Son, came, lived a fully obedient life according to God's law, and then in a stunningly inconceivable act of selfless sacrifice, died the death of a criminal, of a Sandusky. Why? Because sin's guilt and corruption demanded it. Guiltless himself, he died on behalf of the guilty, of the weak and the helpless. With even a cursory glance in the mirror, such an act is overwhelmingly stunning.

Implications of Sandusky, Paterno, and Penn State must not then be lost on us. The Bible calls us to God, to his law, and to his demands. This Bible calls us to yield to moral standards, which the God of heaven has given for us. Ethical decisions belong not to us, but to the God who made us. Even the indignant defense our cultural of the children involved is inadequate apart from full repentance of our own sin. This same Bible calls us to God in faith, calling us to trust in his Son for our forgiveness. He knows best, and lovingly calls us to real freedom by faith.  

Don't let Sandusky's paraded perversions lead you merely to partnership in self-righteous, societal indignation. To do so would be to extend the perversion and to miss the leading lesson. Instead, be honest. Grapple seriously with the rebellious inadequacy of our flighty, socially determined paradigm of ethics. Face the consummate failures of your own heart to meet the demands of a holy God. Yield to the fact that your longings for autonomy in ethics have chained you, not freed you. Turn nowhere else but toward God himself: his law, his demands, and his forgiveness in Christ. Only before God will we see ourselves as we really are, and only there will we discover the life of freedom. 

Only God can bring justice to the Sandusky matter. Only God in Jesus Christ effects restitution, reconciliation, and restoration. Only God in Jesus Christ cures disillusionment, despair, and destruction. He will enact justice, real justice, on earth - for parents and for children. In his compassion, he has promised to do so, and he cannot fail. 

Dr. David B. Garner is associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He edited and contributed to Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (P&R 2012).