Cartoon by Scott Stantis

As an avid college football fan—and a more informed citizen than Ashton Kutcher—I’ve been watching with interest and outrage the unfolding of the nightmare at Penn State. (I refuse, by the way, to call this a “sex scandal”, which is what we usually use to refer to politicians getting caught doing something naughty. These heinous acts of pedophilia and the equally heinous acts of coverup and/or inaction require a less euphemistic label.)

As I’ve thought about how such a horrific thing could happen, I’m reminded of a lesson learned from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society. I read this book in seminary, and it’s on the list of books I need to reread now that I’ve been practicing ministry for several years. Among other things, what I took away from Niebuhr’s highly influential book is that even good, moral people can get caught up in immoral behavior when they are part of collectives or communities, especially when these collectives become institutionalized. Collectively, people in institutions tend to act, sometimes irrationally, for the preservation and growth of the institution. Blinded by this impulse, especially when power and greed become involved, people are likely to do things they wouldn’t normally do on their own.

This seems to be a pretty good diagnosis of what has happened at Penn State. How else can you explain a seemingly good man like Joe Paterno, who has led his team with the motto “success with honor”, turning a blind eye to child abuse for so many years? How else can you explain assistant coach Mike McQueary (at the time a graduate assistant) actually witnessing the rape of a young boy and neither stopping it nor doing anything beyond reporting it to his head coach? How else can you explain college students so blinded by devotion to a coach and an ideal image of their institution that they would riot in the streets after university trustees acted in the only decent and responsible way they could?

College football is a multi-billion dollar industry. Programs like Penn State are held in high regard because of rich histories and traditions. A legendary coach like JoePa has built a priceless legacy. In the high stakes world of college football, none of this can be tarnished or challenged. Whether players, coaches, and administrators do so consciously or not, decisions are made in the best interest of the institution, not the best interest of individuals.

This is perhaps the most insidious kind of sin there is. If even good people find themselves doing bad things that they themselves would find appalling if considered objectively, what hope do we have for bringing about a better world?

It is this realization that causes me to long for an interventionist God to make some radical changes in the world. I don’t care about bushes burning, seas splitting, or people walking on water. The miracle I would like to see is the hearts of humanity changed so that we might actually succeed at conquering our natural inclinations and destructive ways.

As far as I can tell, that’s what the kingdom of God is all about.

“Now is the time!” says Jesus. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

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  1. Thankfully, our God did intervene in the world for the sake of our sinful selves in the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus, and will change our hearts either in the resurrection or the intermediate state. For now, we can be confident in the Lord’s forgiveness for all who ask it.

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