Rarely have we seen anything like the response to the sordid sadness at Penn State. For a thousand different reasons it is tragic. But of all that might be said, it is this that intrigues me: for two days now the cultural conversation has been about the difference between the legal universe and the moral universe, between what is right because the law says it is right, and what is right because in our guts we know it is right.
In our increasingly pluralizing world, there are few moments when we seem willing to make that distinction. Who are we say what is right for someone else? Or what is wrong for someone else?
I still remember the eerie conversation I had with a woman who directed the first sex trafficking project here in Washington, done under the auspices of Harvard University’s Kennedy School. She said to me one day, “The best and brightest of America’s graduates want to work here. Washington, Harvard, human rights—it is very appealing. But eventually they walk down to my office, and ask to talk with me. It is always one more version of, ‘I am glad to work here. Thank you for the opportunity. But I wonder why we have the right to say to people in Cambodia that trafficking is wrong?’ I just wish I had access to a kind of young person who believed in basic right and wrong in the universe.”
So to see and hear the society-wide revulsion over the sexual molestation at Penn State is surprising. Who are we to say that it is wrong? And pressing into the mess, why are we insisting that there is a difference between what is legal and what is right? In most of life as we know it in the early 21st-century we resist that distinction, and our deepest debates about the common good reflect that tension.
While every news outlet has focused its reporting for the last few days on the story—the headline wherever we look –tonight’s announcement that Paterno has been fired, along with the university’s president, brings the awful story to a conclusion of sorts. And yet we know the wounds will echo over the years for everyone, most tragically for the boys who were hurt. The deeper reality is that not only was the action and inaction against the law of the land, but it was against the grain of the universe, what Martin Luther King called the moral arc of the universe.
There are not countless worlds to live in. We only get one, and it is the world that is really there– whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not. Or even whether our laws reflect its reality, or not.
(Related: Click here for an ESPN article on Joe Paterno’s legacy in the wake of the Penn State scandal.)