One of my rock-ribbed beliefs is that we are to learn from academic pursuits, not merely about them. Since I teach literature, I tell my students that we are to learn from our stories and apply those lessons to their lives. Because college-educated persons have the responsibility and the duty to be leaders in their communities and their churches, I emphasize many lessons about leadership in my classes. From Shakespeare, we learn about Mark Anthony and how his fleshly pursuit of Cleopatra led to battles and deaths, even as we learn about Prospero’s misplaced devotion to his books allows a harsh ruler to usurp his rightful rule. From Gilagmesh, we learn about how a leader who believes that he is a god causes his people to suffer terribly. From Beowulf, we see how a leader who has abandoned his role as protector of the people invites chaos into his citadel. From Chaucer we learn about how articulated holiness is a tool that can be used to harvest funds and, eventually, credibility from the faithful. In the end, fallen leaders face their own fates, but their followers often face punishments and difficulties that pay the price for the leader’s arrogance. We call this the “mirror for magistrates” tradition, where literature provides a mirror by which leaders may examine their own lives for transgressions and lessons.
The jaw-dropping scandal at Penn State is a real-life example of this. Today’s penalties from the NCAA indicate that the university’s liabilities will continue apace and I will not be surprised if the total lawsuits end up approaching the billion-dollar mark, especially if the early indications and evidences are accurate.
I feel terrible, however, for the players who knew nothing about this and for the students and alumni who have watched their alma mater emerge as the utter inversion of what everyone had thought about the institution’s reputation for near sterling character in a context that is worse than tarnished. I love college sports but it’s clear that something has to change. Those who are leaders must be vigilant and diligent, for the consequences are real and affect the futures of everyone attached to the institutions.
Because I am deeply committed to the life of the local church, I cannot help but draw parallels between the Penn State situation and that of many local churches / ministries and their leaders. A pastor or two allegedly decides to break into houses and the churches suffer. A pastor pursues a sexual dalliance and a generation of members becomes cynical about the moral authority of the pulpit. A leader succumbs to financial temptation and a ministry collapses. What’s left in the wake of these things is a group of followers who pay the price.
For me, this is a humbling proposition: leaders carry particular burdens of responsibility. If that doesn’t drive you to your knees, well, something must be amiss. And if something is amiss, I share the words of Numbers 32:23, in the King James for added gravity: “behold, ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out.”