Can anything good come from a cover-up? As I write this I am riveted by the coverage of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. A former coach who continued to have access to campus facilities has been accused of sexually abusing at least 8 boys over a 15 year period. Persons at the highest levels of power at Penn State apparently knew about the situation and failed to report it to the police. How truly awful for the victims of this abuse! I believe as Christians we should be angry, righteously indignant, about this.
Watergate was the first cover-up I was old enough to remember. It was clear then that cover-ups are a bad idea, that they only serve to perpetuate a scandal, to make it even worse than the original crime. We should have learned from this, yet political parties and organizations continue to employ it as a strategy for dealing with corruption. Sadly, churches are not immune from it. We know of the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests by some officials of the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet there are less publicized cover-ups that also take place and which leave victims unprotected. I have a friend who, many years after being grossly sinned against by employees of a Christian institution, mentioned the painful effects of the way she had been hurt (part of the hurt was the cover-up by the organization). My friend is not an angry, bitter woman. She didn't name the organization, saying only that it was a school. But she was quickly hushed by a woman in her Bible study who didn't think she needed to be "talking badly" about the school.
Now I am not at all saying we should talk disparagingly about Christian organizations. They're made up of redeemed but sinful people who sometimes make poor decisions. We ought to show grace, properly understood. What I am saying is that when we cover up sin we make it bigger, more powerful. We increase the opportunity for it to reign in the organization and in our personal lives. And in the end that's what this really comes down to: what sin am I covering up or tempted to cover up in my own life?
That's where my thoughts went to this morning as I read some of the accounts of the mess at Penn State. I too, although I am well-versed in the awful effects of a cover-up, am tempted to cover up my sin, to keep others from knowing about it. I'd rather handle it internally, keep it to myself and ask God to change it. I'll then be spared the embarrassment and come out of it with my pride intact. Later, when I feel like I've been able to "shake" that particular sin I can "confess" it under the guise of helping others. It's always easier to confess my sin from 10 years ago than the present sin that entangles me.
The truth is, the sin I keep to myself never gets better. It simply cannot. We need community, we need relationships, to get better. That's true for individuals and institutions alike. God has made us for relationship and we are made better only in the context of relationship. We may convince ourselves that we can get better on our own, and to some degree that may be true, but then we have the inevitable sin of pride that follows when we think we've overcome something on our own.
Many times we come to counseling with an issue for which we feel deeply ashamed (although, as Dr. Dan Allender says, we're often ashamed of the wrong things. For example, we may be ashamed of the sexual abuse that happened to us, but unashamed of the way we treat people). We hope we can summon the courage to work through our struggle with a counselor who will keep our story confidential and we'll be able to leave, healed and with no one else knowing about it.
Yet, speaking as a professional counselor, if someone leaves counseling with the thought, "Whew, I worked through that issue and no one but the counselor knows about it" we have done them a disservice (though we certainly do maintain confidentiality). Mind you, I am not saying we need to shout our problem from the rooftops. God does seem to call a few people to open up to a larger audience about their issues, but that doesn't mean everyone is called to do it on that scale.
But if we want to be truly spiritually, relationally, and emotionally healthy, we desperately need a few other people who know our core battle and have the green light to ask about our lives, even if it makes us very uncomfortable. I believe this is so because of the fact of the Trinity, the Godhead relating perfectly together, pouring into each other. If we are made in His image we're made for that kind of relating. It was modeled by Jesus surrounding himself with disciples, twelve in particular. Do you think they might have had to talk through some stuff along the way? And isn't it what Paul is referring to when he tells us to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) What is the law of Christ? Jesus summed it up relationally when he said the entire Law boiled down to this: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
As Christians we are invited into a way of living that no one else can do, to step out of our pretense and into the truth of the gospel. We are a bigger, more sinful mess than we know. We are more loved by God than we know. That's the gospel truth. Opening up to the painful truth about our sin opens us to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the resurrection life he wants to pour into us. Hunkering down, hiding our sin, closes us to the grace and love we could know from God and others.
Is there ever an appropriate time to cover up sin? Organizations must ask themselves, "are we covering this to truly protect the people involved or to protect our own reputation?" We are to be gracious toward sinners, to regard our own humble state--"Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor. 10:12)--but God in his grace is for lovingly exposing our sin. It's the only way we can really know him. Cover-ups are good for swimsuits, but not much else.
cc photo by John E Kaminski on Flickr