Ebony magazine just released its March “The Real Life Scandal” Issue, which highlights real life scandals from the black community and features actress Kerry Washington on the cover, sharing her perspective as an A-list actress, political advocate, and health-conscious feminist. Truth be told: We know little of Washington’s personal life and that’s exactly how she plans to keep it. She would much rather prefer that we talk about the nature and accomplishments of her body of artistic work, and since its origin last April, everyone is talking about her hit television show Scandal.
Concerning that show, I got caught up. I love seeing intelligent, articulate, attractive, powerful, relevant, and well-dressed Black women on movie and television screens as much as the next sista. Trust me. The scenes are all the more interesting and impactful when played by such a well-versed and talented actress as Washington. But when all of that window dressing simply becomes trapping for yet another powerful woman who succumbs to the desires of her lustful heart (especially with a married man), all of the respect stored up for the character burns up in smoke. It’s hard to keep cheering for Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, when you know her affair will ultimately result in a loss for all parties involved. Olivia, her lover, and his pregnant wife all lose and that’s the real sad story for many in today’s society.
Actress Kerry Washington accepts the Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series award for “Scandal” during the 44th NAACP Image Awards. (Photo Credit: Jim Ruymen/Newscom)
I want more for Olivia and I want more for us. Behind the camera lens of Scandal is the show’s creator and writer, Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes’ writing is outstanding and the story lines are compelling. She constantly keeps us on the edge of our seats. That’s what makes the show great and so easy to watch. All of her characters are power players, fast talking, and quick on their feet as they engage in a game of chess with each other’s lives. The actors are all phenomenal, but at the end of the day, it’s Rhimes who is in the ultimate position of power.
Through this political drama, Rhimes uses her power to celebrate the stories of those thirsty for greed and power, those with murderous hearts, those who are unapologetic about living lives of lies and deceit, and those involved in unhealthy, adulterous and unnatural relationships. Although Olivia’s entourage refers to themselves as “gladiators in suits,” there are little redemptive qualities in any of the show’s primary characters. It doesn’t take long to figure out that there are no good guys or gals, and that’s the gist of Rhimes’ creation.
Yet my primary issue is neither with Washington nor Rhimes; my concern is with the Christian women and men like me who watch this show weekly with no discernment. I have seen professing Christians defend the show to the nth degree. “Why criticize a work of fiction?” they ask. My first conviction concerning this question came on the day of the Newtown school shootings. The night prior to that horrific event, I watched an episode of Scandal where an assassin killed an innocent family including two small children and their dog. The next day, a Facebook acquaintance and fellow Christian found it hard to reconcile approving of the murder of innocent children on a television, while at the same time being appalled when a similar, yet worst, event happens in real life.
The sad truth of our culture—and Ebony’s publishers play on this reality—is: The lines between fact and fiction, what’s real and what’s fantasy, have become quite blurry. This is the result of a booming market for “reality” shows, over exposure to strangers through virtual lives and social media, the sensationalism of our news reporting (How often do you witness a positive news story?), and the senseless pandering of our politicians. I won’t forget how angry I was when Sarah Palin used careless “lock and load” language all over a news broadcast, and the young man who locked and loaded just days after Palin’s rant. Was this a coincidence? His response resulted in the deaths and injuries of several human beings, including U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords. Because this is the culture we live in, we must all be more responsible concerning the use of our power and how we choose to engage our mediums of communication.
We should not use our power to only serve our own self-interests. Many thoughtful African-Americans thought this was the case with BET’s founder, Bob Johnson, and hence they tuned him and the station out. We should not neglect the opportunities to use our power for good in this world, and I believe the messages and images of Scandal present a missed opportunity. Ebony reports that Washington “is the first Black woman to star in a major network American TV drama since 1974.” Therefore, Washington’s accomplishment is worthy of celebration. In addition to Scandal, Rhimes is also the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the dramas, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, both of which at the core tell the stories of flawed humans who are helping and healing other people. Am I looking for all perfect characters on every show? No. Am I advocating for an all Christian line-up with shows full of Christianese language? Not at all.
However, I do believe in a culture where the line between fiction and nonfiction, truth and lies, and fantasy and reality is becoming more unclear, we have to question what is means to have power, and consider the consequences of how we use our power to engage the world. I agree with Kerry Washington that, “Power is always about choices.” Washington chooses which roles she plays. Rhimes decides how she uses her power to tell stories and send messages into the world. As a consumer, I no longer choose to watch Scandal. As a writer, I challenge you to consider: What kind of empowerment do we, as a community of Black people, really want? What will you do, and what should we all do with power once it is obtained?
SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
Future leaders: take notice.
I remember the feelings of pride and confidence I felt as a child when I heard Bible stories that told of God’s triumphant powers reigning supreme over all the other gods and rulers and kings. Even though I did not consider myself as a “Child of Israel,” I did connect with “God’s chosen people” and felt that I had access to this same power. I felt that with God on my side I would overcome any obstacle and triumph in any situation. I felt invincible. I felt unstoppable. But this wasn’t just youthful arrogance. I had biblical support.
Moses’ fight with Pharaoh’s magicians was not a fight between slaves and tyrant, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, it was not a fight between man and animal, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When the three Hebrew boys were thrown in the fiery furnace, it was not a fight against man and fire, it was a fight against gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When David fought Goliath, it was not a fight between men, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? Each time, as we know, the Living God prevailed and the consistent winningness of God increased the reputation of the Living God (of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
Each day, we all fight similar battles with our own fiery furnaces and personal giants — against political edicts and social and cultural pressures that conflict with our understandings and convictions. But the results of these battles are different from the results during the biblical era.
Too many Christians today carry their Bibles to church and profess their faith in the power of Jesus, but then go back to decrepit communities and overcrowded houses, where they are suffocating in bills, poor health, and an overall dissatisfaction with their lives. Inwardly they struggle with having a better life on earth and being a poor person who suffers long because they are Christians. Any suggestion of one’s life being a physical manifestation of the quality of one’s faith is immediately dismissed as “prosperity gospel” and even anti-Christian. Their (misguided) logic goes like this: heaven is their reward; and though evil appears to be winning today, in the very end good will make a comeback.
As honorable and sincere as this may sound, what would have happened if David had that mentality when he fought Goliath? What if Moses thought like that when he was freeing the Children of Israel out of bondage? Not only would there be no Christianity today, there wouldn’t even be Judaism! And because we have chosen this as our stance today, we are in danger of being the reason why the Christian faith has lost its strength and relevance for the contemporary world.
As a rule, people do not gravitate toward that which appears not to work. And this, I believe, is how the younger generations of Christians interpret Christianity today: anemic, irrelevant, powerless.
Is this a surprise? Either the Living God is losing His power, or Christians are doing something wrong. I say Christians are doing something wrong. Our faith must be more than hope in eternal life with God. It must be a bulletin board for all to see consistency in our lives to show the power that God holds for helping us live holy, purposeful, and relevant lives TODAY.
Young people are not interested in being a part of something that is not working. Young people are uninterested in carrying on traditions for tradition’s sake. We want evidence. We don’t want to be defeated. We want power. We want to feel excited about God and God’s people again.
Let’s have a conversation. Do you think God is losing His power in today’s church? What can we do to make our faith more real to the younger generation?