Tuesday, November 29, 2011

God Loves Bernie Fine

Bernie Fine, assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, was fired on Sunday, November 27 due to mounting allegations of child molestation.  Three victims have now come forward and a slow stream of evidence has trickled out.  Most damaging, it appears, is a taped phone conversation between one of the victims and Fine's wife, who seems to acknowledge the abuse.  The news has put Syracuse basketball in the limelight, though not for the reason they would like.  Despite this team's realistic expectation of making a deep run in the NCAA, the focus is now squarely on the Fine scandal.  It has made national news, landing on the front page of USA Today this week.

I recognize that these are still allegations and guilt has not yet been proven.  It is possible that Bernie Fine has been wrongly accused.  That seems increasingly unlikely, but it is possible.  I write this post not to prove his guilt, but to offer a perspective if, in fact, he is guilty.  My thoughts are just as true if he is innocent, though that would throw Fine in a more sympathetic light.

Sympathy, for the most part, has been reserved for the victims, and rightly so.  They have been tragically violated and must deal with the horrid consequences of someone else's sin.  These wounds run deep and will not heal quickly or easily.  The allegations stem from incidents decades ago and these victims are still tending these wounds.  I wish them healing and peace.  I suspect we can all agree on that.

But what of the victimizer?  Bernie Fine's life has rapidly unraveled.  In the span of ten days he has lost his job, his reputation, and most, if not all, of his friends.  Admittedly, it appears he brought this upon himself, sabotaging his life with choices made and shameful behavior hidden.  He will face the consequences of these choices - socially if not legally.  But my concern, as a disciple of Christ,  is what the gospel has to say to Bernie Fine.  For if the gospel has nothing to offer victimizers, it is a flaccid hope, a shallow coping mechanism, a spiritualistic therapy for emotional hangups and little more.  I would hope the gospel is stronger than that.

Few of us could make the case that we are exclusively in the category of victim and never victimizer.  Our offenses may not appear as heinous, but we are guilty.  If the gospel has nothing to say to us in our guilt, we are in a precarious state, indeed.  So with that in mind, I suggest three things that I believe are true of victimizers in general and Bernie Fine in particular.

1.  God loves Bernie Fine
Bernie Fine bears the image of his creator.  That image may be severely marred, but it is not destroyed. God is able to see beyond the marring to a precious soul.  He sees Mr. Fine as someone of value and worth. He has tracked this corruption all along and grieves the derailment of Fine's life that is just now being exposed. In fact, exposure may be an expression of his love as he drags into the light what Bernie has sought to keep in darkness.  It is a severe mercy, to be sure, but it is mercy all the same.  God's love for Bernie is seen most profoundly in Jesus' crucifixion.  As it says in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners (insert "child molesters") Christ died for us."

2. Forgiveness is available for Bernie Fine
Christ's expression of love on the cross leads to my second point, that God offers to forgive Bernie Fine for molesting children.  No matter how heinous the crime, how long the abuse lasted, how many victims there may be, forgiveness is available. This is a hard pill to swallow for those who think only of judgment, but this is the scandal of the cross.  The cross is not merely an expression of God's love, it is the exacting of God's judgment.  Guilt must be atoned for.  In the cross, Christ offers to pay that price in our (and Bernie Fine's) stead. Paul, whose pre-conversion life included murder, says, "I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life" (1 Timothy 1:16).  In other words, if Paul could be forgiven, so can Bernie Fine.

This is not to say that Bernie can escape the consequences of his behavior.  Temporal justice must still be served, crimes must be prosecuted, and social consequences must be accepted.  He will never again coach Syracuse basketball, his reputation is forever damaged, and he may face criminal or civil charges.  This is all appropriate.  Forgiveness does not undo the harm that is done - for victim or victimizer.  This is divine forgiveness for the guilt that would bring eternal condemnation in hell.  But this forgiveness is not universally applied.  It is contingent upon repentance.  It is available.  It may not be accepted.

3.  Redemption is possible for Bernie Fine
If forgiveness erases the guilt of sin, redemption overcomes the tragedy of sin.  It is the promise that God can rebuild Bernie Fine's life. This need not be the end of the story.  God delights in taking broken and corrupt people who have hit rock bottom and transforming them anew.  "If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come." (2 Corinthians 5:17).  He is the God of second chances (and third, and fourth). God can take this tragic situation and use it to remake Bernie into a new man, one whom God can use to minister healing rather than hurt.  I have no idea what that would look like in Mr. Fine's case, but I know it is possible.  This too is contingent on a commitment to the hard work of transformation, but hope is not lost.

And if God would say these things to Bernie Fine, who I am to say less.  God loves him, is willing to forgive him, and longs to redeem him.  And that is good news for all victimizers - myself included.

For a post on a similar theme on a more general level, see  "Church is for the Empty"

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