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Essay

A Slippery Slope

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Sin can be a slippery slope.

I can still picture it, the baseboard that ran along the outer side of stairwell. I was a kid on a grade school trip to Philadelphia, birthplace of freedom and all. Along with Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, I think some shop where Betsy Ross once lived, a post office, and something Benjamin Franklin related, we toured an historic Quaker Meeting House. Really, everything was “historic” here and I don’t actually remember much about the meeting house, what extraordinary exactly had taken place there or who famous had done it. But I do remember that architectural detail of the outer side baseboard that ran along only one of the stairways. Back in the day in this Quaker meeting the congregants sat separate from one another, men on one side, women on the other in the largish assembly room. Kept separate, there were even two stairwells on opposite sides from each other from the interior entrance up to the second floor meeting space. Men were to use one side, women the other. But on the women’s side was that baseboard, rising only a few inches but enough so that while walking up the stairs, and raising their skirts in the process, should any ankle be displayed, it would not be visible from the men’s side. Ankle! It’s a slippery slope from glimpses of ankle to sin, therefore the need for that baseboard.

It seems precious, that building adaptation, to keep folks in line. 

Some years later after that school trip I remember hearing about a couple, dear friends of our family, were getting divorce. It was surprising and sad news. In the resultant conversations that followed one statement stood out to my young self said by someone I respected. “Well you know, things all changed when women started working outside the home.” It was stated as a lament. It’s odd that twenty-five years later, that statement still resounds in my memory. Things all change. Allow a woman to work outside the home, it ultimately leads to divorce. It’s a slippery slope.

I was ten when my family first started to attend church. We wound up at the grand old one in my hometown, white clapboard building situated on a hill on Church Street. That place, those people, they formed my faith. They nurtured and trained me through my youth and teen years. A moderate congregation of moderate people: moderately right of center, moderately evangelical, moderately traditional. Stubbornly moderate, cantankerous at times, but caring, still espousing a strong independent streak, which I account to their founding by Connecticut Yankees. Famers and factory workers, small business owners and teachers, the town’s doctor and lawyer and the local pizzeria’s waitress all worshipping and working alongside each other. This was not a progressive or liberal or conservative or radical congregation in any way (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that). It was simply church. But here’s an element that stands out, both back then and still to me now: half of the leadership were men, the other half women. Half of the Session were women. Half of the Deacons were women. Half of the Trustees, women. I so appreciated growing up in an environment where this just seemed like the norm.

I suppose this too was a slippery slope however. The congregation had long past worked through issues of leadership and gender, mostly, until in the early ‘90’s the pastor left, who was a male, and they got an interim who was a woman. A small kerfuffle resulted and I learned the issues of gender and leadership were not as resolved as I had thought, at least not when it came to ministers. But over time the church did the work of being church and this too has all worked out. They called and installed a new pastor earlier this year, the first woman to hold that office. I was glad she was there to help at my grandmother’s funeral last month. 

Sin can be a slippery slope. You let a little bit in, you let a little bit go, and quickly it can snowball. I get those early Quakers in Philadelphia. Sure it was just a ankle, but sometimes, an ankle is more than an ankle.

As Jes wrote about yesterday and as the news media has been reporting, albeit rather belatedly, I have had the 276 kidnapped Nigerian girls in my thoughts and prayers. And I have also been thinking about the instigators of this horrific evil, Boko Haram. And I’ve been thinking about the slippery slope. And of how that slope runs in different directions. Boko Haram appears almost as a caricature of itself. So staunchly ideologically backwards that it is grotesque. But if you could roll the metaphorical snowball back up the slope, where does it begin? How does this ideology start? Or perhaps a better question, how does it roll of course? Where does it slip?

And obviously, I’m not speaking here simply of Nigeria. Or even just of Islam (a beautiful and rich religion that this group is not a bit representative of.) I’m wondering about myself, about my culture, my church and religion, about the ways in which sin is a slippery slope and how ideas and values can veer off course. Allow this much and THIS could happen. I wonder how women can be identified so much so as the other as to be primarily complements and not appropriate in their own right for (insert whatever role here: deacon, minister, CEO, President, etc.) I wonder how others can be labeled “sin” and thus, anathema. I’m wondering, because I’m a pretty moderate kind of guy given the congregation of my formation, how and where I’m participating in this all. And what needs to change.

Sin is a slippery slope. No denying it. But I suppose at some point one has to identify what a sin is. Is the showing of ankle? A woman having parity in a marriage? The workplace? Parity in ministry? In education? Certainly, I don’t believe so. Boko Haram would. And so would many others, not so atrocious and dastardly. Even those within my own denomination, my own church. Sin is indeed a slippery slope.

For a little more information on what’s happening in Nigeria and some background, there is this round up from the Church of the Brethren. As well, I found this Nicholas Kristof piece from earlier this week enlightening and challenging. From it: 

It’s estimated that 100,000 girls under 18 years old in the United States are trafficked into commercial sex each year. So let’s fight to #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria but also here in the United States and around the world.

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