On Symptoms and Slippery Slopes

08 Feb

I was thinking recently about the condition our (U.S.) current culture is in, and the kind of things I’ve been hearing on the radio and internet from various Christian organizations reacting to that condition. I feel like, in a lot of ways, I’ve been hearing a lot of frenzied panic about small things that don’t matter very much. And with the impassioned campaigning over some of those smaller things, I’ve heard a particular term repeated a great deal: “slippery slope”.

For me, it’s kind of become one of those, “I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that” phrases.

Now I want to be clear: I absolutely believe that the “slippery slope” is a real phenomenon. For instance, what starts with “Oh, it’s fine if I go to a bar with my friends; I’ll just get a Coke” can very easily turn into, “Oh, it’s okay, I just had a drink or two. I didn’t get drunk. I can handle it,” which may turn to, “Yeah I got a bit tipsy–so what, it happens,” and finally, “…Um yeah, I got trashed again this weekend and I’m not sure I can stop.” Because we humans are naturally inclined to darkness, sin has this nasty habit of perpetuating itself in our lives until it entirely consumes us. The “slippery slope” is a huge factor that makes it immensely dumb for us to knowingly dabble in any sort of sin. I’m on board with the radio preachers as far as that goes.

What concerns me, though, is that a lot of the things we identify as slippery slopes… well, just aren’t. It’s not that they aren’t legitimately problematic; it’s that they are symptoms of something else entirely.

Let me try and give an example of what I mean: I remember, a few years back, getting an email. An angry email. A very, very angry email. I’m talking lots of bold typeface, italics, and capital letters. It even had a couple of PG-level cuss words.

It came from a Christian grassroots organization.

The main point of the outrage was that there were some high schools considering removing prayer from the beginning of their football games. Apparently, some atheist somewhere had their undies in a twist about it, and the whole school system was thinking about changing to accommodate this one person. That good old “slippery slope” came into the rant, as if capitulating to this unreasonable demand was going to be the first nail in the coffin of Christianity in public.

Now, I have no problem with being saddened that the pre-game prayer was under attack and possibly going to be removed. I have no problem with writing letters to petition that such a thing not happen. But a slippery slope? I mean, maybe if we let them take prayer off the football field, the next step may be they will take prayer out of schools, and then morality will decline, and then America will harden her heart towards God, and OHMYGOSH PEOPLE WILL STOP GOING TO CHURCH, AND… oh wait.

I guess all that stuff has already kind of happened, huh?

My point is not to say that it’s okay that prayer was coming under attack, but rather, that this is merely a divot along the incline of the slippery slope we’ve been riding for a very long time now. Pre-game prayer is not the slope itself. It’s a symptom of the one we’re already on.

The same could be said for “Holiday trees” (as if calling it a Christmas tree is really going to change people’s hearts when they deck it out in Rudolph ornaments and wait for Santa to come), posting the Ten Commandments in City Hall, having “In God We Trust” printed on our money, and a host of other things. In fact, it is even true of more serious issues like teen pregnancy, drug use, pornography, and more. These are not things we should be okay with, and they do have the possibility to worsen and lead to other problems if left unchecked. But these are not the slippery slopes. They are symptoms. Kicking and screaming against these issues, just for the issues’ sakes themselves, is like throwing speedbumps down on the slippery slope, but doing nothing to actually get off of it.

Another way to look at it is to imagine that someone was suffering from physical problems. Imagine they go to the doctor with a broken arm, and the doctor sets the bone, gives them some pain pills, and sends them on their way. Two weeks later they come in with a broken leg.  Then their other arm. Then the first arm, that had healed, is now broken again. The doctor can, with increasing frustration, keep setting cast after cast after cast, using the strongest pain killers on the market, and even wrapping the patient in a padded suit to prevent further damage — but until the patient is diagnosed with a bone disease, and treated for it, it’s just going to be a losing battle to pain, limping, and ultimately complete debilitation.

You don’t ignore a broken arm like it’s no big deal. But you don’t just slap a cast on it if there is something much, much more serious going on that is causing all the breakage in the first place. To treat the symptom like the cause is to doom the patient to an endlessly repeating cycle of injury.

Looking at the slippery slope again, it would be foolish to argue that it’s pointless to try and slow the descent. But it would be equally foolish to be perpetually trying to hold society at a plateau without ever trying to, you know, get off the slippery slope.

So what is the slope? It’s simple, really. And it answers every issue we’ve got in this nation, from prayerless schools to drunkenness to inappropriate TV shows to domestic abuse to sexual perversion.

Quite simply, we, as a nation, don’t like Jesus very much. We may have positive-ish ideas about His message of being nice (that is His message, isn’t it?). But the second things start sounding a little bit exclusive, or a little bit like we actually have to take Him at His real words and not be in charge of our own lives any more, the claws start coming out. We don’t want to be told what to do, not even by God, because the majority of us don’t really know who He is, don’t really take Him seriously, and when push comes to shove, a majority of us actively hate Him.

That is our slippery slope (or our “sheer plummeting cliff face,” if you prefer). That is the root sickness that causes all of our broken bones. We, as a nation, have set ourselves in opposition to the God of the universe, and are pretending that His Son is something that He’s not. And, what a shocker, things go really, really badly when we do that.

So one major weakness of treating symptoms like slippery slopes is that we are sinking our efforts into a bottomless pit of issues-centered activism. We’re fighting symptoms that will just keep recurring in different forms until the actual problem is cured.

But another pitfall which bears addressing is that, in misdiagnosing those symptoms, perishing people end up being blamed and demonized for the recurring problem. It’s as if the doctor angrily rebukes the patient for breaking yet another bone, and points out how everything would be better if the patient would just stop doing stupid things that injure themselves — not acknowledging that this patient is sick.

Better yet, let’s put it in real-life terms. Holiness preachers may see the problems of teen pregnancy, STDs, and homosexuality, and blame the hippies. A conservative organization might see the problems of divorce and abortion and blame the feminists. A grassroots group might see the “holiday trees”, absence of the Ten Commandments, and eschewing of the Pledge of Allegiance, and blame the liberal atheists. Did these particular people have a hand in the prevalence of these maladies? Sure, probably. But we have to remember that these people have the disease causing these symptoms. They broke another bone, not because they live for the thrill of annoying the doctors, but because they are not yet cured of the real problem.

In other words, they did not dig these problems out as individual slippery slopes to lead our nation astray. They’re simply plummeting right down that singular slope with the rest of us, resenting the insistence of Christians on making things bumpy as we go along.

So what do we do? If simply bandaging the chronic disease doesn’t work, and peppering the hillside with speed bumps doesn’t work, isn’t it a hopeless cause?

Not at all. In fact, things just got a lot simpler.

The first thing we must do is be humble and cry out for healing for ourselves as a church. The world didn’t go to pot because we forgot to point out, “Oh hey, bad things are bad.” We as a nation are in the state we’re in because we have forgotten our Maker and have no interest in the God to whom heaven and earth belong. We have too low of a vision of Him and too high of a vision of ourselves. And the world will not come to that conclusion on its own — we, the Church, are the ones invited to be bearing the revelation of that forth into the world. If we ever want to see a resolution to the legitimate grievances in our society, we’ll never get there by attacking the grievances themselves. We need revival. We need the Church to be fully in love with, fascinated by, and given over in holiness to the glorious God. We can’t just try and make unbelievers — or professing Christians, for that matter — behave themselves, and have that make everything OK. We must have a complete change of heart that only happens with a turning back to the Lord. And if those who name the name of Jesus don’t lead the charge in that, who will?

Now again, this does not mean we ignore the derivative problems in our culture. We must have godly people in various areas of influence opposing abortion, standing for prayer, rescuing the orphans, etc. But we recognize these things as symptoms of a deeper sickness. We set the bones while we’re contending before heaven for the curing of the disease. We’re still throwing roadblocks on that slippery slope, but now with the intention of giving people the time and exhortation to get off of it entirely. We’re straightforward about confronting them with their brokenness, but we do not demonize them for being sick, and instead introduce them to the One able to cure them from the inside out.

They may hear, or they may refuse. They may repent, or they may rage against us. That is not something we have the power to control. But maybe — just maybe — if we make the main thing the main thing, prioritizing the knowledge of God and wholehearted love of Him, consistently praying and crying out for Him to intervene in mercy and turn around a situation that seems too far gone — who knows but He may turn and leave a blessing behind (Joel 2:14). Who knows but we may see another revival on the scale of the Great Awakening, where taverns were shuttered and jails emptied simply because the people learned to love the Lord and pursue His righteousness again. Who knows but we may actually see prayer on our campuses, young people choosing purity, and confessions of Jesus’ Lordship adorning our cities — not out of years of tradition, but out of present-day sincerity.

God can break in with mercy, but He won’t do it without us. And if we are to join with Him in what He’s doing, we need to get our perspective back, gaze intently on His beauty, and let justice flow forth from that place. He is the only healing for the wounds of this people, and He is the only escape from this slippery slope.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 8, 2011 in justice, My Two Cents


One response to “On Symptoms and Slippery Slopes

  1. brianbeattie

    February 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Brilliantly said. You’re so wise!

    I’ve long thought that the Church has unwisely surrendered a lot of its relevance by transferring its ministry jobs to government, leaving a rather hollow social club behind that is totally optional. You’re suggesting that the loss is even closer to what the core of the Church is supposed to be. How does the Church manage to shine as a light to the world without a solid vibrant connection to God in Jesus? You’re so right – we need our first love urgently…


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