The Slippery Slope

Bishop Anselm Genders was one of the old-school colonial bishops of the Church of England. His war service as a purser in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve took him all over the world and gave him a love for the tropics; he once remarked that the British climate was suitable only for wildfowl. He was a very strict principal of Codrington Theological College in the Bahamas where he was affectionately known as Gestapo Genders. He was a man of conservative views who was not afraid to go against prevailing opinion. As a Mirfield Father, he served in Rhodesia, and advocated a moderate approach to the regime of Ian Smith, even though all the rest of the Community solidly  supported the African rebellion against white domination. In 1977 he was made Bishop of Bermuda.  I remember him, in retirement back at Mirfield, saying in a sermon,   ‘if your brother is standing at the top of a slippery slope, you should tell him, he is standing at the top of a slippery slope.’ 

That person may not know it, but if not warned he will soon realise that the only way is down, and quickly. How many important things have we not said to someone for the sake of a quiet life? Have there been times when we could have prevented the slide of someone down a slippery slope?  

There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. Do we know the difference between them?  Do we have the courage to speak up when we must, and the wisdom to remain silent when we should?

The prophet Jeremiah felt most acutely the dilemma of whether to speak out or to be silent. If he speaks, he said, he is ridiculed, mocked and insulted, but if he stays silent, God’s word burns in his heart, like a fire.

Jeremiah had to contend with false prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear: the prophet Hananiah had told the people of Jerusalem not to worry, that God would destroy Babylon, and bring back the Israelites from exile. Jeremiah agreed that this would be lovely, but it was not going to happen. The people were being punished for turning to false gods. Hananiah, he said, was a false prophet not sent by God. Jeremiah recognized the problem of prophecy; a prophet would only be recognized as truly sent by God if his prophecy came true.

Were there prophetic voices that warned about the dangers of the cladding that was fitted to Grenfell tower? Where there people who argued it should not be used, but who were ignored or over-ruled? Did cost-cutting over-ride safety? The public enquiry will bring all that to light.

It is difficult to be a lone voice, to stand up for what you think or know to be right. A modern equivalent of the prophet is the whistleblower, someone who, exposes malpractice in an organization. Whistleblowers are theoretically protected by law, our schools have  whistleblower policies, but it takes a brave individual to trust in this protection, and pursue their allegation. Institutions can stonewall any opposition, and be subtle and patient with their retribution.

Jesus said ‘Do not be afraid. For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.’

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.’

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give us what we need to say when we need to defend ourselves. The word of God should burn in the heart of the Christian, as it smouldered in the heart of Jeremiah and forced him to speak. It should drive us to expose what needs to be exposed, even though it may make us unpopular. The words of the prophets were not always well-received; only later were they shown to be right and revered.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also self-condemning. Why did I not say something, we might think, why did I not do something? Once we know something, that knowledge is then a responsibility, we cannot not know it. If we see someone ‘standing on the edge of a slippery slope’, is it enough to just point it out to them? Or should we do more and reach out our hand to pull them away? If a friend is drunk and tries to drive home, is it enough to tell him not to drive, or do you take from him the keys of the car?

God works through the Holy Spirit, in the conscience, but we are potentially extra voices for God, and when several voices combine, they can confirm the inner working of the Holy Spirit and effect change in the individual. The fool may not stand to be corrected, but the wise will value advice given from the heart, from the one who speaks the truth in love.