You’ve heard it countless times: “if we make an exception for you, we will have to make it for everyone.” Maybe you’ve even said it to someone yourself.

The thinking behind this statement seems to be that making an exception to a rule somehow annuls the rule’s validity. Or that it will lead to a long, slippery, unstoppable slide into a do-whatever-you-want-to-do amorality, with exoneration for everyone and culpability for no one.

I like to think of it more as saving a place for grace and forgiveness in the midst of  holding people and societies accountable for their actions. That’s what transforms moral contexts into spiritual ones.

A little leeway every now and then, with respect both to moral and religious rules, surely can’t be a bad thing. Rules have a habit of surviving the situations which give rise to them, and may no longer be relevant to changing circumstances.

Punishing people for using marijuana for pain relief, by way of example, represents the worst side of an overly legalistic and moralistic mind-set. As does kicking people out of religious communities for not accepting uncritically everything those communities teach.

It is true that there are slippery slopes to navigate in moral and religious decision-making. One of them towers between holding people accountable and respecting some peoples’ incapacity to understand the consequences of their actions.

Most slippery slope arguments, however, ignore the fact that the slipperiest of all of them is the argument that the only way to avoid moral and religious lapses is to give no quarter to rule-violators, and never to entertain the possibility that any rule might ever need to be changed.

What’s slippery about this argument? Primarily this: it leads straightaway to a pitiless, merciless, inhumaneness to human beings who, when out of synch with others’ expectations, need compassion as much as they need correction, and understanding as much as a good talking-to.

Forgiveness is not permission, and it is not exoneration. It is mercy tendered in the face of culpability and destructive self-blame. It proceeds from a love that is respectful of the rules, even as it reveres the persons whose struggles to obey and/or to change them are sometimes agonizingly unsuccessful.

Jesus seemed to be into this way of thinking when he tossed out the idea that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

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