Relative transgressions

Here is the second in a series of columns by Bowie Snodgrass, content editor of The Episcopal Church’s Web site and co-convener of the 20/30 Connection at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Bowie’s column appears every other month in our diocesan paper the Washington Window.

The relativity of modern morality

By Bowie Snodgrass

Washington Window

Vol. 73, No. 11, November 2005

Last November was an election, which people said was about morality, but then decided wasn’t. In that brief time, between the flip and the flop, I began to think about the relativity of morality, particularly from generation to generation.

In months of conversations with friends, I’ve come up with a little list of behaviors that fall fairly clearly on two sides of a line, as seen by those of us who grew up with DARE, AIDS and divorce, watching “After School Specials” and “School House Rocks,” maybe going to church sometimes, using computers a lot, and loving today’s multi-cultural America.

Keep in mind that some folks my age might see all these behaviors as “bad” and others might believe that all “bads” are relative. Oscar Wilde said, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” So here we go: My personal guide to where young people – or at least the ones I know – stand now, and where we draw that line.

Trying a joint at a party… or driving home drunk?

Dare I say that D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was less convincing than M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving)? M.A.D.D. came up with the brilliant slogan “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive.” And it worked. We don’t. It’s now de rigueur to have a D.D. (designated driver), which is more than I can say for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Pot can be a problem, but a lot of folks have tried it, and it’s only one drug to be questioned in today’s pantheon of popularly proscribed pharmaceuticals, abused over-the-counter products, illegal killers (e.g. heroin, ecstasy, crystal meth), and legal ones (e.g. cigarettes and alcohol).

Piracy… or plagiarism?

No, I’m not talking about swashbuckling maritime marauders. I’m talking about ordinary downloading bootleggers – like you and me. Artists should be valued and fairly compensated, but media and technology are forever changing our culture. Plus, we like to share good stuff with our friends.

Plagiarism, however, is bad stuff. I had a friend in college whose paper was stolen by someone at the end of freshman year and handed in as the thief’s own work. My friend had the drafts to prove the paper was hers, but the hearings she was forced to go through became a trial and ruined her sophomore year.

Being a little bit chubby… being a little bit bulimic?

Body weight isn’t really a moral issue, but American puts a lot of social weight on how much we weigh, a trend that escalated in the second half of the 20th century.

I think I first learned about bulimia and anorexia from “After School Specials” and health class. Then I went to Vassar and learned a whole lot more. I knew some beautiful, brilliant and kind women who were slowly wasting away. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

On the other hand, I’m so glad that in the 2000s “Baby Got Back!” is winning out over “baby, do these jeans make my butt look too big?” We’re all made in God’s image and there’s plenty of religious art portraying people who are bigger than skinny!

Living together before marriage … or sleeping with someone who’s married?

Thirty, 40, and 50 years ago, the former was considered scandalous. Today, I’ve even heard of some priests who recommend that young people live together before marriage. Whether or not you agree, it’s happening all the time. Maybe people are getting married less or later, but then again, half our parents got divorced.

On the other side of the line, we’re not likely to try having an “open marriage” and we know (from life and TV) that affairs can only lead to hurt and trouble. There are good reasons infidelity breaks a commandment.

Having gay sex… or having unprotected sex with a stranger?

Homosexuality is just not a big deal for more and more young people today. Most of us believe LGBT folk should have the right to live and love openly and honestly, and that these rights are justice issues.

However, I bet anyone who tells a friend that she or he had unsafe sex with a stranger will get a talking to – or at least a look. Many of us knew all about AIDS, and how to prevent it, well before our first sexual encounters. HIV has been around since before some of us were born.

Morals could be considered a meta-level of our consciousness, being able to see beyond the moment. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we just can’t. That’s what family and friends are for. Bible stories and the Holy Spirit help guide us too.

Knowing where our lines fall helps us know what we value and who we are. But drawing moral lines can be a delicate business. Someone once told me: “Whenever you draw a line in the sand, Jesus is on the other side of that line.” Hip-hop star Kanye West says that Jesus walks with the “hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers, even the strippers.” This is the love Christ taught us. Who do you walk with? Who’s walked with you?

Bowie can be reached at

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