Zero Tolerance and the Trolley Problem — The Law Demands Perfection

Standard

This is the first part of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia. Stay tuned!

When I was out on the road hauling commodities there was a mill receiver who always did an excellent job keeping trucks moving through the bulk unloading area. In fact, he was so dedicated to good service that he would voluntarily open the pit early to keep things running smoothly and help us truckers get on our way again. He was a fixture, a competent employee with a great attitude and good sense of humor.

One week I arrived at the mill and the place was a total disaster. There were trucks jammed everywhere waiting to be unloaded, there was an industrial vacuum truck at work near some of the storage bins, and, as I would discover upon entering the receiving office, a familiar face was gone. When I asked what had happened, the other mill workers told me he had put an ingredient in the wrong bin and the management fired him on the spot.

It was a costly mistake. The ingredients he accidentally mixed were expensive and now unusable as feed. Hiring a crew to suck out the contents of a bin is not cheap and the company policies were clear—it was his job to make sure the equipment was set up right. It was nothing personal. He has been warned about their zero-tolerance policy for this kind of mistake and had violated established procedure by starting to unload before checking the driver’s paperwork.

From the company’s standpoint, there was no other option. The rules were established for a reason. If they let everyone get away with doing things his or her own way it would most likely result in more mistakes like this and could not deliver the same quality of product at the same price. If their competition did better they would lose customers and eventually be unable to stay in business. The result would be everyone losing their jobs. So firing him was simply loss prevention and a move to ensure profitability in the long-term.

Furthermore, making an exception here would undermine the effectiveness of their corporate policies. Other employees, observing that these rules were not always strictly enforced, might decide to disregard the procedures and incur more losses in the future. Not only that, but selective enforcement is discrimination and could open them up to accusations of favoritism and lawsuits. In an organization of hundreds, one-size-fits-all solutions often prevail over true justice.

From my own perspective, knowing the quality of the individual and considering the replacements, this seemed wrong. I had to think what this might do for employee morale when you show no loyalty to someone who went above and beyond what was required on so many occasions. Surely his good contributions outweighed the bad. Besides, he was conscientious, it was the truck driver who had misinformed him, and would likely learn from the experience, right?

Doing what I would hope others would do for me in a similar circumstance, I contacted the corporate office and pled his case. But, their decision had been made, his employment was terminated, there would be no grace shown, rules are rules.

Old Testament Law and the Trolley Question

From a modern American perspective, the law of Moses is unusually excessive and unnecessarily harsh. Under that law, everything from adultery to uttering profanity and disrespect for parents was punishable by death. We even have an account of a man being executed for merely picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32‭-‬36 NIV)

In those days it really paid to pay close attention in Sunday school class.

By that standard, would any person living today *not* be condemned to death?

Why would they punish a man so severely for what seems like a very minor infraction?

The answer to that is two-fold.

First, having come out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were without a strong cultural identity or social structure, they were in an extremely harsh environment and thus would need to quickly become cohesive as a group to survive. Second, those who couldn’t follow instructions or fall under the authority of the leaders could easily cost the entire group and therefore had to be weeded out. The journey they were on required cooperation, order needed to be established, and thus a zero-tolerance policy was instituted.

Read the story of Achan’s disobedience in the book of Joshua:

Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. (Joshua 7:11‭-‬13 NIV)

There is a connection being made in that story between lack of individual discipline leading to group failure.

The account continues that Joshua went through the camp to find the offending party. They find one man, Achan, who confesses to having brazenly violated clear commands. His actions reflected a disrespectful attitude towards the authority above him. It was representative of a general problem that was causing the Israelites to lose in battle. They had to make an example of Achan or there would be little chance of their survival as a group. They put him and his family to death for the good of the group.

This is a case where the Trolley problem applies:

If there is a Trolley going down a track that will end up killing multiple people and could switch it to a track that kills only one—what would be the moral thing to do?

That is the dilemma underlying every attempt at governance. Laws are written as a means to save the group from the sins of the individual. Sometimes it is very clear who is dangerous to the group. For example, when someone murders another member of the group they—through their established pattern of behavior—present an existential threat to the group and must somehow be removed. In lean times, when there is a lack of resources to be spent on unruly people, it is simply more practical to execute those who present a potential threat to the group. So, rather than kill the many through inaction, they kill the one.

The Old Testament law is similar to the hardline policies of the story I told about the fired mill employee. Chaos is costly in the corporate world and very dangerous to a group struggling to survive in a wilderness. In these cases, when there’s a very real chance of group extinction, the collective concerns take precedence over the rights of the individual. Poorer countries, or those that lack the resources to mete out justice the way more developed nations do, are often very harsh because they cannot afford to do otherwise and would rather sacrifice a few individuals than the entire group.

Does the New Testament change this?

Many modern-day Christians, especially in Protestant denominations, dismiss the importance of the law and play up the importance of grace. There is good reason for this bias given what Jesus taught about our right (as individuals) to judge others and God’s grace.

But this is not the dramatic departure from the Old Testament law that some people imagine it to be. Nearly everything Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount was a restatement of what was already written and, in some cases, Jesus made the standard even higher. There was never a time when it was okay to take personal vengeance. The words “vengeance is mine” (meaning only God has the right to judge) come directly from the Old Testament and do not do away with the institutions responsible for measuring out justice.

The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, very clearly instructs Christians not to oppose punishment of the evildoer by civil authorities. He also commanded the Corinthian church to remove evil people from amongst them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you. (Corinthians 5:9-12 NIV)

If the Old Testament were entirely nullified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why is Paul quoting from Deuteronomy? Paul uses the expression “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” in his rebukes of the church—what this means is that individuals and their actions or attitudes affect the entire group. He makes the case that is better to remove those who are sinfully disruptive and unrepentant than to risk the entire group.

One might think that putting a badly behaved person with multiple good and conscientious people would influence them for the better. But it is more likely to work in reverse. When bad behavior is not adequately addressed in a group it causes others to lower their standards. I mean, why try so hard to live a disciplined and responsible life when you can join the riot and have a little fun? Troublemakers must be removed from a place where they could influence others negatively and dealt with or all chance of order will disappear.

So, yes, the law does still apply within the church and we should make every effort to obey it—because the penalty for breaking it is still death:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1‭-‬11 NIV)

That story of instant justice is from the New Testament. And I believe it is there to underscore the point that God’s opinion of sin has not changed because of the availability of grace. We, as Paul says, cannot continue in sin that “grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) and that’s because sin still has serious consequences—it hurts both individuals and the group. It was better that one couple, Ananias and Sapphira, make an early trip to the grave (may God have mercy on them in eternity) and the whole church be warned—from that day until to now—than it would be to allow a casual view of lawlessness to spread and infect the whole body of the church.

God’s Zero-tolerance Policy Towards Sin Has Not Disappeared Because of Grace.

Grace is not an excuse for sin. It is not an exemption from the law or a way of saying that breaking the law has no consequences. No, it was that sin that (quite literally and also metaphorically) put Jesus on the cross. There is always a price to be paid for bad behavior and disobedience. The message of the Gospel is not that sin doesn’t matter anymore. The message is that Jesus switched the track and sacrificed himself in order to save humanity from certain death. The message is that Jesus paid the price on our behalf and there is only one way to show our gratitude—we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

There is no excuse for sin.

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