I recently became involved in a situation in the schools here where a student rightfully deserved disciplinary action for an inappropriate behavior. Everyone, parents, teachers, administrators, even the student, agreed the behavior was wrong. Everyone agreed that there needed to be connection between action and reaction. But there the agreement ended. The parent and I both felt the context had not been fully taken into account, that the context itself provided significant mitigating factors and that the disciplinary action levied, which was quite severe, failed to take that context into account. The school district disagreed and the disciplinary action went forward. The “zero tolerance” doctrine was invoked and, according to school officials, their hands were tied.
Lord willing, all will recover from this situation. But it won’t be an easy recovery. And, as always, situations like this push me to think about the way verses in the Bible are used and what “zero tolerance” might mean for people who seek to live the “with-God life,” understanding that the prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is meant to be taken very seriously.
What are some of the standards of behavior that are set before us in the Bible? Frankly, they are pretty darn high. In fact, perfection is actually required. Try reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. Jesus clearly states that no one gets into the kingdom of heaven unless they are even more righteous than the most righteous people of that day. And then he gives some examples of really righteous living. Try a couple of these on for size:
"You know the next commandment pretty well, too: 'Don't go to bed with another's spouse.' But don't think you've preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices - they also corrupt. "Let's not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here's what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.
Now, that is zero tolerance for you. Even a lustful look means get rid of that eye, or a gesture of anger against another person—cut off your hand.
Since I’ve not seen many one-eyed/one-handed people who got that way because they really wanted to live righteously—and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve still got both my eyes and both of my hands—it is pretty clear that no one really takes these commands literally. Too bad—if we did, it just might end lust and violence, two of the biggest scourges on the earth today. But we don’t, because we cut ourselves a whole bundle of slack. And we really hope that the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ is true, because if it is not, every single one of us is facing an eternity of total separation from a holy God.
But how do grace and forgiveness operate in the face of a real wrongdoing? Is punishment given? Or is it just all swept under the rug because we are forgiven? I think we need to understand that grace does not mean not looking fully at the truth, even when that truth is painful to face. Wrongdoing, injustice, harmful actions and thoughts must be addressed. As they are exposed to the holy light of a loving and graceful God, sorrowful repentance opens the door to being able to receive the forgiveness so freely offered. Yes, there are consequences to sinful behavior. But in the world that seeks real “with-God” living, consequences are meant to bring about reconciliation, not further separation. Those who have experience the freshness of grace bear those consequences as holy scars, knowing that they lead us to greater riches in God’s place.
The most holy among us are not those who have sinned the least—because there just isn’t anyone who can live up to the standards set by Jesus. The most holy among us are those who acknowledge the ever-present nature of sin. They have received with open arms both the forgiveness given by God and the command to go forth as those alive to God and dead (or at least dying!) to sin. It takes guts and courage to do this. To my young friend who is experiencing what I do see as the ridiculous extreme of the zero-tolerance policy, I say: “You can survive this—and come out stronger for the experience. But if you are looking for fairness in life, know you will always, always be disappointed. Look for grace instead—and freely give it away when you get it.”