Zero Tolerance. Because Catchy Phrases Are Way More Important Than Stuff Like “Justice.”

Some years back, a man I know—we’ll call him “my husband”—had a run-in with a coworker. It wasn’t a little personality clash; the other party was violating company protocol and trying to get away with it. My husband called him on it and didn’t back down.

An unpleasant scene followed, and after the dust had settled a manager was dispatched to investigate. Greg maintained that he’d been in the right. But management isn’t comfortable with the concepts of “right” and “wrong”—even, bafflingly enough, in regards to defending company protocol. It likes to spread blame around evenly, like so much Nutella on a slice of bread, and hold all parties responsible for keeping the peace. This is called empowerment.

“It takes two hands to clap!” the manager said to my husband. He then perkily clapped his own hands, twice, in my husband’s face.

Yeah, well, it takes only one hand to smack someone upside the head, Mister Manager, and that’s what happened in this particular conflict.

There’s an idea afoot that being involved in any conflict makes you guilty—even if all you did was stand there and get attacked. This is the same jaw-dropping idiocy behind zero-tolerance policies that punish kids for defending themselves at school. It’s also behind the manager-speak spoken to my husband that day. The company had a policy that if an employee assaulted another employee, both would automatically be terminated–and the policy is by no means unique to that particular company. Someone attacked you at work? Well then, you obviously deserved it. Who can argue with that logic?

We can all agree that some conflicts simply aren’t worth pursuing. Sometimes an honest cost-benefits analysis shows it’s better to walk away, to let it go with a smile or even a cold, silent glance. But there are other times when that just won’t work—times when standing down makes you complicit in bigotry, cruelty, larceny, or other serious jerkdom. Maintaining the peace at such a time is tantamount to cowardice.

But decent people find conflict unpleasant. Standing our ground, even when it’s the right thing to do, makes us feel bad. Self-doubt whispers at us, asking whether we could have prevented things from coming to this pass. It’s certainly a possibility worth considering. A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1). But there are times when a soft answer simply will not suffice. You can reason, you can sympathize, you can cajole, but you can only do so much. Ultimately you cannot climb into the cockpit of another person’s soul.

So how do you tell the difference? There are few hard and fast guidelines, but a functioning conscience backed by moral courage and genuine regard for fellow human beings is quite capable of sorting things out. My concern is that our culture often denies the very possibility of the line in the sand. There’s also a disturbing tendency to urge the more reasonable person in the conflict to be more tolerant. In other contexts, this is called blaming the victim.

“Gentlemen may cry ‘Peace, peace,’” said Patrick Henry, “but there is no peace.” No, not when a hostile force is bringing war to your doorstep.

I’d like to end this on less of a downer, but I’m not sure how, except to say that God cares about justice—and so do most human beings, in spite of the organized efforts of misguided authority to make the whole concept go away. The fight may feel like a lonely one, especially at first, but I’ve observed that once the first brave individual makes his stand, others will often find their courage and follow. So take heart, and remember that justice is worth defending. In a culture where justice is not honored, mercy is emptied of meaning and power.