In Theory: The ethics of zero tolerance as society grapples with harassment

The year 2017 saw a cultural revolution of sorts in the U.S., in which powerful men in the entertainment, media and political realms saw successful careers come to startling ends after allegations of sexual harassment or impropriety.

In addition to widely read coverage on news-site homepages, Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with the #MeToo hashtag, meant to illustrate the prevalence of sexual harassment and its pervasive influence on women’s lives.


An L.A. Times editorial published in October called the problem one that extends beyond Hollywood, in which “smart, accomplished, powerful men still believe they can get away with harassing less powerful women.” An article in the Economist that same month quotes the founder of an antiharassment organization who said women “might stay silent for fear of ruining the perpetrator’s career.”

Within two months of that article, Time magazine named “The Silence Breakers” its Person of the Year.


In many instances, the men indicted by the movement have lost their livelihoods and public favor in spite of apologies or denials. With “zero tolerance” policies in place, the consequences were the same regardless of context, and the rush to judgment appeared to astonish those accused.

Q. Does the movement to confront sexual harassment in America justify the end to careers for all accused, regardless of whether their behavior showed established patterns of abuse or, as reported, momentary lapses of judgment?


Early one morning Jesus began teaching people in the temple in Jerusalem. Some of the strict, legalistic religious leaders brought a woman before him, saying that she had been caught in the very act of adultery. According to the Law of Moses this act was punishable by stoning the guilty to death. When they pressed the issue with Jesus for his judgment on the matter he responded, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:6). Beginning with the oldest, the accusers walked away until they had all departed. Jesus then asked: “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:10-11).


Seldom does one “cookie cutter” punishment (like imprisonment or banishment from one’s career) fit all the nuances and circumstances of a crime. And make no mistake, sexual harassment is not only a crime, it is sin before God. The “mob mentality” is an even worse solution. It’s not really justice to focus on just one type of crime for a brief period of popularity and conduct “witch hunts” until the eyes of the public are turned to a different societal wrong. So what did Jesus do in the case of the woman? He never denied she had sinned. He demanded that the law be carried out with justice by impartial witnesses. When no witnesses remained, the woman could not, according to the law, be stoned. And neither did Jesus make an excuse for the act of adultery. In fact, it seems that in an exercise of omniscience Jesus knew she was guilty, and he admonished her to repent of her sin. Justice is important to God, and so is mercy. Every injured person deserves the appropriate degree of justice, and so does every accused person.

Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank, CA


“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplace were different. That was the culture then, and the millions I embezzled from our company since have both supported and were enabled by that lifestyle. I have now brought on therapists to help me understand my momentary lapses of judgment over the past six decades” (Harvey Weinstein, lightly edited).

“All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives. So I will no longer be stealing their wallets and using their IDs to perpetrate identify theft” (Charlie Rose, lightly edited).

Yes, ridiculous I know. Yet why are these men and many others getting away with merely losing their jobs after credible claims of assault? It should be handled as any other alleged crime.

We have institutions to sort out guilt from innocence, namely the police, prosecutors, courts, and other criminal justice apparatus. We need to get serious about ending sexual harassment, by moving beyond public shaming and on to filing charges.


Roberta Medford




In our tradition, we have the Day of Atonement whereby people are to spend the entire day repenting for their sins. If the repentance is truly from the heart, the repentee is freed from the sin.

First and foremost, the repentee must ask for forgiveness from the person they have harmed, directly. God is available for those with whom direct apology is unavailable.

This seems to be the best way to go about dealing with sexual harassment. Additionally, counseling may be in order if the person has a deeper problem than a momentary loss of good judgment.

The problem is that we live in a time where people don’t take responsibility for their actions but tend to blame it on others. Getting people to admit that they have a problem may delay repentance. Those among us will need the support of those who care for them, not merely punishment from those who feel punitive towards them.

Remember, each of us is a world unto ourselves, please don’t destroy a world with devastating conduct.

Rabbi Mark Sobel

Temple Beth Emet



Well, we would hope that any repentant sinner could be forgiven, but it seems that in most of the cases we’ve been hearing about, it wasn’t just a momentary lapse, but long patterns of power misuse and predatory sexual behavior. We do live in a culture where men are generally expected to make advances women either receive or repel. That has made some of this just crazy, as a man might ask a woman out, and because he is not appealing to the woman, she reports his “unwanted advances.” Or, like one fellow I know who tapped a co-worker on the shoulder as he passed her by because of the narrow space behind the counter at the store where they worked. She reported it as inappropriate touching, and he was traumatized at the store’s backlash.

As for the casting couch and all the other nasty stuff of immoral people in power, I think most of us are happy to see a reckoning. We don’t often witness this kind of justice and it’s refreshing. But then it’s also starting to seem like a witch hunt as people are digging up words that were said, advances that were made, or whatever else from decades past and “spilling the beans” on some who have matured into otherwise stalwart people.

There is no excuse for sexual harassment, and the Bible declares, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Heb 13:4 NIV). Let us make sure that the punishments fit the crimes, and also remember that if we foster a culture of general immorality, we should expect to reap its consequences.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem