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What is Fair?

This spring term I had two nearly identical academic integrity cases. Two sets of partners turned in nearly identical lab reports, with attempts to hide it by changing fonts and other cosmetics. My default penalty for such situations is a zero for both parties. However, in each case, it turned out that one student had let their partner have access to their report with good intentions, and the partner stole the work, claiming it as their own.

In one case, the ‘innocent’ student had a habit of sending his completed report to his partner so they could ‘check each other’s work.’ (This is still a blatant violation of course policy.) In the other case, the ‘guilty’ student was in a gross time bind due to a job interview and asked for help. Her partner lent her report out of sympathy, thinking it would just be a guide, not expecting it to be copied wholesale.

Upon reviewing each case, I talked with the ‘innocent’ students at length about guarding one’s intellectual property, and how their good intentions led them to do what they should have known was against course policy. I then gave the ‘guilty’ parties zeroes as I usually do, but only docked the ‘innocent’ ones a letter grade. Some may argue that is too light, but the violation they felt at having their trust abused was useful as well.

It occurred to me after a discussion at Bible study that this is how God says He will judge folks. People often complain that God’s standards aren’t fair. His response in several places (Matthew 7:1-2, Romans 2, et al.) is essentially, “Alright, then. Let’s use your standard of judgment to see how you measure up. Let’s look at what you are angry at or offended by in others and see if you meet your own standards. I can promise you that you don’t even measure up to your standards, so even there you are guilty of sin.” A funny thing about us humans—we tend to get most angry at others for doing what we ourselves tend to do. If we dislike another’s arrogance, there’s a decent chance we are arrogant, and so on.

Similarly, and most like my students’ situation above, is that He says that after His judgment, our punishment is made according to our level of knowledge and understanding. In Luke 12, Christ said, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Thus, as my friend Bob, says, for the unbeliever, their level of judgment is exactly what they deserve; for the believer, through grace they have surrendered what they deserve, good and ill, and asked to receive what Christ deserves. That is the heart of the Gospel—God IS just, and gives to us as we deserve, but through Christ, offers us what only Christ deserves, if we will take it.


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