According to US attorney Damian Williams, multiple workers had warned New Jersey builder Finbar O’Neill that the wall he had built was unsafe. But O’Neill ignored their warnings. He might have seen it as a small risk likely to pay off, but his employees were tragically right. O’Neill was charged in August for criminal neglect after those construction shortcuts turned deadly.
In 2017, O’Neill’s company, OneKey, had been building multistructure luxury apartments along the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie. Site plans called for large mounds of dirt to be piled up to compact loose soil before construction began. Instead, the builder had a concrete-block wall erected to hold back a pile on one site while work began on a neighboring plot.
The wall failed under the weight of the dirt, killing one worker, Maximiliano Saban, and injuring another. The charging documents allege that O’Neill compromised safety in order to speed up construction.
Such cases of neglect are commonplace. In May of this year in Senegal, a fire broke out in a hospital neonatal unit. Eleven newborns died. According to the initial statement of Senegal’s Ministry of Health, the fire was likely caused by a preventable electrical short—faulty wiring.
“This country is sick,” tweeted @samba_massaly, one of many Senegalese who took to social media after the hospital fire. “Our hospitals have become places of death. Too much negligence, indifference, and flippancy!”
When we think about injustice, we typically think of deliberate harms like theft, murder, and other criminal acts. But neglectful harms are also forms of injustice.
Historically, the church has understood this. Sins of omission (things we don’t do but should) are just as wrong as sins of commission (things we do but shouldn’t). A biblical vision for justice guards against accidental harms as well as intentional wrongs. It also supports regulations to reduce such accidents.
Many of us face temptation to settle for a not-quite-good, not-quite-safe job, whether because of time pressure, embarrassment that we need help, or the belief that our shoddy work probably won’t hurt anyone. But competence, foresight, and carefulness are not just about safety; they are part of the Christian’s pursuit of holiness.
Intentions matter. Jesus taught his disciples that evil intentions, whether they are acted upon or not, are sinful (Matt. 5:22, 28). But a lack of ill motives does not necessarily indicate innocence. A person may have no malice toward another yet be guilty of accidentally causing them harm.
In fact, biblical Israel had an entire category of law about unintentional sins (Lev. 4:1–5:18).
If anyone sins … though they do not know it, they are guilty and will be held responsible. They are to bring to the priest as a guilt offering a ram. … The priest will make atonement for them for the wrong they have committed unintentionally, and they will be forgiven. (5:17–18)
Our culture’s current distaste for forgiveness makes it hard to ask for it when we didn’t intend harm. But in Israel, sins committed by accident—particularly when there was negligence—incurred guilt, just like those done intentionally. They both required atonement.
With such a high standard of justice, praise God for his grace in the person and work of Jesus! For Christians, the law in every point—including unintentional sins—was satisfied at the Cross. Christians are no longer “under the law” and its judgment (Gal. 5:18).
But the law has much to teach about the nature of justice and Christlike love for our neighbors (Matt. 22:37–40). That includes its lessons on accidental harms.
In modern law, people are culpable for accidents if they were negligent. A further distinction is typically drawn between simple negligence (like failing to fix the fence around your pool) and willful or gross negligence (like leaving a toddler alone near a pool). Biblical law similarly identifies different levels of guilt based on the level of irresponsibility.
Deuteronomy 19:1–13 introduces the principle of negligence by comparing two homicide cases. In one case, a person died from an accident caused by what today would be called simple negligence. In the contrasted case, a person was killed intentionally. Each incident received a different verdict, but both perpetrators were liable to punishment.
The example of deliberate killing begins with a man who “lies in wait, assaults and kills a neighbor” (v. 11). He made plans. He waited for an opportune moment. Then he followed through. It was a straightforward case of murder with intent.
In that law’s verdict, the intentional killer was to be turned over to the avenger immediately. He was guilty of bloodshed and liable to the full punishment of the law. His action, motivated by evil intent, condemned him.
The contrasting example is more complex. In it, one man kills another by a careless accident. A man was chopping wood when the axehead flew off the handle of his axe. Another person standing nearby was struck and killed.
It was an accident, but the axe-wielder was responsible for the care and use of his tool. Any person using a dangerous tool should be aware of its risks (Num. 35:17–18). There’s responsibility that goes with axe use, especially with another person present.
In any case, the verdict places a measure of responsibility on the axe-swinger. The victim’s family would have been justified if they had avenged their relative’s death. However, since it was an accident, the law granted the woodcutter safety in a “city of refuge.” If he ran to the nearest refugee site and stayed there, he was granted asylum.
However, if he left the city of refuge, he lost that safety. The possibility of retribution remained. He was still responsible for the death caused by his carelessness with the axe, even though he bore no ill will toward the person harmed. (See also Num. 35:26–27, 32–33.) Thus Deuteronomy 19:1–13 makes it clear that someone was morally responsible for another’s death in both cases.
Failing to exercise sufficient caution with a dangerous tool is a violation of justice. This realization should challenge Christians to exercise due care in all areas of life.
It would be a mistake to limit the homicide laws of Deuteronomy 19 to cases of homicide; those extreme examples are meant for us to extrapolate to other situations. It is a legal paradigm, not a comprehensive statute. The passage on homicide shows the principle: Accidents from simple negligence generally incur guilt, though less guilt than intentional harms.
This principle teaches us to do our work heartily with all due caution, always mindful of potential risks. Whether chopping wood, wiring an outlet, prescribing medicine, preparing dinner on the stove, driving a tractor-trailer on the highway, or operating a factory machine, handling dangerous equipment responsibly is an aspect of personal holiness.
As we have seen, penalties for simple negligence are less severe than for intentional damages. However, there are accidents that deserve penalties equal to those for deliberate wrongs.
Willful negligence, sometimes called gross negligence, can increase liability to match that of intentional harms.
The most recent edition of Black’s Law Dictionary defines gross negligence as “a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and of the consequences to another party.” It is thoughtful, conscientious neglect as opposed to the thoughtlessness behind simple negligence.
The increased liability for willful neglect is illustrated in a pair of biblical laws about oxen:
If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death … [or] may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. (Ex. 21:28–30)
In the first scenario, an ox with no history of aggression attacked and killed someone. It was unexpected and could not reasonably have been anticipated. It was an accident. Nevertheless, that ox’s owner was penalized. The ox was killed, and the owner was not permitted to recover its meat.
That would have been a significant loss to the ox owner. He suffered a real consequence for not adequately restraining his ox. But it was an incident of simple negligence since, even though the ox was large and inherently dangerous, there was no reason to expect the ox would gore someone.
In the second scenario, almost the exact same events occurred. There is no difference between the facts of the two cases—with one exception. In the latter case, the owner knew his ox had a tendency for aggression, and he refused to restrain it.
This knowledge of danger deliberately ignored is what constitutes willful negligence. And that willful negligence made a profound difference in the penalties due.
The second ox owner was punished as though he himself had killed the person. The full penalty for the death was imposed on the owner of the second ox. In God’s system of justice, willful negligence can raise one’s liability for accidental harm to a level equal to one who intends harm.
In an interview about ethics and product design, Steven VanderLeest, coauthor of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers, offered a modern instance of gross negligence. “The Ford Pinto,” he said, “was a classic example.”
The gas tank placement of the 1970s compact car, VanderLeest explained, “was known to be dangerous for a rear end collision.” Despite knowing about this danger, Ford made “an intentional decision that it wouldn’t cause enough accidents to change the design, which would be costly.”
Knowing the danger, Ford continued production anyway.
Sadly, fuel leaks and gas fires did happen, even from rear-end collisions at moderate speeds. Over 100 lawsuits were filed against the auto manufacturer. One of the most prominent was Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.
During the Grimshaw trial, internal documents from Ford revealed the company’s prior knowledge of the design flaw and its risks. The jury awarded $127.8 million in damages to the plaintiffs in that case. “At that time,” VanderLeest noted, “[it was] the largest civil lawsuit [in American legal history].” Ford began settling other cases out of court and issued a voluntary recall to correct the Pinto’s design flaw.
The Pinto damages were accidental. The car company didn’t intend to cause injuries or deaths. But it didn’t take steps to stop them, either. The problem had been well known beforehand. According to biblical standards of justice, willful negligence calls for penalties similar to those necessary for intentional harms.
Risk mitigation is not simply a matter for personal attention, however. Biblical law models the importance of community regulation to reduce accidents.
VanderLeest explains: “The more powerful the technology, the more society needs to put regulations in place, because the more complex and the more powerful, the more difficult to predict every way it can go wrong.”
Ancient Israel’s technologies were not as powerful as ours, but its laws regulated the technologies they did have to mitigate harm. For example, God gave Israel building codes to practice safe construction designs and methods.
Here is one directive: “When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof” (Deut. 22:8).
The flat roofs of ancient Hebrew houses, as with many buildings in the Middle East today, were used for relaxation and sometimes for sleeping. Since it was known people would congregate on the roof, failing to ensure safety provisions constituted willful negligence. If someone fell and died as a result, the builder could be charged with homicide (“the guilt of bloodshed”).
The concept of neglect and its unholiness appears in Israel’s health regulations as well as its safety regulations. Leviticus 13–14, for example, provided instruction for the purification of persons, houses, and garments infected with diseases called, in Hebrew, tsara’at. In people, tsara’at seems to have referred to various ulcerating skin diseases that are no longer known (they are not what is today called leprosy—Hansen’s disease). In houses and garments, the term indicated a mold or fungal infestation.
According to Leviticus 13–14, Israel had reporting, inspection, and remediation regulations for these conditions. These processes were instituted to stop the spread of tsara’at and to restore ritual purity to those afflicted.
Health was an aspect of the people’s ritual wholeness before God. The primary concern of the tsara’at rules was the people’s readiness to worship.
Stopping the spread of disease seems not to have been the main point, but it was a significant aspect of the nation’s integrity. Ensuring houses were built for safety and that outbreaks did not spread was a social concern that called for systemic protections with community enforcement. They were not merely personal matters.
The Christian’s calling to live justly therefore requires both care to avoid personal negligence and support for suitable community health and safety regulations.
Societies today have widely varying levels of regulation against accidental harms like disease spread. James Knox, an Orthodox Presbyterian missionary doctor, has served in American hospitals where, he says, regulations seemed too burdensome. He has also served in clinics in the developing world where, he said, regulations are frighteningly lax. He currently serves at Akisyon A Yesu (“Compassion of Jesus”) Presbyterian Clinic in Nakaale, Uganda.
Two years ago, Knox was serving at the Joy Health Centre and Hospice in Mbale, Uganda. At that time, he had the unenviable distinction of being the attending doctor for Uganda’s first recorded COVID-19 death.
In an interview with CT, Knox recalled, “Government health officials arrived in protective equipment and instituted strict quarantines immediately. Initially, the government response seemed strong.
“But,” he continued, “within two or three months, government coordination was gone, and our clinic could not even get COVID tests or protective equipment.”
Such feast-or-famine oversight is typical, according to Knox. Cases like this show that the problem of the Pinto can crop up in any setting where real solutions seem too burdensome to implement.
What level of neglect does a government or a corporation consider worth addressing? They sometimes accept fines and lost court cases as the cost of doing business or advancing political power. But God’s people need to consider God’s values, not other rewards and drawbacks of neglect.
Reporting and oversight can be onerous. Still, Israel’s building codes and the Levitical tsara’at protocols show us that God expects communities to establish cooperative policies to reduce harm.
The Bible does not provide a list of regulations appropriate for every time and place, or many details on how they are to be administered. Those kinds of society-by-society decisions are matters for community deliberation. They are deliberations Christians should support and participate in.
Evangelicals are typically well organized to support issues like pro-life legislation and religious freedom. The Bible’s influence should also lead Christians to advocate for systemic protections against unintentional harms, like unsafe buildings and pathogen outbreaks.
Justice in a society is not solely the work of court systems. Nor is it limited to the restraint of deliberate wrongdoing through police or other means. Justice is the duty of each of us before God (Mic. 6:8). And justice includes trying to prevent accidents.
Biblical law offers paradigms, presented in the practices of ancient Israel, that help us think about such aspects of holiness for application today. There is much need for a strong Christian witness in this regard, especially with the increasing power of modern technologies and their potential for
Even in the US, where accidents are rarer than in some other regions of the world, their scope is grievous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a study of the “Top Ten Leading Causes of Death in the U.S. for Ages 1–44 from 1981–2020.” The number one cause of death in that age group for four decades was “unintentional injury”—a category that, tragically, has swelled in recent years due to drug overdoses. Nearly 2.5 times more people died from unintentional injuries (more than 2 million) than from the second most common fatality, cancer (868,100).
Of course, risks can never be fully avoided. Theoretically, Israel’s law could have banned oxen from Hebrew farms altogether to keep people safe from being gored. “Where there are no oxen,” Proverbs 14:4 (ESV) states, “the manger is clean.” Also, there are no ox accidents. “But abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”
God calls humankind to be productive and courageous, stewarding the world and developing communities. Risks are not completely avoidable, nor are they necessarily neglectful. But accidental harms must be studiously minimized. And when risks are known, it would be willfully negligent to ignore them.
We can faithfully extrapolate beyond livestock and OSHA-like regulations. Like the biblical ox owner, a pet owner today must take precautions if a pet is known to be aggressive. Texting while driving is known to be extremely dangerous; it is willful negligence to text and drive.
Knowing oneself to be COVID-19 positive yet failing to protect against spreading the disease is another modern example of willful negligence. To do so would open oneself to greater responsibility—in God’s eyes, if not legally—if others are infected and harmed as a result.
This principle also instructs our approach to sexual abuse in the church. Like the man who knows his ox is prone to aggression, those in leadership who know the proclivities of an abuser are responsible to use that knowledge.
To leave abuse willfully unaddressed or underaddressed is negligence, and people with the authority to prevent further harm aren’t innocent if it happens. Complicity in this case doesn’t mean they collaborated with an abuser; it means that they failed to take responsible action.
Within the biblical vision of justice, willful neglect can be as serious as intentional harm. Giving full attention to all known risks, even when sacrifices are required as a result, is part of the Christian pursuit of holiness.
Michael LeFebvre is a Presbyterian minister, an Old Testament scholar, and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context.
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