We have an unfortunate tendency to conflate law and morality. We assume that an action ruled legal in our justice system is, by definition, ethical—and conversely, that illegal acts are also immoral. This is a mistake. As the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King remind us, on occasion the most ethical path entails breaking the law. Sometimes, too, an act may be appropriately judged entirely legal—and still be deeply wrong.
I believe that the latter scenario applies to the Trayvon Martin case. I do not question the verdict rendered by the jury. They were tasked with a legal decision, based on the limited available evidence and, more importantly, the law of the State of Florida. Given what they saw and heard, they did their duty and concluded that George Zimmerman did not violate that law. I am in no position to second-guess their verdict.
But legal innocence does not absolve George Zimmerman—or the state of Florida and, for that matter, American society—of profound moral failing. When, against the advice of the police, George Zimmerman got out of his car and pursued Trayvon Martin, he was looking for a fight—dangerously and lethally emboldened by the handgun he was carrying. This sort of behavior, aggravated by the sort of systemic racism that identifies young black men with criminality, may be legal, but it is by no means ethical. Indeed, in my Jewish tradition, it is a serious violation of core principles of decency.
Psalm 34 instructs us to “seek peace and pursue it.” Why the repetition of “seeking” and “pursuing”? The ancient Rabbis answer that with most other commandments, it is enough that we do them when the opportunity comes our way. But when it comes to making peace, it is not acceptable to wait for opportunities; we must make an active effort—seeking and pursuing—to create peace, even when it is inconvenient.
Based on this teaching, my colleague, Rabbi Fred Guttman points out that upon concluding a traditional Jewish prayer for peace in the synagogue service,
it is customary for all of the worshippers to take three steps back and then bow to one's left and right. This teaches that in order to make peace, one needs to be willing to “back up.” Why is this important you ask? The answer is simple. For over a thousand years, we Jews have been reminded by the movements of our prayers that in order to make peace, you are not allowed to “Stand Your Ground!”
Our gun-crazed culture may be perfectly legal, but morally, it is badly adrift and, at heart, cowardly. Peacemaking demands far more courage than shooting an unarmed black teenager. Isaiah knew this when he urged us all to beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. I pray that the Martin case—legally right but an ethical travesty—might move us to look again at Isaiah’s vision and take significant steps in its direction.