On the Rightness of Exercising your Rights


This weekend a Florida jury decided that George Zimmerman did not murder Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman exercised his right to defend himself with lethal force. My knowledge of this case is far from perfect, but the evidence seems to cast shadows of doubt every which way. The jury found that Zimmerman operated within the rights which Florida state-law granted him.

This case has once again caused me to ponder the relationship between “rights” and “rightness.” I believe that having the right to do something does not entail that the exercising of that right is always morally right. We equivocate easily. Shouldn’t a right always be right? I don’t think so.

In my reading of the Civil War, the southern states had the legal right to leave the union. I also think that they acted immorally in exercising that right to protect the institution of black slavery. Exercising a legal right led to 600,000 deaths. I know this topic is hotly debated. I’ll find another.

An American woman who has an abortion is well within her legal rights to do so. Does this entail that it is morally right for her to have an abortion? We don’t call her a hero because she followed the laws and procured an abortion legally. Abortion remains immoral, and exercising this legal right has led to 50,000,000 deaths. But some readers will accuse me of equivocating here. There’s a difference between a state-given right and a God-given right. Abortion is contrary to nature and the law of God. Let’s find an example of a God-given right.

Many theologians argue that a husband or wife can rightfully seek a divorce if the other party has engaged in infidelity. But must a spouse seek divorce in these cases? Just because a spouse could exercise the right of divorce does not entail that he or she should exercise that right. Sometimes the right thing to do is to forgo our own rights and offer forgiveness seeking reconciliation.

And what of this God-given right to self-defense? Must we exercise this right? Sometimes exercising a right can be the wrong action. Jesus said to turn the other cheek. His words would be meaningless if it was always right to exercise our rights. Our rights can lead us astray. Especially if we’re concerned more about our own rights than we are about the welfare of our neighbors.

Sometimes asserting our God-given and state-given rights is the morally right thing to do. Sometimes it’s the wrong thing to do. Rightness has more to do with the condition of our hearts and the purity of our motives than it does to adhering to standards of law.

This is all very messy, and our political discourse likes things neat and tidy. Everything has to be black and white, but many issues are shades of gray. When confronted by the grayness caused by shadows of doubt, the taking heads merely decree either white or black. We look at the same gray cloud, and half America says white, while half says black.

Was George Zimmerman within his legal rights to kill Trayvon Martin? It appears to be so. Was it morally right for George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin? That’s a different question that only God can answer. He can see through the grayness of doubt and circumstance. He can see George Zimmerman’s heart. He can see mine too.

[Cross-posted at First Thoughts]

3 responses to “On the Rightness of Exercising your Rights”

  1. The jury did not find Zimmerman was acting within his rights. The jury found the state could not prove he wasn’t. This is not a trivial matter of semantics. Understanding the difference is very important.

    • You are correct, of course. Forgive the looseness of my first couple of sentences. The piece does make much of the “shadow of a doubt” aspect of the law.

      Even so, I still affirm my central premise: acting within one’s rights is not always the right thing to do.

      • So is our right to bare arms a right that we should partake in? Even for the mere fact of self defense

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