The Art of Forgiveness

Yesterday’s sentencing for Amber Guyger was punctuated by a profound act by the brother of Botham Jean, the man she murdered. Brandt Jean offered forgiveness, and even embraced the woman who murdered her brother.

So, naturally, twitter lost its collective mind.

Dual realities unfolded through social media. Many Christians, most of whom appear to be white, celebrated Brandt’s act as an example of the Gospel. Many other folks, including many fellow Christian who are African American, cried, “Foul!” It was bad enough that a man had been murdered in is own apartment, for the crime of being at home, and the murderer got a sentence of only ten years. But seeing Brandt embrace the woman who’d murdered his brother was just too much, leading people to say, “Why do we keep on getting murdered, and are expected to be nice about it?”

I can’t say I disagree with either point.

It was a powerful act of forgiveness. It could be that Brandt is having difficulty dealing with the trauma of losing his brother, for the crime of being at home, and he’ll be angry later — after his coping mechanisms fail. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens, but neither would anyone who has actually studied forgiveness. Forgiving someone is not a resolution of anything. Rather, it’s the beginning of a voyage filled with wonder and darkness and joy and grief. In many respects it’s easier to not forgive — because the voyage of forgiveness, and the price it demands from the one who forgives, doesn’t leave anything in us left untouched.

And yet, at the same time, the folks who were proclaiming this profound action missed the wider point around the trial. And my friends who are displeased with the action are pointing out why this is. Brandt Jean’s act was a extraordinary personal act of forgiveness, but it did nothing to address the systemic problems that led to his brother’s murder. Again, for the “crime” of being in his home. To my friends who live under the weight of this unjust system, the light sentence was a slap in the face 1. And seeing folks having a feel good moment at the very moment the system failed them, again, was not something they were going to accept. And they let people know it.

The reactions to this event were so diametrically opposed it was almost like they were based off two different events. And, in fact, they kind of were.

See the folks who only saw in Brandt’s action a profound act of forgiveness, particularly those who come out the Protestant Tradition 2, see sin primarily through the lens of personal action. In their minds, this woman did something personal to Brandt and he opted to forgive — person to person. When Brandt said, “I don’t even want to see you go to jail,” then, he could have been working from the personal aspect of Biblical restorative justice. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. He was forgiving her. A lot of white people who wonder why Blacks “just can’t forgive” and get over it, most of whom have now clue about the personal aspects of Biblical restorative justice, look at forgiveness in that light. “I didn’t do anything to you. So what’s your problem?”

On the other hand, the folks who saw miscarriage of justice in both the sentencing and in Brandt’s act of forgiveness were seeing these as a joined whole against the backdrop of the system. Judging from their responses, they don’t see his act of forgiveness as something person to person — but between person and system. And these folks point out that unless the systemic issues in our society are dealt with, then restorative justice really can’t happen — no matter how many individuals of good will reach out and embrace. But they aren’t going to forgive the system and just let people go on their merry way. They’re angry about the system, with dang good reason, and until people start working to heal the system they won’t stop being angry about it. And who can blame them? After all, our system is sick.

But the sickness of our system is also the point, because one of the most acute symptoms of our societal malady is hyper-polarization. Everything is reduced to “a” or “b.” Other vantage points tend to be decried with words like “compromised, “complicit,” or “betrayal.” In this instance the wider twitter-verse has reduced Brandt’s actions to an example of either “personal morality” or “systemic injustice.” So people choose either “a” or “b” and launch at one another through their screens. It’s what we do 3.

But what if the either/or choice is bogus? What if that courtroom scene was both a profound act of personal forgiveness and an example of how screwed up our system is? And what if we could channel our reactions to that embrace away from the either/or and instead used that personal act to address our real systemic issues?

And here I can just speak from the perspective of a white guy, since that’s what I am.

My question, even as I acknowledge the remarkable action of Brandt Jean and express my desire for him to find peace and wholeness in the face of the evil done to his family, is two part.

First, why do we keep having to have these remarkable moments of forgiveness from people of color, even as our systems continue to show it values their lives less than white folks?

Second, why is it that so many white people fail to show even a millionth part of Brandt’s grace and understanding toward people of color in ordinary circumstances?

Brandt Jean showed forgiveness and understanding in the face of systemic failure and personal anguish, but white folks on the street can’t sit by and let persons of color have a picnic, sit in a Starbucks, sell water on a street corner, enter a property for their own business, or even get into their own car. And my list doesn’t even cover half of what is in this list from almost a year ago.

So if white folks, like me, want to celebrate Brandt Jean’s action as a true image of forgiveness – that’s fine. But understand how his actions do not address the wider systemic issues which lead to the need for that moment to exist in the first place. And when we see those systematic issues in action – online, in casual conversation, in our own thought-processes – call it out. And when we are offered an opportunity to show a millionth part of the understanding and grace that Brandt Jean showed in that courtroom, push the system to the corner where it belongs and show it. Let’s just stop saying, “Isn’t it great that he did that?” and start doing it ourselves.

  1. Keep in mind a man who shot and killed a police dog recently got forty-five years in jail. 
  2. And Evangelical Protestants, in particular. 
  3. The shame of it is, there are a number of people out there, from multiple backgrounds, who are trying to expand the conversation. Their voices are usually utilized by polarized folks who use them to beat up people who are on the opposite pole.