It was what some labeled “the hug heard ’round the world.” It came during the sentencing phase of the trial of Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer convicted of murder for the Sept. 6, 2018, shooting of Botham Jean.
Jean was a 26-year-old accountant, originally from Saint Lucia. He was a person of deep Christian faith and involved in ministry. He was sitting in his apartment when Guyger, according to her account, entered his apartment thinking it was hers and shot him to death, believing he was an intruder.
Botham’s younger brother, Brandt, was on the witness stand giving his victim impact testimony. In stark contrast to others who had spoken, he suggested that he didn’t see a reason to say over again how much Guyger had taken from his family. He said that he forgave her and loved her as a person, even adding that he didn’t want her to go to jail. Then, in the moment that so many people have watched, he asked the judge for permission to hug her, which was granted.
It was an amazing moment of the power of forgiveness and seeing the other, even the perpetrator, as also human. It was a testament to how genuinely Brandt Botham, as young as he is, seeks to put his Christian faith into practice even when it hurts to do so and when others don’t want him to. Not surprisingly, he has faced criticism for his action.
“Whether or not race played a role in the actual moment of the shooting in Dallas, the events that followed the killing of Botham Jean were painfully familiar to people of color.”
I’m reminded, however, that there was nothing easy, expected or even “fair” about the kind of forgiveness Jesus taught. Whether he was telling people to forgive seventy times seven or saying of those carrying out the brutality of the empire, “forgive them,” it would have bothered his listeners too. It would have left his listeners with questions too.
So, on the one hand, I have to acknowledge Brandt Jean’s Christ-like example of refusing to dehumanize even the person who killed his brother. I can’t help but see grace in his refusal to approach Guyger with the same bloodthirst as others. I have to acknowledge the bravery and faith that it must have required to say before the entire world, “I forgive.”
But “I forgive you” is not the only cry we must hear.
Like others, I was enraptured by this moment and can understand why it was shared on social media by many of my friends and colleagues. But it also provides an all too convenient symbol of the individualized, privatized version of the gospel that has long blinded evangelical Christianity to the call for justice. My fear is that this iconic, touching moment between two people may allow white Christian America to subconsciously let itself off the hook, go back to “not seeing color” and collectively return to waiting for the sweet by and by.
We’re touched and inspired by cries of and for forgiveness. But we don’t seem nearly as comfortable with the cries of and for “justice,” a cry affirmed by Micah as one-third of what “the Lord requires of you” (Micah 6:8) and by Jesus as one-third of the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23).
As a white Christian American, it is way more comfortable for me to share a video of a forgiving hug than that of a black family sobbing with indignation, begging the rest of us to see what they still endure. It’s much more soothing and self-vindicating to be able to affirm hearing the forgiveness of Jesus in the aftermath of a tragedy I didn’t have to endure than it is to apply Jesus’ words of woe and judgment to the cruelty, racism and indifference that are making a comeback in our society today – with the support of a majority of white Christian America.
As Kyle J. Howard put it, using “aspects of faith like forgiveness as a means of silencing/shaming other aspects of faith like righteous indignation, sorrow, grief, and mourning is a form of spiritual abuse and historically has been an aspect of slave master theology.” Some of us may be tempted to balk at such suggestions, but that is further proof of how often we are complicit in a system of oppressive language, assumptions and practices that someone like me can walk through life without even recognizing.
Whether or not race played a role in the actual moment of the shooting in Dallas, the events that followed the killing of Botham Jean were painfully familiar to people of color: giving a white officer the benefit of the doubt, searching the black victim’s home and history for anything that might tarnish him or render him less than blameless, and the white perpetrator receiving a lighter sentence for murder than black citizens receive for lesser charges. Then, just when we thought the ordeal was over, news broke that Joshua Brown, Botham Jean’s across-the-hall neighbor, and a key witness in Guyger’s murder trial, had mysteriously been shot dead.
“There was nothing easy, expected or even ‘fair’ about the kind of forgiveness Jesus taught.”
How it must hurt for our black brothers and sisters to see us white Christians celebrating this one isolated cry of “I forgive you” if at the same time we ignore their daily cries of “justice” for the way persons of color continue to be followed in stores, pulled over for driving in the wrong neighborhoods, denied opportunities for which they’re qualified and imprisoned at wildly disproportionate rates. How it must anger the God of justice if we praise a hug but fail to speak a prophetic word against the detainment of immigrants without basic care or against our country’s highest elected leader telling congressional members of color to go back where they came from.
Andre Henry put it well in a tweet: “If you don’t validate black anger, but praise black forgiveness, you’re just tone policing.”
And again from Howard:
“The black community saw many folks (even some I respect) praising a man for his faith to forgive someone who murdered his brother who also never said a single word on their social media feed about the injustice of the act or sentencing. They were silent until [the day of Brandt Jean’s act]. To make it worse, they then turned around and shamed other black Christians for their lamenting and grief, and insisted that black Christians get over it and celebrate with them lest they be unchristlike.”
There’s no doubt that we have witnessed a Christ-like act in Brandt Jean’s courtroom hug. It brought me to my knees just like it may have you. But private, one-on-one forgiveness is not the whole of the gospel or the summation of the scripture’s witness to justice.
Not even close.