In a high-profile case this week, former police office Amber Guyger, who is white, was found guilty of the murder of Botham Jean, a black man, in his Dallas home.
On Wednesday, the same day she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Brandt Jean, Botham’s younger brother, made a victim impact statement in the courtroom and then sealed his words with a gesture.
“If you are truly sorry,” he said. “ I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.”
Brandt is a Christian, and his brother professed to be one. He urged Guyger to turn to Jesus.
“I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want for you,” he said.
Brandt went so far as to say that he didn’t want Guyger to face jail time for the 2018 shooting in the Dallas apartment complex where both Botham and she lived. He pleaded with the judge to let him hug his brother’s murderer, a request the judge granted.
The courtroom embrace — the grieving brother of a black man wrapping his arms around the white female former officer who had killed his brother — instantly went viral.
Some viewed Brandt’s actions as a stunning example of forgiveness, a moment of grace and tenderness that briefly bridged the chasm between races and provided an example for all to emulate. Although Christians of different backgrounds shared a variety of responses, this moment was especially celebrated by white Christians. It seems to indicate a desire to hastily move on from the wrong done and offer a perfect picture of reconciliation.
Perhaps, with just the right amount of compassion, some believe we can erase the color line. But when another black man has been murdered by a person charged to “serve and protect,” forgiveness should neither be demanded nor assumed.
A society built around white superiority is also built around white innocence — an assumption of the intrinsic moral virtue of all white people and the purity of their intentions regardless of impact. White innocence assumes black forgiveness.
So people are celebrating Brandt’s gesture of forgiveness. Such a sentiment is praised as an admirable example of Christian faith in action.
Of course, Jesus urges his followers to forgive.
“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors . . . . For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).
From a certain perspective, Brandt is simply following the dictates of his conscience and his faith. But what must be understood is that when tragedies such as the murder of a black man by a white police officer occur, they aren’t just felt by one black person. The black community feels the impact.
If white people expect all black people to extend forgiveness as quickly as Brandt Jean did, then they understand neither black people nor black pain.
Black grief is a community project. It is felt widely but dealt with individually. Some go to therapy. Some participate in demonstrations. Others write op-eds. Everyone is entitled to their own process.
As Brandt stated, he speaks for himself.
No one should expect swift mercy from every black person. And the risk of offering such speedy forgiveness is that not nearly enough attention is given to the injustice itself.
What is lost in the tearful embrace between a murdered man’s brother and the killer are the words of Botham’s mother.
“There is much to be done by the city of Dallas,” she said. “The corruption that we saw during this process must stop.”
Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring.
The same Bible that urges forgiveness also urges justice.
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17).
Black forgiveness as a response to white racism is an act of faith in God and of self-preservation. With all that black people have endured over four centuries of racial oppression, forgiveness protects the heart from the consuming heat of hatred. It ensures that people who have been wounded don’t have to constantly relive the injury. The act of forgiveness honors God, who forgives undeserving people, when someone extends it to someone else who is similarly undeserving.
No one should mistake black forgiveness, whenever and if ever it is offered, for complacency with racial injustice. No one should assume that a public act of mercy on the part of one black person eclipses the demands for change from an entire community.
Black forgiveness is costly. It requires us to absorb wrongdoing even as we continue to work for justice. Black forgiveness becomes cheapened when we take it for granted.
Black forgiveness is admirable when it is freely given and not demanded or expected. And the best response to black forgiveness is to prevent the harm that makes it necessary in the first place.