Forgiveness Went Viral, Calls for Justice Should Too
Brandt Jean’s response to his brother’s murderer helps us see the gospel. But so does Allison Jean’s. Did you miss hers? Only one response was widely shared on social media after the conviction and sentencing of Amber Guyger, a former Dallas police officer who entered 26-year-old Botham Jean’s apartment and fatally shot him. On Wednesday, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Jean family was given the opportunity to make a victim impact statement. Brandt used his time to directly address the officer who killed his brother. He said, “If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.” Brandt told Guyger that Botham would have wanted her to give her life to Christ. He asked to give Guyger a hug, and after State District Judge Tammy Kemp gave her okay, Brandt offered a long embrace. In the video, you can hear Guyger’s loud sobs.
Most have probably seen this footage. Brandt’s offer of forgiveness and hug has been shared and praised widely across social media.But many have likely missed footage from the rest of the family, including these words from Botham’s mother, Allison Jean. "Forgiveness for us as Christians is a healing for us, but as my husband said, there are consequences. It does not mean that everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed,” Mother Allison told the court.
What went unnoticed? According to Botham Jean’s mother, the crime scene was contaminated by Dallas police. High-ranking officials deleted evidence. Police officers turned off body cameras and vehicle cameras. “You saw investigations that were marred with corruption,” Mother Allison said. “While we walk as Christians, we still have a responsibility to ensure that our city does what is right.”
Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.
The problem of forgiveness
Four years ago, people in my social media timelines enthusiastically extolled the family members of Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson as they publicly extended forgiveness to the man that murdered their family members while they prayed at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The forgiveness was a marvel. But in their marveling, I saw few noting—much less sharing—the lament and grief of family wrestling with the loss of loved ones.
This week, when I first saw Twitter trending with posts about this encounter between a white woman convicted of killing a black man and that black man’s brother, I initially opted not to view the courtroom scene. I read the posts heralding Brandt’s actions as a Christ-like model of forgiveness and raising him up as a model of grace to be emulated by all.
Forgiveness, we know, comes from the cross. But there is no resurrection without the horror of crucifixion. I fear we have softened the sacrifice of Jesus because we dare not linger on the bloody and gruesome body of a man tortured by the brutal law of the land, joined with a religious order. I worry we, like Pontus Pilate, are too quick to wash our hands.
To be clear, I have no interest in judging the motivations of an 18-year-old man. Brandt Jean spoke from the heart. But I’m concerned with how quickly people were willing to share his actions, potentially missing the greater context of the situation and missing the fuller picture of the gospel, which includes justice, not just grace.
We are deeply moved by a brother’s forgiveness. Are we also moved by a mother’s pain? Can we hear the frustrated protestors who lament the fact that the balance of justice has tilted, yet again, to be lighter on whiter skin?
As Americans Christians, we often long for snapshots that make us feel good. We want anecdotes of grace. But in the hurry to resolve painful and uncomfortable stories, we rush past the systemic injustice that lies beneath. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of racism in our criminal justice system, too many of us remain stoically convinced that injustice is only personal, and rarely, if ever, systemic.
When a black person extends radical forgiveness, we see the grace of the gospel. But when we ignore a black person’s call for justice, we cheapen that grace. Both are acting like the God we serve; we need to listen to them both.
Yes, God is a forgiving God. But we haven’t really understood the depth of that grace if all our examples of forgiveness are times when the people being forgiven look just like us. Given the long history of white supremacy in this country, we as Christians should ask: Why aren’t there videos of white people forgiving their black assailants trending on our social media? Why aren’t black accusers hugged by judges or comforted by the victim’s family members, as this former police officer was? How long O Lord?
Worshipping a God of Justice
Perhaps part of the reason Mother Allison’s calls for justice don’t go viral is because too many of us have an incomplete picture of God and God’s desire for righteousness. Whenever God’s forgiveness, grace, love, and justice benefit people who look like us and our family and friends, we nod our heads and move along. But what happens when they’re strangers at the border, in the park, or in their own homes?
As Mother Allison noted, prison will offer Guyger a chance to reflect on her actions. The church should reflect too. To my white brothers and sisters, you’ve celebrated the words and actions of a family member you found inspirational and in-line with how you understand your faith. Heed, too, the words of Mother Allison. She is teaching us that forgiveness has another hand that fights for justice. They two go together. They are both part of the gospel. Brandt and Allison Jean are a part of the same family. Both profess faith in Jesus. Their bold and powerful statements offer us an opportunity to stand with them both. We don’t have to pick Brandt’s call for grace at the expense of Mother Allison’s cry for justice.
Dorena Williamson is First Lady at Strong Tower Bible Church, a multicultural fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of ColorFull, ThoughtFull, and GraceFull with B&H Kids. Visit her at dorenawilliamson.com.