During an emotional sentencing hearing for former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, displays of compassion mixed with demands for accountability and justice. Earlier this week, Amber Guyger, 31, was convicted of murdering Botham Jean, a black worship leader, in his apartment last September. Amber Guyger, who is white, claimed self-defense, saying she thought she had entered her own apartment.
At Wednesday’s hearing, where Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Jean’s brother Brandt expressed love and forgiveness before asking permission to hug Guyger. “I love you like anyone else,” he said. “I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want.” Brandt Jean added, “Each and every one of us may have done something that we’re not supposed to do. If you truly are sorry—I know I can speak for myself—I forgive you, and I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”
As Brandt Jean hugged Guyger, Judge Tammy Kemp wiped away tears. Later the judge also hugged Amber Guyger and gave her one of her own Bibles. “This is your job,” Kemp said, as she opened the book. The judge referenced John 3:16 and said, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.” Kemp added, “You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”
Other members of Jean’s family, who’d wanted a longer sentence, cried and shook their heads. Amber Guyger could have received up to 99 years in prison; prosecutors requested 28, the age Jean would have been now.
Is Immediate Forgiveness the Correct Christian Response?
The widely circulated video of Brandt Jean hugging Guyger received praise from many people who called it a remarkable gesture. District Attorney John Creuzot labeled it “an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society…especially for many of our leaders.” He added, “I would hope that the greater community, not just Dallas but all of Texas and all of the United States, could gain a message from that.”
Eric Johnson, the mayor of Dallas, was “deeply moved” by the embrace, saying he’d “never, ever forget the incredible examples of love, faith, and strength personified by Botham, Brandt, and the entire Jean family.”
The courtroom drama called to mind the response of victim’s families in Charleston, South Carolina, after a white supremacist killed nine people at a black church. It also sparked strong responses from black Christians who see double standards when they’re expected to forgive despite ongoing injustices.
Kyle Howard, a black theologian and counselor, posted videos to express a variety of strong feelings he had after Guyger’s sentencing. Forgiveness, he says, is often “weaponized” against black people and can be “toxic,” leading to spiritual abuse. Other Christians celebrate the black church’s tradition of putting the “gospel on display” by forgiving, he says, but then they “spurn everything else” the black church has to offer.
#BothamJean, the black church, and the hypocrisy of White Evangelicalism
Some thoughts, let the chips fall where they may. https://t.co/s5pFH5aI2Y
— Kyle J. Howard (@KyleJamesHoward) October 2, 2019
“Weaponizing aspects of faith like forgiveness as a means of silencing/shaming other aspects of faith like righteous indignation, sorrow, grief, & mourning is a form of spiritual abuse,” Howard tweeted.
In response, Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, tweeted: “I’m willing to let Brandt’s & the Judge’s moment in the courtroom be theirs, without imposing racial history on the moment. I choose to view the moment through a gospel lens exclusively.”
McKissic added, “I choose to be grateful that justice was served & the gospel was on display.” His prayer, he says, is that because of the courtroom display “all orthodox/evangelical believers would seek common ground, not battle ground.”
The Importance of Accountability and Justice
After Guyger’s sentencing, protesters who wanted more prison time for the former officer marched and chanted, “No justice, no peace.” Dee Crane, a black woman whose son was shot by Arlington police two years ago, cried, “How many of us is it going to take before you understand that our lives matter?”