Well, okay… I was kind of alone, because most of the black folks in my social media feed did not have mixed feelings. They were straight up not having it. They reacted to that news like Travis Greene singing at the Trump inauguration.
If you’ve somehow been living under a rock, Amber Guyger is a former Dallas police officer who was charged with murder for the killing of Botham Jean, an unarmed, successful, pious black man who was in his own apartment at the time. Guyger shot and killed him because she mistakenly thought he was an intruder in her apartment instead of an innocent man in his. Two days ago, the news broke that Guyger was found guilty, and a wave of grateful relief spread over my black friends, other people of color, and many of my woke white friends as well.
But then yesterday, we received the news of the sentencing—10 years, with parole eligibility in five—and there was another round of shaking heads, shrugged shoulders, and vaguely despondent phrases of unsurprised dejection. (Speaking of which, “that’s about white” wins the award for Most Concise Habitual Lament of Racial Injustice.)
I know she made a mistake, but ten years for taking another man’s life seems awfully lenient, especially for someone who’d previously showed such disregard for black life as to joke about MLK dying.
And reasonable people might be able to have a dialogue about that, and the issues of systemic bias in the justice system against black folks and—just as importantly—for white people. Reasonable people could disagree about some of the finer points of the flow of the trial, the use of the castle doctrine in rendering the jury verdict, or any number of interesting and important related issues that all touch on the various ways that race, class and prosecutorial immunity for police tend to degrade our criminal justice system.
But a lot of those opportunities for that conversation will be missed, because a lot of well-meaning white people (as well as several not-well-meaning ones) will see or hear of Brandt Jean, brother of the deceased Botham Jean, hugging and offering forgiveness to Amber Guyger, and say things like, “see, that guy gets it. Why do black people have to be so angry all the time? Can’t they just forgive and move on?”
I’ve seen it happen so many times, it’s depressing in its predictability.
As a pastor, I would love to talk at length about the transcendent beauty of that moment of forgiveness and the powerful inner strength on display. But in many cases, to do so would be to promote cheap grace.
Experience has taught me to be wary of those who trumpet black forgiveness without advocating for black people.
Such people tend to use those miraculous acts of forgiveness as an opportunity to shut down discussions about racial injustice, primarily because of their intuitive sense that such a conversation would cost them something of value.
Thus, I cannot afford to let Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness be weaponized into a cudgel of whataboutism and denial by white people too spooked about their own complicity in racism to engage in honest conversation.
That would be a disservice, not only to the black folks who have experienced this with depressing regularity, but also to the white folks who actually need to be free from the delusional myth of American meritocracy. It would be like an oncologist looking at a scan of a malignant growth and saying, “you know what, that’s probably just a glitch, I’m sure you’re fine.” A missed opportunity of tragic proportions.
Forgiveness is important, but only in the context of a holistic process of restoration that points toward true shalom, where we care not only about resolving the immediate aftermath of wrongdoing, but we also attend to the root causes and the structural inequities that keep contributing to it. If mercy is the act of pulling a drowning person out of the water, justice begins when you ask the question of how they ended up there in the first place.
So if you are a white, evangelical pastor, and your only takeaway from the saga of Botham Jean is “wow, what a powerful moment of forgiveness,” then I challenge you to look deeper, engage in some healthy self-reflection, and see what you can do to help make a positive difference in our current racial divide.
And even if you’re a progressive, if you identify more with the typical white liberal, and you find yourself moved by Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness, that’s good, but continue to look deeper into the story and look for your own blind spots in engaging the conversation about race in America. Don’t just use it as an opportunity to bash conservatives.
Because the last time I can remember the nation being so captivated by a young black man’s hug, that young man was Devonte Hart—and we all know how that one turned out.