Don’t Turn the Forgiveness of Officer Amber Guyger Into Something It’s Not

You’ve undoubtedly seen this photograph.

It’s telling that — in our day and age — a singular act of grace can become so marred in controversy. But, then again, grace has always been controversial.

For those who don’t know: This is a picture of Brandt Jean embracing Amber Guyger. Brandt is the brother of Botham Jean, a black man shot and killed in his own apartment after Amber Guyger, a police officer, mistakenly entered his apartment thinking it was her own.

During Guyger’s sentencing hearing, Brandt delivered a statement to Guyger that perfectly encapsulates Jesus’ message of “enemy love” in the Sermon on the Mount.

I dare you to watch the video of Jean’s statement with dry eyes.

But.

There’s certainly a lesson to be learned here.
I just hope we’re not learning the wrong one.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a man who has a large debt forgiven by the King. However, as the recently-forgiven man is leaving the palace, he encounters a servant who owes him a little bit of money.

Instead of extending the King’s spirit of forgiveness, the man demands the servant pay him what he owes. When the King gets wind of this ungracious behavior, he has the man arrested and thrown into jail.

Jesus ends the parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from the heart.

Though this story is more than two thousand years old, I think it can speak into some of the reactions to the sentencing hearing of Amber Guyher — and probably in ways you’re not expecting.

I’ve seen a lot of videos of Brandt Jean’s emotional statement on my newsfeed. These posts are usually accompanied with commentary like “See, this is how it should be!” or “This is proof we can move on!”

We love seeing grace extended to other people by other people, but we’re rarely inclined to do the hard work ourselves. And, because of the way our brains function, it’s shockingly easy to point out other people’s blind spots while ignoring our own.

But, the tragedy of Jesus’ parable hinges on the forgiven man holding another person to a different standard of justice than what was extended to him. He willingly accepted the forgiveness of the King, but was unwilling to let it change him on a fundamental level.

Honest to God, I don’t think Amber Guyger set out to kill anyone that night. But her actions resulted in her pulling the trigger and ending the life of an unarmed black man in his own home. Her defense attorneys actually argued the Castle Doctrine — the Texas law that allows for the use of deadly force to protect yourself in your residence — was in her favor in this situation because she assumed she was in her own apartment.

(Think about that — A statute designed to help people protect themselves from an intruder was used to justify the death of man in his own home by an intruder).

But, for a moment, let’s flip the script: A black man illegally enters an apartment that is not his own with a weapon. He stumbles upon a white woman (who also happens to be a police officer) watching television in the living room. Though she is unarmed, he fires twice — one bullet striking her in the chest. The woman dies moments later in her own living room.

Would that narrative not have played out differently in our ideologically-driven media landscape?

Does Fox News and its followers jump to the black man’s defense? Or does the “War on Police” narrative spin up again? Are we quick to excuse his actions as an innocent mistake with tragic consequences? Or would we move to frame him as black thug with a gun? Would we be expecting forgiveness and grace to flow from the family of the deceased to the accused?

And, if convicted, would we really expect him to sentenced to 10 years of jail time, with parole eligibility in five? (For the record, there are black men serving longer sentences in our nation’s jails for the sale and possession of marijuana).

Brandt’s decision to extend grace and mercy to his brother’s killer was beautiful and shocking and courageous. But it was also his decision to make — he was not operating under the assumption that it was expected of him. Hence, the beauty and the shock and the courage.

We must be aware of the harm we create by using Brandt Jean’s testimony and actions as a precedent for the entirety of the black community when it comes to issues of racial injustice.

In her (must-read) book, I’m Still Here, black Christian author Austin Channing Brown writes,

“When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination. The problem with this framework — besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures enabled by nice people — is that it obligates me to be nice in return, rather than truthful. I am expected to come closer to the racists. Be nicer to them. Coddle them.”

A lot of the churches I’ve attended spoke a lot about “generational sin,” or the idea that the detrimental consequences of a person’s sinful decisions trickle down to affect an entire lineage. Our country’s history of racial injustice is no different — generational sin continues to warp attitudes, biases, and perspectives in our cultural institutions.

Grace is never owed, and it should not be expected. In a weird way, those “This is how it should be!” Facebook posts by well-intentioned white folks pose the risk of unintentionally framing white people as the real victims — as if we’re the ones suffering because of the lack of grace from the black community when the nation’s enraptured by the shooting of another unarmed black man.

I know most people aren’t trying to communicate this message in any way, shape, or form.

But there’s a disturbing trend in certain segments of our media and culture to dismiss the voices of angry black men and women as “radical” and “ungrateful.” And maybe that’s a leftover cultural remnant of our nation’s generational sin of trying to impose behavioral expectations on black bodies.

And, if we’re drawn to stories of black forgiveness while willfully turning a blind eye to issues of racial injustice, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we’re guilty of weaponizing this one moment in an effort to excuse and absolve ourselves from the broader conversation.

Brandt didn’t owe officer Amber Guyger anything, and neither does any other black person who has suffered as a consequence of racial injustice (or any other person who experienced abuse).

Grace is not the antithesis of justice, and the expectation of grace leads to the cheapening of grace. The forgiveness of Amber Guyger doesn’t mean the work is done — as if reconciliation, justice, and restoration need not be addressed.

We absolutely need more people like Brandt Jean in the world. His staggering act of mercy alights a nerve in our grace-averse culture for a reason. But we also need more white people willing to lament the death of Botham Jean than those who appear so eager to broadcast the forgiveness of his killer.

We shouldn’t become so complacent in our privilege that we assume extending grace and seeking justice are mutually exclusive — especially when it benefits our predetermined narrative.

Because, like the forgiven man in Jesus’ parable who relishes in his own forgiveness but is unwilling to do the same for others, we may come to rue the day when justice is sought at the expense of grace.

Amber Guyger was shocked by Brandt Jean’s merciful statement and hug. As should we all. And I believe it will change her life. As it should always be for all of us whenever we’re granted the privilege of witnessing grace collide with our shattered world.

Joe Forrest writes on the intersection of faith, culture, secularism, and politics.

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