Here’s the thing about forgiveness.
It’s not just something you extend to someone else. It’s also a gift you give yourself, permission to lay down the heavy burden of grudges and rage. And if you’re a Christian, it’s an obligation — albeit a hard one — of faith.
One can believe all that, yet still be deeply conflicted by last week’s act of forgiveness in a Dallas courtroom: Brandt Jean, who is black, embraced and absolved Amber Guyger, the white former police officer who had just been sentenced to 10 years for killing his brother, Botham. Guyger had entered Botham’s apartment mistakenly believing it was hers.
While some people considered these acts of grace, others, many of them African American, were furious. Actress Yvette Nicole Brown retweeted a meme that said: “If somebody ever kills me, don’t you dare hug them. … Throw a chair, in my honor.” To which Brown added: “… and then dig me up and throw ME!” Others were angered that Guyger got "only" 10 years.
The view from this pew is that none of us has the right to tell Brandt Jean how to grieve his brother or process the hell he’s living through. As to Guyger’s sentence: It actually seems fair for a crime that was ultimately a tragic mistake, albeit one exacerbated by poor judgment.
What makes it seem unfair is that we’ve too often seen black defendants receive far harsher sentences for far lesser crimes. Like Marissa Alexander who, in 2012, fired a warning shot as her reputedly abusive husband advanced on her. She got 20 years for shooting a ceiling.
But if these issues are relatively clear cut, the larger one—forgiveness—is anything but. Especially since it sometimes seems that black people—not coincidentally the most religiously faithful group in America, according to a 2014 Pew survey—are forgiving to a fault.
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A white supremacist massacres nine people in their church. Family members forgive him. A white cop shoots a fleeing black man in the back. The victim’s mother forgives him. In 1963, white terrorists killed Sarah Collins Rudolph’s sister Addie Mae Collins and three other girls in a bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Rudolph forgave them. And so it goes.
Forgiveness, you understand, is not the problem. But one-way forgiveness is. Because who forgives black people? Forget forgiveness for wrongdoing. How about forgiveness for simply existing and trying to live unmolested lives? This is what Botham Jean was doing—eating ice cream in his own home—when he was killed by a white woman who blundered upon that prosaic scene and perceived a threat.
In dying that way, Jean indicted cherished American myths about equality and unalienable rights. America—much of white America, at least—hates when you do that. One is reminded of what Hilde Walter, a Jewish journalist, was quoted as saying in 1968: “It seems the Germans will never forgive us Auschwitz.” Similarly, it sometimes seems much of white America will never forgive us slavery. Or Jim Crow.
By simply existing, black people remind white people of those sins of their forebears, sins many are desperate to minimize or forget. Because down that path lies white guilt. That’s why, when a black man enjoying the comfort of his own home is judged an intruder and executed by a white cop, one is less shocked to see her receive forgiveness than to see her receive punishment.
For the record, Joshua Brown, a young black man who testified against Guyger, was ambushed days later and shot dead. The obvious motive is being speculated. It seems, somehow, a fitting coda to Brandt Jean’s act of generosity, the good deed refusing to go unpunished. It’s a reminder that our racial history is shaped by co-equal forces:
We live by uncanny grace. And sins unatoned.