Over the past week, my heart has been gripped by the trial, conviction, and sentencing of Amber Guyger for the murder of Botham Jean. For those who have been living under a rock, here is a brief summary of the event. Guyger – a white, female police officer – was off duty and heading home for the day when she accidentally entered Jean’s apartment, thinking it was her own. Since the door was unlocked, she felt suspicious and drew her weapon. Upon entering she saw Jean, who had been watching TV and eating ice cream on his couch, and immediately shot him twice. Apparently, she thought he had broken into her home, and she instinctively perceived him as a threat. Afterwards, evidence suggests that she did not provide emergency care as Jean lay dying and unresponsive (here) and that she may have received unusual, preferential treatment from responding officers, such as having the camera system shut off while she was transported in a police car (here). Furthermore, during the trial offensive and arguably racist text messages sent by Guyger emerged as evidence of possible racial bias (here). Despite the judge advising the jury that they were allowed to consider the “castle doctrine” (which allows people to use deadly force to deal with intruders in their own homes) as a possible defense for Guyger’s actions, the jury found Guyger guilty of murder and sentenced her to 10 years in prison (here).
The story is tragic and gripping. Yet it is made all the more astonishing and moving by the actions of Jean’s younger brother, 18 year old Brandt Jean, during his victim impact statement. In his opportunity to address Guyger in the courtroom directly, he not only Brandt Jean hugs Amber Guyger expressed the depth of his grief. He also forgave her and asked the judge for permission to give her a hug. Convicted murderer and grieving survivor, the two then hugged tightly as onlookers quietly sobbed.
Since yesterday, this act of grace has received wide-ranging attention. Rightly so! It deserves attention, and I find it has gripped my own mind. I want to note observations I have made in three different areas of focus, and I then I hope to offer a word to the racially privileged and another to anybody concerned with justice, both emerging from my own theological reflection. The first two scenes of observation come from my own social media feed.
I notice, first, the way most of my white, Christian friends (by which I mean both people I know personally and those I follow but do not know personally) shared the incident as an exemplary and deeply moving vision of grace, a paradigm of the Christian life in some sense. All day yesterday, my feed was popping with links to blogs or news articles on Brandt’s forgiveness, generally prefaced by with simple status comments like, “Wow!” or “This is what the Christian life is all about!” or “Powerful!” Some quoted a passage about forgiveness from the Bible that the scene brought to mind.
I noticed, second, that most of my friends who come from minority backgrounds (also mostly Christians) expressed hesitation, concern, or some degree of mixed feelings about the event. These posts, which were also many, generally involved a longer preface when linking an article. They involved more attention to problems of systemic injustice and asymmetry in societal expectations for forgiveness, and they involved a wider array of reactions and perspectives. Taken as a whole this range of posts attended to the complexity of the moment as simultaneously a thing of beauty and a symptom of deep brokenness.
The fault lines of these two groups of reactions are not strictly racial, of course. I have numerous white friends, especially those involved in higher education, who were critical of the act or at least exhibited understanding of how it could be pregnant with ambiguity. I have several minority friends and a few highly educated white friends who shared it uncritically, as an exemplar of the Christian life. Some even explicitly pushed back against critical voices, arguing that we should just celebrate the act. Apparently they did not find it appropriate to dwell on whether the act might function as a symbol of broader racial disparities.
I listened and reflected like Mary (Luke 2:19), storing these things up in my heart, which is the third site of my observations.
On the one hand, I share the sense of amazement and appreciation for Brandt’s grace. It is profoundly moving, and it embodies something at the heart of the gospel. Indeed, I find myself at a loss in the face of such Christ-like grace. I have never had to forgive anybody to such a degree. I have never faced the horror and trauma of such radical, senseless, careless, and racially fraught violence. I live a significantly privileged life, and it is hard for me to imagine the grief of this murder let alone the power needed to love and forgive the murderer. I stand in humbled awe. Truly, this is amazing grace.
At the same time, I have studied intersectionality, trauma, and social justice extensively at the doctoral level. I understand the concerns, of which there are a wide variety. They range from mild (perhaps a brief addendum to an affirming celebration of Brandt’s grace) to moderate (noting the importance of grace while emphasizing the obvious racial disparity in sentencing or in macrosocial forgiveness expectations) to vehement (unmitigated anger at a display seen as evidence of colonialization’s power to systemically discipline religious acts like forgiveness into technologies of oppression. That is, anger at how a generally racist society even tends to pressure minorities into using things like forgiveness in ways that reinforce their oppression, while the majority can forgive in ways that reinforce their privileged positions).
This range of responses, too, I appreciate. I am humbled by the wisdom and critical, systemic thinking as well as by the emotional honesty and vulnerability in such responses. I have the inequitable privilege of being able to consider such things from a place of security, relatively untouched by systemic injustice. Practically, I can take it or leave it. My survival does not immediately depend on upending or capitulating to injustice and asymmetries of power, as it does for so many.
However, even from the ‘lowly’ position of my privileged single-vision (as opposed to the epistemic advantage of minoritized double consciousness) I can see how forgiveness functions very differently for white than for black people in such cases. I feel at least some of the anger at a murderer getting a mere ten year sentence for killing an innocent man in his own home on purpose. (No, it was not an accident. She shot him on purpose after mistakenly believing that his home was her own). I sense the twisted, indefensible logic of allowing a jury to consider legal precedent that would turn a black man’s home into a white invader’s castle, and I understand the sheer impossibility of imagining it the other way around. I hope I begin to understand the deep cultural trauma of this event: Even with its approximation of justice in the end, it is one small exception to a centuries-long history of black lives really not mattering (call to the witness stand slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, the war on drugs, police brutality, jailing or killing the innocent with impunity). I can almost imagine the trauma of being black and fearing this would be my son tomorrow. Almost I can, now through my tears. God DAMN IT! (On cultural trauma, see a book length treatment here or this excellent article by Angela Onwuachi-Willig, PDF opens here).
I taste that trauma a little, but only from a relatively safe distance. It gets closer when I think of it happening to my black friends, but it is not the same and I know it.
A Word for the Privileged
I have no word for those who observe this event from a minority perspective other than I am sorry. I am so sorry for the context in which this act of forgiveness arises. I am so sorry for the trauma that makes it possible. I am so sorry that we live in a world that makes it necessary to analyze such a gift. I am sorry for the myriad ways I certainly participate in and sustain the unjust society that makes black lives far more dispensable than white lives.
I am so very sorry.
To those who would celebrate the beauty of this act from our position of racial privilege, I definitely have a word. I hope you will bear with me attentively.
It is imperative that we listen to those who grieve, those who are most directly affected by this, those who have to analyze this event from within situations of historical oppression. We can celebrate the beauty of this grace, but we risk cheapening it if we reject the voices of the marginalized who also critique it. Many of us understand that cheap grace is no real grace at all (thanks largely to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whether we know it or not). So let us dare not strip the beauty of its power by forgetting the context that makes it powerful!
There is no need to choose between admiration and analysis. The Christian faith is best when it is “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm’s famous phrase from the 10th century). We have much to learn of our faith from those whose forgiveness viscerally comprehends the weight of injustice. So, I suspect we will do well to avoid simplistic affirmations of forgiveness. And certainly we must, at the bare minimum, avoid acting as Job’s friends by blaming those who do not see anything but injustice right now. I suggest that we will be wisest to come alongside those who grieve, those who critique, those drenched in anger, and those trying desperately to hold both the beauty of grace and the power of criticism. Let us listen to them, learn from them, and sit with them in the ashes.
A General Word on Restorative Justice
Not only is this event a powerful chance to think about forgiveness, but I also recognize in this trial an opportunity to explore new visions of justice.
As a doctoral student, I have had the opportunity to serve as a teaching fellow in a course on “restorative justice.” It was a course designed for both divinity and law students. Since I had not encountered the idea prior to that experience, I suspect it might be unfamiliar to others as well.
Most of us recognize that 10 years would be a very long, long time to spend in jail, regardless of the crime (though Guyger is unlikely to serve her full sentence). Many also recognize that this is relatively lenient sentencing when compared to the thousands of offenders presently serving longer sentences—even life sentences—for far lesser crimes (here). These sentencing disparities tend to fall directly along the lines of race, gender, and class (journal article, Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow here, articles on economic sentencing disparity here (PDF) and here). They also tend to serve the needs of the prison industrial complex, with many private prison systems even contractually guaranteed a minimum number of inmates (here or here), which incentivizes local authorities to more strongly police those who have least access to legal representation. Those who can afford higher priced legal representation can fight charges more effectively and tend to get more lenient sentences (here or here). In American society it is common parlance to say things like, “Justice has been served,” when someone is convicted of a crime or that a criminal, “paid their debt to society,” after completing a prison sentence. In light of such disparities, it is important to interrogate these common ideas.
How, exactly, does spending a really long time in jail equate to justice, especially when a poorer person who is also a minority is likely to get an even longer sentence? And how does staying in jail for a long time pay a debt? To whom is this debt paid, exactly, especially since taxpayers foot the bill? In most criminal proceedings, the debt is not against the victim of a crime but against the state or nation (as in State of Texas vs. Amber Guyger). Though we might be tempted to think that justice is for the victim or victims of a crime, victims often have little to no say in how the prosecution proceeds or in sentencing considerations. Indeed, what healing and restoration for the victim might mean seldom gets any attention at all. This is the punitive justice model, where justice is synonymous with punishment.
Restorative approaches flip this on its head. Restorative justice begins with the assumption that justice equals restoration for those harmed by a crime. It keeps victims’ needs front and center, and it includes broader communities in its scope. After all, while Botham Jean is obviously the primary victim in this case, the harm done extends far beyond his individual loss of life. His murder is a crushing blow to his family and the communities to which he belonged as well as being deeply traumatic to the broader cultural context in which his death reverberates.
While victims’ needs are front and center, restorative justice also places high priority on the restoration of offenders. Understanding offenders within the context of their relationships and communities, it notes how their behavior can sometimes function as a manifestation of broader, systemic problems and how they can even be scapegoats in dysfunctional family and community settings that are also culpable. Thus, restorative justice brings victims and offenders together with their respective support networks to do the hard work of seeking consensus on what restoration for both victim and offender could look like and how that might be accomplished.
I won’t delve into a full explanation of restorative justice practices here. There are excellent resources available, and I link to some below. I just want to point out that Jean’s murder and Guyger’s moderate sentencing provide a chance for us to think not only about forgiveness but also about the problems inherent in our justice system and the systematic brokenness his murder and her sentencing illuminate. How will Guyger’s sentencing bring restoration to Jean’s family and communities? We might answer that question in a host of ways, but notice that such questions were not in view during this trial. The restoration of Jean’s family and community and the restoration of Guyger, her family, and her community were not prioritized. (Recently adopted practices like allowing a victim impact statement are important but minimal steps toward prioritizing victims but still fall far short of restorative justice’s goals). The punitive justice system contents itself with determining guilty or innocence and assigning punishment while restorative justice aims for human flourishing in all parties.
I offer this with confidence that restorative justice offers a better way to understand and pursue justice, one more deeply resonant with the best of the Christian tradition, with its telos of “making all things new,” the healing not only of individual persons but of relationships and the development of life-giving communities. Like the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (world repair) or the South African philosophy of ubuntu (I am because we are), restorative justice reflects a critical awareness of our capacity to harm one another and the desperate need for a holistic approach to healing.
However, as a final note, I also offer this with a keen awareness that Guyger’s whiteness makes it easier for many of us to imagine an alternative such as restorative justice. Its advocates must always be sensitive to intersectional power differentials. At the individual level, for instance, a restorative justice approach may not be realistic between an abusive adult and a victimized child. At a broader, macrocultural level, restorative justice in a case like Jean’s murder would need to bear Guyger’s privileges in mind. A white offender who was also a police officer and a black civilian victim do not stand on a level playing field, especially in the justice system.
Here are some of the voices I think deserve our attention as we continue to process this act of radical grace in the face of racial disparity:
Sarah Lustbader’s commentary is thoughtful and compares it a contrasting example of “justice”: here.
Dorena Williamson calls for attention not only to Brandt’s act but also to Botham’s mother, Allison’s important words: here.
J. Kameron Carter has an excellent article, exploring what it might mean for white America for this forgiveness to be withheld: here.
Shari Noland explores the array of black responses on social media: here.
Jemar Tisby offers a word to white Christians on how to avoid cheapening this act: here.
This co-written article by Bill Chapelle and Richard Gonzalez explores the debate this gesture has sparked: here.
This article includes videos of Allison Jean (Botham’s mother) responding to the trial’s conclusion, as well as numerous other responses: here.
Michael Coard offers a stringent response: here.
Omar Suleiman calls our attention to Allison Jean’s anger: here.
Margaret Aymer Oget preached a timely sermon. Though it does not specifically address this event, the timing and subject matter definitely makes it directly relevant. It is overviewed here. Her Facebook feed includes a number of posts that explicitly attend to Brandt’s forgiveness, but I won’t link them, as they are not set to public at present.
You’ll notice that most of those named in this list are men. I follow several other brilliant womanist scholars and leaders in my social media feed, as well, but either their posts are not set to public or they haven’t commented yet…or my social media circle is reflects the parochial limits of my relationships. If you know of relevant posts or articles, please comment below! In the meantime, here’s one from white scholar, Amy Laura Hall, here, and white advocate, Stephen K. Reeves, here.
For those interested in learning more about restorative justice, I would direct you to the following resources:
This links to a brief (four page) and readable introduction to restorative justice: here.
This website also offers an accessible introduction: here.
This website offers a more extensive exploration: here.
Here is a small book-length treatment by Howard Zehr, the “grandfather” of restorative justice, available for as an e-book for only $5: here.
This book focuses on restorative justice processes with juveniles, a crucial stage for life-giving interventions: here.
This book provides excellent analyses of the connections between different faith traditions and restorative justice: here.