SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT FORGIVENESS
Much has been made about the aftermath of the Amber Guyger murder trial, who was found guilty for going into the apartment of a Black man in his own home, and killing him. This man was a model citizen, and was not guilty of anything besides eating ice cream on his own couch, yet a Black judge, Tammy Kemp, allowed a variation of the Stand Your Ground law, the Castle Doctrine to be used in this trial. Keep in mind that former officer Guyger, active at the time of this shooting, was under no credible threat. In spite of this unjust foundation, the jury found Guyger guilty. And here’s where things get interesting.
Being found guilty and being sentenced are two different things. A woman who arguably should have gotten life in prison gets ten years. At sentencing the judge, who should remain impartial, hugs the guilty and gives her a Bible. The younger brother of the victim in court says to the one who killed his brother ‘I forgive you’, then gives her a hug. Suddenly it felt like a heatwave in winter, and the earth became flat again. Dinosaur bones in museums all over the world took on flesh, received breath, and started walking again. Things became unbalanced, out of focus.
Many don’t know what to make of what the brother did, and he is being both crucified and praised all over social media. But he ain’t Jesus. Some say he did it because he’s not ‘from here’, but being of Caribbean descent. I assure you, as one born in New York of Jamaican parents, that’s not it. For some context, several of the past victims of brutality and unjust sentencing in the USA have some Black Caribbean and Latinx Caribbean backgrounds. When you also listen to the mother of the victim, her posture is different. If I had been the victim in this scenario, family from 8 countries would be making deafening noise and involved in definitive action. Others, who cite understanding for those marginalized and left out by the church, have no mercy for this younger brother. Ironic. Others have taken to the shaming of those who don’t agree with them. Yet others have used this to make distinctions about seminary terminal degrees as an allegory of this discussion. The need to be right, with all insight, causes us, in some cases, to let go of civility.
Where am I going with this? I think all of us, including me, need to step back and look at this example from all sides in a way that can be instructive. I admit I don’t have all the answers, and if for a trip I took almost a year ago I might be much more judgmental. But going to Rwanda constantly causes me to reflect on what it means to forgive, and what other words in addition need to be a part of this conversation.
As you may know, in July of 1994, one of every ten Rwandans died in their genocide attacks. That’s over a million people. Bodies were everywhere—rotting in fields, streets, homes, and floating in rivers. The country was nonfunctional. 10,000 people were killed in a church sanctuary, and if you go there today the clothes of the deceased sit piled on top of the pews. The Genocide Memorial in Kigali is the resting place of 250,000 Rwandans—and bodies across the country are still being found as you read this. If you go to Rwanda today, it is one of the up and coming countries on the continent, and it is a wonder to behold. It looks nothing like the place it was in 1994.
What was the difference? Forgiveness. Keep in mind that the guilty and their victims lived side by side. Friends turned overnight into enemies. And now the country needs to rebuild. They set up Truth Commissions that let people tell their truth. People did go to jail. People were also forgiven, and the country slowly began its healing.
Yes, there may be disappointment in the actions of the younger brother. No, I wouldn’t have had his response. But, trying to look through his eyes, the pain may have been so intense that this was the way for him to let it go. Recognize that forgiveness is in a large sense for the one wronged, giving them a way to let go of the pain and move forward with their lives.
Here’s where things for some get murky. Forgiveness many times never erases debt, the need for repentance, or restitution. To quote a famous hymn, “Jesus paid it all,” but understand that Jesus didn’t erase it all. If you kill someone although you know Jesus, involuntary prison ministry awaits. It seems that Guyger can offer contrition, but no repentance, which is a ‘turning away’ from her actions, and finding ways for restitution. Part of the outcry, as well as the tension from observers of this case, is that often those who perpetrate injustices against Blacks get quick forgiveness without having to address true repentance or restitution. Someone breaking into an apartment that isn’t theirs, killing the owner at home, should go to jail. In cities all over this country, it happens every day when the two parties share the same ethnicity, but when it involves ebony hue that person has to prove innocence.
By now, I hope you understand that although I don’t agree with what Brandt Jean did, I won’t stand in the line of those shooting arrows at him. I believe I understand him from the perspective of someone in pain wrestling with how to let it go. Be also clear that the Judge was extremely inappropriate. What is interesting is there has been far less critique of her.
Let me raise a final point. Stockholm syndrome is real. Centuries of trauma, mishandling and appropriation of Scripture, and countless other things gives all of us blind spots. There are still some who are Black that may still believe the ‘curse of Ham’. Such is the reality. Do we have an expectation of someone to organically know how to nuance a situation that probably hasn’t been taught to them? Its obvious that the narrative must be changed. But here is the question—are we teaching what all of this means? Are we getting this word out by any means necessary? Are we merely saying these things to our friends in the academy, our activist comrades, our supporters? Using the scenario found in Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus says that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…maybe instead of pointing and having opinions, we need to find ways to change mindsets, working while it is day.
Oh…one more thing. In Rwanda, there were guards at every memorial. Why? There are those, that if they had the ability, would try to resurrect the genocide. There is a message in this reality. The change of hearts is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep working, and keep teaching.