advocacy / Racial Reconciliation

On justice, forgiveness and the road ahead

By Stephen K. Reeves 

I was relieved at the verdict.

If a person can walk into someone else’s home and shoot and kill them with no jail time, I think we all have a problem. Particularly with the proliferation of handguns and concealed and open carry laws. It may have been a tragic mistake, but Amber Guyger was off duty and shot to kill. Her conduct met the legal definition of murder, she had no reasonable defense, and the jury agreed.

Moreover, this tragedy didn’t happen in a vacuum. If black men are not safe from police violence in their own home while eating ice cream and watching TV, where are they safe? If Botham Jean’s beautiful, accomplished and faithful life is not worth a conviction, does any black life matter? Should Officer Guyger have been acquitted, the outrage in the black community would have been entirely justified and understandable. I’m hopeful, like Pastor George Mason, that it is a positive turning point for the city of Dallas and hopefully for our nation.

As for the sentence of ten years, is there any doubt that if a black man had entered a white women’s home and shot and killed her within seconds that he would have received a much longer term? However, the same jury that convicted her levied the punishment. The sentence seems too lenient to me, especially because she is unlikely to serve that much time, but I respected the jury on Tuesday and their decision on Wednesday deserves respect too. Sadly there are thousands of black inmates serving much longer sentences for much lesser, nonviolent offences. Maybe the system worked from Amber Guyger’s perspective, and therein lies the problem.

I’ve seen several folks praise Judge Tammy Kemp for giving Officer Guyger a Bible, sharing verses and commending her to find purpose through faith. I don’t have a clear understanding of the lines of permissible judicial conduct and church-state separation, and she stepped down from the bench to do so, but it made me uncomfortable. Of course, I hope Office Guyger does find faith. I believe Jesus helps us find light in our darkest times and can redeem the messes we all make in our lives. For all of those who praised Judge Kemp, how would they feel if instead she gave her a Quran, a prayer rug and a hijab? This type of public conduct from a government official, and the praise following, feeds Christian nationalism.

In the hours after the verdict the remarkable video of Botham’s brother offering forgiveness to Officer Guyger had millions of views on YouTube. It came across my own social media feed dozens of times, shared mostly by white friends. It was a powerful moment of personal forgiveness. Such a moment is surely the result of a deep and courageous faith, evidence of the power of Christ in his 18-year-old life. His words and actions were a testimony witnessed by millions. Surely he has done some deep, hard emotional work. We should all strive for such faith, but it is far too often that African Americans are called upon to extend such undeserved grace.

His testimony was personal, though. He spoke only for himself, not even his own family, and he spoke only to Amber Guyger.

Focusing on this moment between individuals reinforces a common fallacy among many Anglo Christians—that racism is really only personal bias and bigotry and has nothing to do with power, history and systems. It was the words of his mother, Allison Jean, that were instructions to the people of Dallas, and to us all. She decried systemic corruption and police training and demanded change. Her words require something of us. People of faith should be advocates of change, yet her words have been viewed and shared far less. It is much easier, particularly for white Christians, to celebrate a personal Gospel of forgiveness than work for systemic and Biblical justice. That might cost us something.

Why did the moment touch such a nerve for so many white Christians? Could it be that white America is hoping for just that sort of forgiveness for hundreds of years of violence?

If so, it is longing for cheap grace. We haven’t done the work. Many are just now learning the whole truth and facing the history of our own families, churches and institutions. We haven’t confessed how we still benefit from the wealth, power and privilege gained over generations. Most don’t fully comprehend how systemic racism plagues our nation at every level and in every sphere of life nor worked to dismantle it. We haven’t given anything up.

We ask so much of the oppressed, and then commend their supernatural faith. What are we willing to do ourselves? Most Christians will never face a test of faith like Brandt Jean on Wednesday. Hopefully, and with God’s help, if we commit to working together towards justice, fewer black brothers and sisters will have to do so in the future.

Stephen K. Reeves is associate coordinator of partnerships and advocacy for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

2 thoughts on “On justice, forgiveness and the road ahead

  1. Pingback: Forgiveness,Critique, and Restorative Justice – Living Theology

  2. Thanks for these reflections, Stephen. The language of “cheap grace” you invoke reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation that cheap grace is really no grace at all. As Bonhoeffer put it, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” White folks like me too often have benefitted from the legacy of racism but claimed grace at no cost.

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