“…[H]er many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
-Luke 7:47 (NIV)
The Amber Guyger trial wrapped up in Dallas this week. Guyger, a Dallas police officer at the time, was convicted of murder in the shooting death of Botham Jean, a 28-year-old accountant. On the night she shot and killed Jean, Guyger had just finished her shift and was returning home. She went to the wrong apartment, and when she opened the door and saw a man she didn’t know, she drew her gun and fired. While Jean lay on the floor dying, she called 911 and talked to the dispatcher about how she was afraid she would lose her job.
Given the choices of convicting her for murder or manslaughter, or finding her not guilty, the jury returned a verdict of murder. After a day of evidence and victim impact statements, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years.
I’ve followed this trial a little more closely than I might have followed other trials in a city pretty far from where I live. Botham was a part of the fellowship of churches that I’ve been a part of all my life. He graduated from the same University I did. I guess that makes me feel like I knew him. But I didn’t. I only know him as a murder victim. But of course Botham Jean was more than just a victim in his murder. Ask his family, they’ll tell you.
And Amber Guyger is more than just the villain of the story. Ask Botham’s brother, Brandt. He’ll tell you.
After Guyger’s sentencing, 18-year-old Brandt addressed the court. Actually, he addressed Amber Guyger:
If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. I love you just like anyone else. I am not going to say I hope you die just like my brother did… I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do — and the best would be to give your life to Christ.
After his statement, Brandt Jean shocked everyone in the courtroom by asking the judge if he could go and hug Guyger. The judge allowed it, and while the judge wiped at her eyes and audible sobs were heard in the courtroom, Brandt came down from the witness stand and hugged Guyger. They whispered to each other for a minute or so, three times beginning to break the embrace. Each time it seemed that Guyger pulled him back. It’s hard to let go of that kind of love and grace, I guess.
No one could possibly ask Botham’s family to forgive his killer. No one would dare say they should. How Brandt got there is hard to say, but I think it’s safe to speculate that his faith had something to do with it. He resisted the understandable urge to try to make some sort of sense of his brother’s murder by demonizing his killer. He remembered that, despite the terrible thing she did, Amber Guyger is loved by God. That was enough, it seems, to remind him to love her too.
But the really interesting thing is the way Brandt’s gesture spread. Dallas County DA John Creuzot said of Brandt’s statement, “I think that’s an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society. That young man is 18 and he is a leader… He should guide us in leading.” The judge, Tammy Kemp, also hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible, saying, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.”
Not everyone is happy about the forgiveness shown in that courtroom. Jemar Tisby points out that Brandt’s display of forgiveness is “cheapened” if white Christians use it to say that racial injustices can be overcome if victims just forgive, ignoring or minimizing the work of repentance required of those who have been victimizers. I encourage you to read and reflect on his post. “Instant absolution minimizes the magnitude of injustice. It distracts attention from the systemic change needed to prevent such tragedies from occurring,” Tisby writes. We shouldn’t let Brandt Jean’s extraordinary forgiveness distract us from the work that needs to be done. Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, said Guyger’s sentence would give her time to reflect and “change her life.” The willingness of Brandt to forgive her should never be used to free us as a nation from the obligation of reflecting and changing, too.
Maybe it’s important to point out that Judge Kemp, like Botham and Brandt, is black. Surely we can honor their choice to offer forgiveness and love. But none of us has the right to demand that they do so, or that others share in offering that forgiveness, to her or to anyone who has treated them unjustly.
Perhaps our struggle with showing forgiveness is that, so often, it is cheapened. Celebrities offer scripted apologies written by their media consultants when they get caught misbehaving. Sometimes human beings seem incapable of anything other than “Yes, but…” half-justifications of our worst actions, and so it should come as no surprise that we view forgiveness in those cases as letting the bad guys off the hook too easily.
And yet…there’s something about grace and forgiveness that has transformative power. If Amber Guyger truly received Brandt’s forgiveness, she’ll come out of this a different person. Not absolved, but different. Some will use forgiveness as an easy out, yes. They never received it, in that case, probably never even recognized that they did anything that requires forgiveness. The problem, I think, isn’t in the forgiveness itself, but in the way it is received. Those who truly receive forgiveness offered freely and generously see it for the extraordinary thing it is and come away with its marks dug indelibly into their hearts.
At a banquet, Jesus was confronted by a woman who Luke tells us was “a sinner.” Everyone knew her. Her presence was a scandal. The way she behaved was a scandal. But Jesus explained her actions to his host by telling him that her expressions of love for him came out of a deep sense of forgiveness.
To truly receive forgiveness is to have a love awakened that you thought you’d lost, or maybe never knew. Far from letting us off the hook, it puts us further on. It mandates that we go out and live with the kind of love and grace for the people around us that we’ve received.
That is, of course, the kind of forgiveness God has offered us in Christ. It makes us gasp, shocks us, can even make us angry. It’s not part of any equation we can understand. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prayed as they murdered him. As we murdered him. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Maybe Amber Guyger will live the rest of her life marked, not just by the murder of Botham Jean, but by the forgiveness of her brother. Maybe she will see the responsibility that comes with Brandt Jean’s forgiveness to love those around her, to give her life to Christ in service of her fellow human beings.
And maybe you and I will live our lives marked by the forgiveness we’ve received from God through Jesus’ acts of love. Maybe we’ll recognize in that forgiveness a responsibility to love the people around us in extraordinary ways. Maybe it will drive us to lives of service, kindness, and grace. Maybe it will push us to confront the unloving, sinful parts of our lives, to reflect on them, and to change by God’s grace.
Maybe it will lead us to truly give our lives to Christ.