As I’m writing down the notes for what will become this piece, I am watching the Amber Guyger sentencing. A jury has convicted ex-police Officer Guyger of murdering Jean Botham as Botham sat on his couch in his boxers and T-Shirt eating ice cream.
In the sentencing hearing, the prosecutors speak at great length about the impact the murder would have on the Botham family and the community.
The prosecutors also detail Guyger’s character￼, which includes￼ a careful presentation of text messages￼ and social media posts created by Guyger that appear to be largely racist in nature and glorify gratuitous violence.
So far, so good.
But, after all that, something unusual occurs in the sentencing hearing. Something unusual for the criminal justice system. Something unusual even for Texas.
The victim’s brother￼ takes the witness stand to provide some very powerful testimony. He tells Guyger ￼that he forgives her, that God forgives her, and that he did not want her to do any jail time.
The victim’s brother then asked for and received permission from the trial court judge to give Guyger a hug.
But, but, but wait … it gets worse.
After the victim’s brother hugs Guyger, the judge gives Guyger a Bible, and hugs Guyger as well. Before Guyger is taken into custody, a deputy runs her fingers through Guyger’s hair.
In some pockets of the country, those hugs were called heroic, brave and extraordinary acts of unity and mercy.
Above that, the judge and the victim’s brother were held up as model, archetype Christians because of their ability to forgive Guyger for murdering Botham.
But, in other pockets of America, the scene was deeply troubling for many reasons. First, this level of judicial compassion is not afforded to the hundreds of thousands of people of color who interact with the criminal justice system daily.
What’s more, for those same pockets of America, all the hugging, Kum ba yah-ing and forgiving in the courtroom followed a familiar and disturbing pattern in which Christians —￼particularly Christians of color — are called to a standard of forgiveness that others are not.
Here is what I mean. Remember when Dylan Roof killed nine members of Mother Bethel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, and there was the expectation that the congregation forgive Roof immediately? Remember the reporters who shoved cameras in the faces of the survivors and family members and who hounded the family members and survivors until they forgave Roof?
There was no such expectation when an entire city declined to forgive the two young men responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, or Sandy Hook, or Columbine.
All of this has caused young people of color to call on Christianity to respond differently to black lives and bodies lost. In fact, they have specifically blamed Christianity and Christian ideology for the docile forgiveness doctrine we saw on display in the Dallas courtroom. The doctrine that says Christians must stand still, passively and in a docile manner, offering unfettered forgiveness when someone rips though their community with aggression and violence.
I understand all of the frustration with Christianity. Really, I do. From slavery to segregation, to mass shootings, there is an expectation that Christians forgive, and hug and excuse evil and aggression, in the same manner, the judge and the victim’s brother in Guyger’s sentencing hearing.
But, I have to say that this time, it’s not Christianity’s fault.
The concept of forgiveness is mentioned in the New Testament dozens of times, and Jesus Himself mentions it plenty. There’s no doubt the concept is important to Christianity. It’s kind of Christianity’s thing.
Our conventional reading of Jesus’ words regarding forgiveness ￼is that Jesus calls on us to forgive without any limits, be docile and turn the other cheek. That reading sounds good, but is not accurate and does not square with the Gospel teachings of Christ.
Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus teach that forgiveness should be offered unconditionally. In Matthew, Jesus says that church members should forgive each other “70 times 7 times” a number that may signify endlessness. But, even though he preaches boundless and liberal forgiveness, He does indicate that forgiveness has conditions.
For instance, Jesus￼ does not forgive those who played a part in His crucifixion. He simply doesn’t. If we look closely at the text in the gospels — the story of Jesus’ crucifixion appears in every Gospel account — and the grammar Jesus uses, Jesus is imploring God to forgive those who crucified Him; He does not forgive the aggressors Himself at all.
Further, it is true that Jesus told his disciples in Matthew to turn the other cheek or offer up the other cheek when someone commits an act of evil or aggression against the disciples. However, it wasn’t a call for them to be docile and forgive aggression, rather that act of turning the cheek and offering the left cheek would have been seen as an act of defiance and resistance in first-century Roman empire. In other words, Jesus told His disciples plainly, to fight back against wrongdoing.
And Jesus never shied away from speaking truth to power Himself and in His own ministry. The authorities of the ￼Roman empire￼ and the religious leaders in Jesus’ life engaged in the systematic oppression and marginalization of His people. Jesus did not forgive them for engaging in this system, rather he spoke out against these oppressors and was an activist against this sort of oppression.
What we saw in the courtroom in Dallas recently was a lot of things. It was, on one hand, a level of compassion and forgiveness many victims, defendants, mothers, family members, children and people around the criminal justice system desperately need.
It was an admirable and honorable response to people who have fallen and are working to restore and repair relationships broken by violence and crime, and make the community whole.
But, the wholesale excusing of evil, oppression, and acts of aggression, is not something Jesus and Christianity requires.
Jesus moved the crowd every time He spoke, fought against oppression, and was always on the side of the oppressed.
So what we saw in Guyger’s sentencing, was maybe a standard not even Jesus required.