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An off-duty police officer shot a man to death because she thought he was a dangerous man in her home. Only he wasn’t dangerous, he was watching TV and eating ice cream, and he wasn’t in her home, he was in his own. In Dallas, Texas, September 2018, Officer Amber Guyger went into the wrong apartment, believing it was hers, and shot Botham Jean, who should have had the expectation of safety in his own home.
Guyger’s attorneys offered a defence, but truly the idea that a person could ignore all visible clues that they are in the wrong apartment, pull her gun, and shoot a man to death after taking less than 60 seconds to assess the situation, is indefensible. That she only got a ten-year sentence on a guilty verdict is hard to comprehend. To put it bluntly, it’s not enough. Yet the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, is a better man than all of us. In the courtroom, after the sentencing, he forgave Guyger.
“I don’t even want you to go to jail, I want the best for you. Because that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And that would be giving your life to Christ,” Brandt Jean told Guyger in the courtroom. “Again, I love you, as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you. I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug please?”
The judge assented, and Jean embraced Guyger. Watching this, the power of love in Jean’s heart, is overwhelming. Yet it’s hard for many of us to fathom the goodness that allows a man to forgive like this.
Watching the ongoing tragedy of violence involving police and African-American citizens in the United States is heartbreaking. For many people who keep tabs on police violence, specifically against African Americans, it seems like this keeps happening. There have been countless cases of police shooting or killing unarmed black men and women, and the officers not being held accountable for their actions in any serious way. The lack of accountability for the deaths of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Eric Garner, among others, launched protests in their communities and across the country.
In Guyger’s case, the prosecution asked for 28 years, the age Botham would be had she not killed him. The pattern is that black men lose their lives, the country is outraged on media for a second, and then it’s over, it’s back to business as usual. This was perfectly expressed by NFL legend Shannon Sharpe:
The rage a community feels when one of their members’ lives is taken for no good reason must be acknowledged and respected, and indeed these are tragedies that cross racial lines. But there must be a way forward with both forgiveness and change. It’s only through redemption that healing is possible, for an individual, a family, or a nation. But how do we do that when our first impulse is to make someone pay? When we feel like those whose job it is to punish and enact justice are clouded by bias and historical precedents of injustice?
We have to realize, as Brandt Jean does, that what feels the most righteous and natural, the seeking of retribution, doesn’t bring any lasting peace. In offering forgiveness, Jean did the most righteous thing imaginable, and in showing Guyger the way forward, through a life in Christ, he opened the door for her healing as well as his own.
This forgiveness will not solve racism or the difficulties of law enforcement in the U.S. It won’t bring Botham Jean back, and it won’t fill the gap left by his absence in his family. But perhaps if Guyger had more forgiveness in her heart when she mistakenly opened Jean’s door, if she hadn’t been so locked in her own mindset, Jean would be alive today. In her defence, she said “I was scared whoever was inside my apartment was going to kill me… No police officer would want to hurt an innocent person.”
There is no doubt that Jean’s forgiveness will be derided by those who see mercy as a weakness. When our hearts are clouded by a need for punishment, when we feel not only wronged but that we will continue to be wronged, with no redress, is when mercy is actually our greatest strength. Brandt Jean invoked Christ in forgiving Guyger, and sacrificed his need for vengeance. Forgiving his brother’s killer is more than many of us could do, but so too is following the difficult path laid out by Christ’s message.
When Guyger was found guilty, there was some relief among activists in the social media spheres, though the ten year sentence, with the possibility of being out in five, seems light in comparison. It’s possible to simultaneously believe that the sentence was too light and that the forgiveness was divine.
We need to forgive each other not just after tragedy, violence, and preventable death, but before, as well. We need to be open to each other, to see the goodness in each other’s hearts first. Forgiveness must be fathomable. Forgiveness, when it seems impossible, is exactly what we need to practice if we ever want to establish a redemption culture. For his act of impossible forgiveness, we all owe Brandt Jean a debt of gratitude.