Race, Grace, and Warm Fuzzies

8 10 2019

Because I would never dare to presume to know what was in the heart of either Brandt Jean or Amber Guyger at the time of this embrace – the photo of which has gone viral – I’m going to be careful in making assumptions or calling others to model their behavior.  I have no desire to speak for people of color, presuming that my privilege has given me the wisdom to know how they should respond to a systemic form of American racism that continues to take the lives of too many young Black men.  And, as a pastor and person of faith, I in no way want to minimize the healing power of repentance and the transformative nature of forgiveness.  But having said all that, there is something about this photo that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Brandt knows that hating the police officer who killed his innocent, unarmed brother Botham . . . as he sat in his own apartment, watching TV, and enjoying a bowl of ice cream . . . will only harm his spirit and hurt his soul.  His remarks at the trial revealed a forgiving spirit and deep love of God.  And he made it clear that he wanted only the best for Amber, and that he hoped one day she would give her life to Christ.  Amber too revealed a distraught and tender spirit at the trial, tearfully apologizing for taking the life of a beloved brother and son.  Both she and her mother spoke mournfully about how the killing had so tragically ruined the lives of so many people.

So at first glance, it is easy to see why people were so powerfully moved by the photo!  But when set in the context of all that is going on in our nation today, and when interpreted in light of the Christian faith, things become far more complex.  And here’s why.

First, Amber is part of a culture in which systemic racism still rules the day; and throughout the trial she failed to acknowledge that.  She admitted that she made a mistake, and that she didn’t know she was in the wrong apartment until she had already pulled the trigger.  But she failed to acknowledge the role race had played in her sudden fear and overreaction to seeing a Black man sitting on what she thought was her sofa.  And she never apologized for that.  In fact she actually stated during the trial that she had fired to kill!  Because that’s what fear of another does.  And Amber’s fear was not the fear of an intruder!  It was the fear of a Black man.  And so she killed him.  Had Botham been White, the confusion over which apartment the officer was standing in would have likely become quickly apparent, laughter over her mistake would have ensued, and no shots would have ever been fired.  But Botham wasn’t White.  He was Black.  And so Amber made all kinds of false assumptions, and wound up committing murder.  Her racism was put on display for all the nation to see, and she never acknowledged that . . . not once, during the entire trial.

Second, Brandt appears to be part of a church that fails to see repentance and forgiveness as part of the larger reign of God in this world: a reign in which shalom – justice, wholeness, and rightness – are required to truly transform creation.  For as important as repentance and forgiveness are, without shalom, they are little more than a warm sentiment or a kind embrace!  Shalom is justice: and where there is no justice, there is no shalom.  There may be repentance, and even forgiveness, but they are only the first steps.  And if justice does not follow, shalom will never come, and the reign of God will cease to become a reality!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, and defined it as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.  I would add that it is also the seeking of peace without requiring justice.  For without justice and repentance, peace and forgiveness mean very little!

So Brandt may have forgiven Amber for killing his brother, but she has still not repented of her racism.  And Amber may have stumbled into the arms of a reconciling peace with the brother of the man she murdered, but there continues to be little justice for Brandt, and for millions of other people of color in America.  America’s version of White Supremacy is one that too many still refuse to acknowledge and confront.  And until we do, pictures like the one above will continue to go viral, and give well-meaning White folk ‘goose bumps.’  But nothing will change.  And people of color will continue to die.

America does not need pictures of Black people forgiving and making peace with White people in a hug.  Forgiveness and peace, without repentance and justice, are nothing more than warm fuzzies!

 


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