As we trudge into 2020, a year that promises to be just as rancorous politically as the year we are ending, I find myself thinking about forgiveness.
Not forgiveness as a meek act of acquiescing to evil, which is what our national climate might persuade us to believe. But forgiveness as a deep spiritual practice that does not stand in the way of a continuing pursuit of justice.
Two extraordinary examples of forgiveness in the past decade in the U.S. both come to us from the African American community.
The first occurred in 2015, when young white supremacist Dylann Roof walked casually into a prayer meeting in the basement of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church, referred to as Mother Emanuel, was a landmark in Charleston, South Carolina.
Roof was welcomed and sat with the group as they examined Scripture. Then he took out a gun and murdered nine people, tearing families apart and terrorizing survivors.
Two days later, members of the congregation attending a court hearing offered him forgiveness. Not everyone could go that far. Not everyone was ready. But the consensus was that forgiveness was the path that Jesus would walk. It was a remarkable display of grace.
Fast forward to 2019 and a similar courtroom drama unfolded when Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of murder victim Botham Jean, forgave and asked to hug his brother’s killer. Amber Guyger was the off-duty white police officer who testified she mistakenly thought she was walking into her apartment when she confronted the African American Jean, sitting in his own apartment.
Trained to shoot for the heart, she killed him on the spot. It was revealed that she had racist social media posts, and many criticized the 10-year sentence she received as too short.
Nevertheless, Brandt Jean said, “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you.” With the judge’s permission, the two embraced in the courtroom. Like many, I was in tears as I watched the scene on television.
Both examples of forgiveness drew criticism. Some felt that the mercy displayed undercut the fact that so much injustice and prejudice still pervades America’s treatment of black Americans.
It was easy for whites to be touched by the gestures, easy for those who enjoy white privilege to, with a patronizing air, admire those who were magnanimous even as they suffer. Justice and failures of the criminal justice system should be the focus, they said, not the compassion evinced by these victims.
I have enjoyed white privilege all my life, so I say with humility and a little trepidation that I believe the example set in these two instances is not just one we should admire, but one that we are called to emulate.
It strikes me that the mercy displayed here is an example of true and radical Christianity, and that whatever is going on in the churches in which these people of frogiveness worship is something we may sometimes miss in our own. How forgiving, I wonder, would I be in such circumstances?
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Catholic Church was at the forefront. Today, we seem to have a more cautious and insular view of political life. Sometimes, in our churches, we show little fervor for justice, for little kids brutally separated from their parents at our border, for a criminal justice system inclined to inequity.
On the cross, Jesus, unjustly condemned to capital punishment by the authorities, forgave. The pursuit of justice, the practice of forgiving our enemies: These aren’t opposing forces. They are an integral part of the radical faith to which Jesus calls us.