The footage is jaw-dropping.
A young man loses his brother in a senseless crime. The murderer is found guilty, but given a sentence light enough that it shocks many.
At the sentencing, the murdered man’s brother takes the stand. He is visibly nervous. He pulls at his collar and stumbles over his words.
“If you truly are sorry, I can speak for myself, I forgive, and I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you ... again I’m speaking for myself, but I love you just like anyone else. And I’m not gonna say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did, but I presently 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 ... the best would be to give your life to Christ. I’m not going to say anything else ... Again I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”
Then he asks the judge to let him give his brother’s murderer a hug. His wish is granted.
The young man’s name is Brandt Jean. His murdered brother was Botham Jean, a Dallas accountant and worship leader. The murderer is Amber Guyger, a policewoman who entered Mr. Jean’s home and shot him to death as he sat on his couch. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for her crime.
Brandt Jean’s act of radical forgiveness has caused widespread controversy. Is that kind of pardon wise? Does it let evil off the hook? Does it allow his brother’s assailant to excuse herself?
Moreover, does his example hold other victims of crime to an impossible standard? Many critics worry that widespread high praise of Mr. Jean’s forgiveness will put pressure on others to excuse people in power who commit crime. They worry that it will coerce immigrants or black folks (the Jean family is both) to issue forgiveness they don’t really want to give to white assailants. They worry that Jean’s forgiveness will strengthen injustice, rather than tearing it down.
It could. But it doesn’t have to.
Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive his brother’s murderer is a blueprint for justice and mercy, if (and it’s a big if) we allow it to inspire and change our own lives. To do this, we must separate it from sentimentality and hype. We must study it for what it really is.
1. Real forgiveness can only be extended by the wounded party: If you are the third party to a conflict, outside looking in, it is wrong to demand that one person forgive another. But it’s also wrong to pardon someone for a crime that wasn’t committed against you. “I forgave, I moved on, so should you,” is easy to say when you aren’t the person suffering. Only the Jean family, not the American public, can choose to forgive Amber Guyger for killing their loved one. This is what Mr. Jean did.
2. You can forgive only on your own behalf: Jean repeatedly said, “I’m speaking for myself.” This is a recognition that others in his family might not be ready to do the same. Every person’s forgiveness belongs to them alone. If it’s not given freely from the source, it’s not given at all.
3. Forgiveness doesn’t have to be consequence-free: While Jean said he wished Guyger didn’t have to go to jail, he didn’t act (that we know of) to make that wish a reality. Guyger will still spend time in prison. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe out the natural penance we must pay for doing wrong or the pardon we must seek from others.
4. Forgiveness doesn’t have to forget: That is almost impossible. The Jean family will be permanently changed by the death of Botham. They will never forget what happened or who was responsible. They don’t have to.
5. Forgiveness comes with love: This one is hardest to understand. Jean said, “I love you,” to his brother’s murderer. How could he possibly have meant it? The answer is that love is not a feeling. To love is to will the good of another person. That is exactly what Jean did.
6. Forgiveness includes action: Extending pardon to someone who has wounded you isn’t just words. It is an ongoing decision and action. In Jean’s case, he made his forgiveness concrete by embracing his brother’s murderer. That is an extreme example, but it showed that his words were more than empty talk.
The whole world witnessed Brandt Jean’s revolutionary forgiveness. Now, we can let it lead us down one of several paths. We could praise it, then promptly forget about it in the insanity of the weekly news cycle. We could hold it up as an example, then use it as a weapon to beat other victims of crime into an unjust silence. Or, we could let it change our lives, reversing the revenge-seeking spirals of hate in our families, communities, politics, and world.