The White Response to Botham Jean and Amber Guyger
Unity is the cry of the powerful;
justice is the cry of the oppressed.
As long as there is no justice, there is no unity.
Justice and Forgiveness
This week many of us were moved by Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham Jean, when he told his brother’s killer, Amber Guyger, that he forgives her, and then came off the stand and hugged her in the courtroom.
Personally, I was moved by the sheer humanity of it all. One human forgiving another human for killing his brother, wanting to live in the freedom of forgiveness rather than the bondage of hatred and resentment, is nothing short of pure courage.
The video was all over our Facebook feed with lots of comments on the power of forgiveness and, especially, the testimony of Christian salvation.
More to the Story
Still, though, something felt off.
As powerful as the moment itself was, it is not independent of the cultural context in which it occurred. It’s one thing for humans to forgive humans, and it’s another thing for a black human to forgive a white human - who happens to be a police officer - for shooting his unarmed brother.
I checked Twitter to see the reactions from the people of color I follow. It was a far different scene than what I read from predominately white sources.
Here’s just a sample:
You Have Neglected the Weightier Matters
As moved as I was - and continue to be - by Brandt Jean’s forgiveness, it seemed like we had all collectively missed something, something we’ve missed before.
Sort of like the Colin Kaepernick story. As I wrote back in 2017, it’s odd that people are more upset over Kaepernick’s form of protest (kneeling during the anthem) than over racism itself. We demand a football player stand for a song about freedom but we ignore the fact that people in our country who look like him are not free.
Same with Black Lives Matter.
When Black Lives Matter became a national movement after the Ferguson riots, the response from a large number of white circles was, “All Lives Matter.” But, as has been exhaustively repeated, BLM never said that only Black Lives Matter; they have asked Americans to please treat Black lives as though they do, in fact, matter.
It seems we have once again neglected the weightier matter. We celebrate Brandt Jean’s forgiveness yet remain silent about calls for racial justice, as evidenced by the fact that we shared Brandt Jean’s video but not the video of their mother, Allison, after the trial when she called out the Dallas PD for the corruption evident in the way the case was handled.
We want racial reconciliation, but we want it to come from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.
Justice Before Unity
As white people, we are recipients of and participants in a system of privilege. It’s important to note that privilege and hard work are not mutually exclusive. You can come from humble beginnings, make tons of sacrifices, work hard every day and still benefit from the privilege afforded to you by your skin color. Whiteness greases the gears a little to make upward mobility a more attainable experience for people in white culture. It does not automatically award you wealth and power, but it eliminates skin color as an obstacle.
With privilege comes power, and the top priority of the powerful is to protect their position at all costs, which is why white America values unity over justice. It would be so much easier for us if people of color accepted how things are and assimilated to white culture because then nothing has to change on our end. Unity means people of color give up everything so that white people give up nothing.
It’s why we say Kaepernick should find a more respectful way to protest. It’s why we chant, “All lives matter!” It’s why those of us in predominately white churches put little-to-no weight on scriptures that talk about justice, or we reinterpret them with more whitewashed words like “righteousness.”
Unity is the cry of the powerful; justice is the cry of the oppressed.
We preach unity over justice because justice is too hard and requires too much from us white folks.
It requires a reorientation of our entire society.
It requires that “white” become a variation just like Black, Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous.
Justice requires that we examine individually our political, economic, judicial, agricultural, educational, and religious systems and ask, “In what ways does this system continue to uphold white as normative and all else as a variation?”
Justice requires that we call the shooting of unarmed black men by police what it is: murder.
Justice requires that we stop pretending we don’t see the racial disparity in our prison systems.
Justice requires that we finally teach our children the honest truth of the founding and expansion of our country, that white settlers stole land from Indigenous peoples and built our fundamental systems around the mythologized supremacy of white Europeans.
Justice requires that we no longer pretend racism is ancient history, or that it is only a “heart” problem.
The Right Form of Justice
Justice comes in many forms, and it’s helpful to name them so that we know exactly what our goal ought to be.
First, there’s Retributive Justice. One reason white people distance ourselves from conversations about justice is that we only know this form of it, in which a payment or punishment is required for wrong-doing. We fear that racial justice requires us to experience some sort of consequence: go to jail, pay a fine, or otherwise suffer for our crime. It’s why we say things like, “Why should I be held responsible for slavery when I didn’t even own slaves?” Retributive justice doesn’t work because it’s too narrow of a definition. It looks solely at the offense committed with no examination of the societal factors that preceded it, and no long-term vision about resolution. It’s purely an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It assumes people can be punished into proper behavior. Our current criminal justice system with its increasing recidivism rates proves this form of justice is ineffective.
There’s also Restorative Justice in which the victim and perpetrator come face to face and find a way to love and forgive one another (like the Hutus and Tutsis after the Rwandan genocide). That’s what Brandt Jean did. He decided to let forgiveness and grace lead the way instead of bitterness and hatred, which is nothing short of remarkable. Restorative justice takes a broader view of the resolution to a crime but still asks few - if any - questions about the societal factors that led up to it. It also requires the victim to do most of the heavy lifting.
There’s still another path toward justice, though, that’s known as Transformative Justice. It takes a wide view of all parts of a crime - the societal factors that led to it, the crime itself, and the best form of resolution. But the goal of transformative justice is more than ensuring crime doesn’t occur again - the goal is that the victim and the perpetrator, the community where the crime occurred, and the system that produced it, are all made whole. Unlike retributive justice, it requires no payment, no eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth. Like restorative justice, It includes restoration between victim and perpetrator, but it also extends the circle wider to envelop the entire community. Transformative justice requires the forgiveness of Brandt Jean, the prophetic challenge of Allison Jean, and the transformed heart of Amber Guyger.
True justice occurs when victim, perpetrator, and system are transformed.
Allison Jean and the Dallas Police Department
Here is Allison Jean, Botham Jean’s mother, after Amber Guyger’s sentencing. Her words are just as important for white people to absorb and share as her son, Brandt’s. Because until we as white people stop giving people of color a reason to forgive us, there is no justice. And as long as there is no justice, there is no unity.