Yesterday afternoon Jemar Tisby published an essay at the Washington Post with the rather provocative title, “White Christians, do not cheapen the hug and message of forgiveness from Botham Jean’s brother.” As is so often the case, the essay is far more interesting and nuanced than the title implies. He makes two powerful and related points. First, when a black man is gunned down unjustly, the black community (and not just the man’s family) feels real pain. Brandt Jean’s act is thus a personal act, not one that can be imputed beyond him. That is certainly true.
Second, Tisby emphasizes that Jean’s act of forgiveness does not lift the obligation of imposing justice. And here there is some cause for concern. The jury justly returned a murder verdict, but the sentence itself was light, a mere ten years in prison for intentionally taking an innocent man’s life. She’ll be eligible for parole in five years.
But here’s where I think Tisby misjudges the “white Christian” response to Jean. He writes this:
A society built around white superiority is also built around white innocence — an assumption of the intrinsic moral virtue of all white people and the purity of their intentions regardless of impact. White innocence assumes black forgiveness.
He also says this:
If white people expect all black people to extend forgiveness as quickly as Brandt Jean did, then they understand neither black people nor black pain.
But I think both of these quotes get the moment backwards. The moment went so viral not because forgiveness was expected or white innocence was presumed. The moment went viral because the guilt was so obvious, and rage was so understandable. The moment went so viral because it was shocking. Brandt Jean demonstrated a level of grace that most Christians (white or otherwise) simply couldn’t comprehend, and they couldn’t comprehend it because the horror inflicted on his brother was so obvious and so thoroughly unjustifiable.
I was at a Southern Baptist conference in Dallas when the news broke, and the mostly-white Christians there weren’t just moved by Jean’s acts in the way that they’re momentarily moved by sentimental or emotional moments often go viral on the internet, they were shaken and convicted. I know I was. And we felt that deep sense of conviction in part because it was one of the Christlike acts we’d ever witnessed. As Rich Lowry noted on our Editors podcast, he didn’t just forgive her, by embracing her and letting her cling to him, it was as if he took on part of the burden of her sin.
We can and should thank God for Jean’s remarkable act and repent of our own pettiness and vindictiveness. But we can also take to heart Tisby’s final point, the “best response to black forgiveness is to prevent the harm that makes it necessary in the first place.” That’s an attainable task for an individual, but as we’ve seen for 400 years, it’s a monumental task for our culture.