The Gospel demands that we be made new, but if we cannot admit our wrongs and ask for forgiveness how can we expect to be transformed or even be reconciled to God or one another?
I woke up Wednesday Morning of last week to the same images you did. Brandt Jean hugging Amber Guyger, his words “I forgive you” hanging in the air. The full transcript of his words touching the human heart and bring tears to the eyes. USAToday headlined it as a “touching moment” and compared it to when members of Emmanuel AME forgave Dylan Roof who walked into a bible study in the historic Charleston Black Church and killed 9 people at a bible study. “It was so powerful” one Facebook friend wrote. “God’s forgiveness is so powerful, wow” wrote another. Below was the link to the video or the video itself. It really was a touching moment, but as soon as I saw the video something instantly sparked in me and another Facebook post I read later in the morning helped me put a finger on it.
First, I want to say I do not think that Brandt’s forgiveness was disingenuous, I think it was likely the real thing born out of actual Christian love and faith. It was also an extremely brave move during what I am sure is deep pain in the Jean family from the life that has been taken from them. My point here is not to question Brandt’s sincerity, but to point out a flaw in the western or distinctly American view of forgiveness and reconciliation. Especially since some act like acts of forgiveness like this are akin to reconciliation. It is as if we go: “He forgave her, now we can all move on and rest in peace.” The problem is, forgiveness and reconciliation require an admission of guilt by the party who caused the hurt in the first place, that is, forgiveness that leads to reconciliation and restoration. One can forgive in their heart, and indeed should, but just because the injured party has forgiven, if the injuring party is unwilling to acknowledge the action or actions that led to the injury then restoration and reconciliation have not happened, indeed, if the person who committed the injury or crime or injustice is unwilling to change their way but expects the person to simply forgive them and bring them back into full relationship, the stage is just set for that harmful behavior to continue in a pattern.
In fact, this idea that the injured party needs to just forgive and move on as if nothing happened does nothing but infantilize the injured party. As one of my mentors said recently: “It is basically how we tell little kids to forgive one another, but adults should be willing to listen and change their behavior when someone comes to them and says: “That behavior has hurt me.” Adults should be able to reach restoration and reconciliation because they are supposed to be the mature ones who can handle their issues like adults. To use the phraseology of psychologists: adults should be able to: “Do their own work.”
Whether we like it or not, this is precisely what the message WASP communities have been telling Black communities since the beginning of chattel slavery. One can find records of slaves being told by white preachers they need to; “forgive their masters the moment they whip them.” During Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement Blacks were told to just “Get over the injustices and forgive white people.” There was no effort on behalf of WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) communities to even encourage them to do the work within themselves to seek forgiveness for Slavery, Jim Crow, Bussing, Red-Lining and many other injustices committed against ethnic minorities in this country by white dominated power structures. Yet the message those victims has been plainly: “Forgive and move on” as if victims of those injustices were children on the elementary playground who were told they couldn’t join the pickup football game. This has been the modus operandum for the last 400 years, in fact it would be hard for one to say: “Well I did not own slaves, so I shouldn’t be expected to seek forgiveness” because the notion of infantilizing Black and other minority communities is part of the American Zeitgeist and has been for 400 years. It goes beyond infantilization to dehumanization as this site has documented in the past. Yet the average person thinks these problems are a “part of our past” and when you say something along those lines you shut down conversation and the one who has been hurt goes again unheard, the pattern continues.
Or, to make ourselves feel better, we try to state events in the positive. We say: “Look how much that whites have done to amend our wrongs towards you, affirmative action, equal housing and employment laws, so on and so forth.” As if our benevolence somehow makes up for all the injustice that is still practiced in certain areas even though it is against the law. These are mere band aids when we think the small gains made last sixty years make up for the previous 340 (hint, they do not) and when they are used as excuses for why we should not be held accountable for modern forms of injustice or historical ones.
Which brings me back to Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger and their exchange yesterday afternoon. Brandt’s forgiveness, though likely sincere, does not release Amber Guyger from guilt or excuse her from doing her own work. In fact, to my knowledge there has never been one admission of guilt of Guyger who enacted the Castle Defense, insisting throughout the entire trial she thought she was in her own apartment. There are records on racist texts, one even including an admission that she is in fact, racist herself. Amber Guyger has not, to anyone’s knowledge, done her own work, nor has Dylan Roof who admitted gleefully to what he did and who stood there stone faced as members of Emmanuel stood to say they forgive him. Roof is getting the sentence he deserves, Guyger is getting off easy.
The fact is, Amber Guyger was off duty, walked into the wrong apartment where her neighbor was easting Ice Cream and shot him because she did not take the time to check her situation and her emotions and killed an innocent man. One cannot even argue on the job stress, and yet it is not her who has to repent of her actions, the court is holding her barely accountable, but Brandt that has to forgive? Welcome back to the schoolyard, forgive the bully, but do not expect the bully to change. Are we adults?
I am not saying Brandt should not forgive Amber, or that I should not forgive those who have wronged me. Scripture commands that I do, but there is never going to be restoration and reconciliation until the people who have done the hurting, in this case WASP communities going back 400 years, are willing to do our own work and ask for forgiveness. That is where we reach biblical reconciliation and full biblical forgiveness.
Mathew 5:23-24 tell us: “Therefore if you bring your offering to the alter and remember your brother has something against you leave your offering there and first go and be reconciled to your brother and then go and make your offering.” The point is this, if you hate your brother or sister and realize he has something against you for that hatred or if you have mistreated your brother or sister and fellowship has been broken because of that mistreatment, then you need to go and do your own work internally and seek to have your relationship restored lest you offer your sacrifice still committing murder by the hatred in your heart.
The reality is there are a lot of people in WASP communities that come to offer praises to God on Sunday while they are still unreconciled to their brother or sister. And I do not mean just their Black or other minority brothers and sisters but also many of their own white brothers and sisters. Its endemic in our own community too as we infantilize one another, insisting that we do not have to change, treating the crucifixion of Christ as nothing more than a get out of jail free card rather than atonement for sins that makes it possible for us through the power of the Holy Spirit to no longer sin habitually.
Our hands are extremely bloody, both across ethnic lines and within our own communities. And please do not comment with “whataboutism” and trite folk religious sayings that are actually contrary to scripture. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the goal and all of us (in WASP communities) are guilty of embracing a sinful and rampant individualism that says: “I do not have to change, you should forgive me for my sin anyway.” That is not how this is supposed to work.
So, to my fellow WASP brothers and sisters, let’s stop this and take the time to do our own work. To then go humbly to our brothers and sisters both in our own culture and those of other cultures whom we have infantilized and harmed and abused and enslaved and killed off and so on and so forth and humbly ask for forgiveness. Lest we one day stand before the judge unreconciled and are thrown into prison.
What I would love to see in this case is Amber Guyger come to faith, because there is no evidence she is a believer, confess her sin of murder, both the murder of Botham Jean and the sin of her hatred at the root of her racism and be reconciled to everyone in the Black community. I would like to see the same thing among those who call themselves Christians who literally have no excuse not to do their own work and seek forgiveness where it is needed.
What might it look like? I have told this story before, but I repeat it here because it is necessary. By the way, it has taken me years to do my own work and reach a point where what racism I did pick up as a kid was anathema to me and I could repent of it and ask my Black brothers and sisters for forgiveness for it. So I praised God when on a flight here to Iowa from Boston I sat next to an older Black woman from Framingham who upon hearing my last name said: “Faulkner, there is a lot of baggage with that name isn’t’ there.” She was referring to the southern Faulkner family, wealthy plantation owners in Mississippi and North Carolina who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the civil war. They were also among those who stood on the doorsteps of southern churches to make sure freedom riders could not enter their all-white churches during the Civil Rights Movement (you can read this history in Carolyn Renee Dupont’s book “Mississippi Praying” where several Faulkner’s are mentioned by name). Though not my immediate family they southern Faulkner’s are related to the northern Faulkner’s as cousins who came over from Ireland before the four brothers I descend from. They are still family members though and some of those same racist attitudes are still present in current descendants of the northern family. Because I have done my own work on this issue I was able to admit that this was a sin my family had committed against Blacks, slave holding, fighting to uphold slavery, fighting the civil rights movement and those who still hold racist viewpoints in the modern era. This woman was aware of that history and in that moment I could have arrogantly defended the actions of my family or myself by saying I am not them, but instead I owned their actions that though I did not commit, the name I bear still recalls in their minds and apologized, asking for forgiveness. My hope is that she and I left that plain ride reconciled, though we will likely never meet again. Not so I do not have to stand before the judge unreconciled (for my own gain) but for the mutual gain of our Christian Faith and the glory of the God whom we serve.
That is the reconciliation we want, so let’s do our own work and get there…together.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.