Dear White People: About Botham Jean, Forgiveness, Justice, and Cheap Grace

Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas cop Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to 10 years for murdering his brother, Botham Shem Jean.
Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas cop Amber Guyger, who was sentenced to 10 years for murdering his brother, Botham Shem Jean. (Photo: videograb)

By the Rev. Dr. Karyn Carlo, October 3, 2019

Yesterday we watched the sentencing of a white woman, a former cop, convicted of murdering a black man named Botham Jean in his own apartment, unarmed, eating ice cream. She received the very minimal sentence of 10 years following which the brother of the murder victim gave her a big hug and said he forgave her. Many Christians applaud that hug saying it was an extraordinary act of grace on his part. Having never walked in his shoes I will not judge him. However as a white woman, also a former cop, and Christian theologian I will judge the way so many of us in the white community are so quick to applaud black people for forgiving white murderers. We did it following the Charleston nine and here we go again.

We are quick to point to the way in which Jesus forgave his own killers even as he suffered on the cross and we hold that up as the model for victims to adhere to today. But wait a minute. Is that fair? As we usually do with Bible stories we cast ourselves in the role of Jesus but really white people in the U.S. are the Romans in this story. We are the crucifiers not the crucified, the defenders of brutal empire who perhaps feel a little guilty at the scene of yet another lynching taking place in our name. As such we hear “father forgive them” as good news. Even though we have killed Jesus and brutalized his people we need not really fear hell. Even the victim himself does not hold us accountable. We are innocent. We did not know what we were doing. Good news right? Wrong.

Forgiveness without repentance is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer, quoting Adam Clayton Powell, called cheap grace. It lets us believe we are off the hook for our evil without demanding any real change on our part. In the case of the murder of Botham Jean cheap grace lets us white people maintain our sense of innocence and goodness without first facing up to the role we all play, knowingly or not, in maintaining systemic racism. In this case it allows us to avoid looking at the particularly brutal history of black men and white women. We don’t have to think about the thousands of lynchings, unjust crucifixions, that happened in our country due to black men being unjustly accused of raping white women. We don’t have to think about the way in which white women to this day are seen as fragile and innocent (particularly if they are or make themselves blond) while black men are perceived as threatening and dangerous even when they are in their own homes eating ice cream. In other words we do not need to see let alone repent of our sins. But is that the gospel? Is that grace?

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