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The Sinful Attempt to Dehumanize Botham Shem Jean

“They never just kill the person…whenever an unarmed Black person is killed by the police they never just kill that person. They have to kill their reputation. They have to kill the positive idea of them. They have to kill everything they would have been as a child and everything they were going to be as an adult. They have to drag them down to make it justifiable.” – D.L. Hughley on Botham Shem Jean

When reports came out that another unarmed Black man was killed by a White police officer little did we know that it was going to add more fear to many already gripped by it daily. Botham Shem Jean was in his own apartment when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who so far has made conflicting statements about what initially happened, entered and killed him. Guyger claims she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own, which is located directly below his. The officer says she mistook Jean for a burglar and used her service weapon to shoot him after he allegedly failed to obey her commands.

Dallas police officer Amber Renee Guyger
Dallas police officer Amber Renee Guyger. (Photo: Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office via

This obviously seems to be one of those instances in which White fear of a Black threat turned deadly. But on September 13, FOX 4 news station in Dallas tweeted that marijuana was “found” in Jean’s apartment.

The process had already begun, again.

It was the same process that justified the death of Mike Brown because he allegedly stole cigars or made it OK for Eric Garner to be choked to death because he was selling loosies or excused Sandra Bland’s death because she dared ask why she had to put out her cigarette. Most people understand internally that these deaths were not justifiable, but if there is the slightest blemish then, somehow, the victims must have been responsible for their own demise. They can never be “perfect victims.”

The Process of Dehumanization

In Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, there is an interesting insight into the mindset of how this process works in the person of Elie Ngarambe, a Hutu man who participated in the Rwandan genocide, one of the worst genocides in history. According to Ngarambe, “They did not know that the [Tutsi] were human beings, because if they had thought about that they wouldn’t have killed them. Let me include myself as someone who accepted it. I wouldn’t have accepted that they are human beings.”

Stand-up comedian Katt Williams once famously joked that the U.S. killed regular people during the Iraq War and justified the killings by calling the victims “insurgents.” He pointed out how we often heard that a “group of insurgents” were killed and didn’t even bat an eye. But if it were revealed that these “insurgents” were actually a father, a wife, and two children, that would change our whole perspective.

Many view dehumanization as simply calling people animals or portraying them as completely foreign to human nature, but it is a bit more complex than that. David Livingstone Smith rightly points out that when we dehumanize people, we still view them with human qualities but make them subhuman at the same time. An example of this would be the United States’ dehumanizing treatment of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. The powers that be determined that Natives were “savages” and that enslaved Africans were not fully human. It would be unbearable to massacre and enslave humans, but not savages and subhuman beings.

Contrary to assumptions, dehumanization does not lead to evil action, rather, evil desire leads to dehumanization. A group usually looking to gain something (i.e., land, free labor, or wealth) adapts a dehumanizing outlook of the other in order to justify its vile acts against them. “Conflict precedes and motivates dehumanization: we dehumanize others because we want to kill, harm, or oppress them, rather than the other way around,” Smith explains.

Sin and Systems

From a Christian perspective, this suppression of the nature of others is what the Apostle Paul would say is the suppression of truth due to man’s inherent wickedness (Romans 1:18). It is not natural to view people as property and to torture or even kill them.

For people who enjoy the status quo, it is uniquely beneficial for them to want things to remain the same. If I am enjoying the culture in a way that benefits me, I do not want to hear how something I enjoy may be harming someone else. My sinful nature would compel me to find a way to justify my cultural choices at any cost. This is why some people still support R. Kelly and Woody Allen and other problematic individuals. On a larger scale, this can be why people refuse refugees from a particular country or justify police shooting unarmed Black people and never facing criminal prosecution.

This is very important because many White Americans who claim they aren’t racist or that they have a general knowledge of racial injustice can be blind to how they actively support policies or issues that treat Black or Brown bodies as subhuman. Their favorite preacher, athlete, or entertainer may be Black but as soon as these individuals are accused of violating a single law, they may immediately be placed in a class of subhumans who need to be controlled by any means necessary.

This entire process of framing victims in a subhuman way creates a sinful justification for why entire groups are treated unjustly. Breaking the law does not cancel one’s humanity anymore than Jesus’ family escaping to Egypt (thought to be a violation of Roman rule by some) for safety denied his. Even when someone is not a worship leader who volunteers to help others, such as Botham Shem Jean was, we should continue the fight to affirm the humanity in every person and group regardless of how they are portrayed by the dominant culture.

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Kevin Garcia
Kevin Garcia
Kevin Garcia and his wife, Miriam, live in Dallas, Texas, where they work and serve at the Mercy Street mentoring ministry. Garcia is currently in seminary and emphasizes study in areas of theology, justice, politics, historical theology, and global theology. In his extra time he loves reading and co-hosts a podcast, “Lord Knows,” discussing spirituality and hip-hop. Follow Kevin on Twitter and IG @realkevingarcia.


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