Forgiveness is the final form of love
– Reinhold Niebuhr
A great irony of social justice activism lies in what is forgivable and what is not.
On the one hand social justice is about forgiveness and redemption – for example the view that once someone has completed a prison sentence, paid their debt to society, they should be restored. They should vote, they should be able to find work free of discrimination. On the other we see the cancel culture and the faux outrage that refuses to acknowledge that mistakes are made on a spectrum – some are worse than others. The consequence of mistakes is a simple binary – you lose your job or your platform for all transgressions equally. And there is no possibility of redemption – no apology you give, no price you pay, offers a way back.
This is not helpful. As a society we need a mechanism where people acknowledge they are wrong, apologize, take steps to make-it-right, grow as a person, and are restored. Its also hypocritical, you can’t advocate for restoration on the one hand, and then create categories where restoration is impossible on the other. Sam Harris laments this regularly on his podcast.
This story is illustrative. Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, was convicted of murder for the 2018 shooting of Botham Jean in his own apartment, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Guyger, who was off-duty when she shot Jean, said that she had entered the wrong apartment by mistake—her apartment was in the same relative location as Jean’s but on a different floor—and believed Jean, a 26-year-old black man, to be a burglar. The fact that Guyger was actually convicted of murder and sentenced to prison is a welcome break in the pattern of injustice where white police officers kill black men only to be acquitted in court. But the real surprise is not the conviction, its the moment of reconciliation that followed sentencing. Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean told Guyger, “If you are truly sorry, I know—I can speak for myself—I forgive you”. Then, after asking Judge Tammy Kemp for permission, Brandt Jean embraced Guyger in the courtroom. Then the judge embraced Guyger too. Its powerful stuff.
What’s illustrative is how this moment is framed by the media. Rather than explore a remarkable moment, this Seattle Times article wallows in the controversy of an act of forgiveness, alleging it minimizes the oppression and injustice suffered by black communities. It acknowledges Brandt Jean’s unusual response is rooted in his faith, but gives this a superficial treatment that fails to explore or acknowledge the deep resources the Christian faith offers situations like these. By forgiving Guyger, Brandt Jean frees himself from a life of bitterness and hate. By forgiving Guyger in the courtroom, he elevates a legal proceeding beyond justice and towards redemption. But the Seattle Times doesn’t see this. Rather, the article is a profile in unforgiveness – reactions from Twitter, reactions from academics, reactions from people in the social justice movement keep the outrage alive. All making the same basic point, all missing the same basic point, all shining the spotlight on our inability to forgive.
Our secular culture misses is the relationship between justice and love. Ironically this was once well understood in the social justice movement (circa MLK). Justice strives towards the ultimate possibilities of life but can’t attain them. The ‘impossible possibility’ is a world where relationships between people are characterized by selfless love – agape. Instead justice is practiced in a world saturated with the pursuit of self-interest. Only love can fulfill the highest form of the spirit of justice and take us beyond this persistent self-interest. Social justice activism is too trapped in its everything-lens of power and oppression to even see this ideal. The act of forgiveness in this courtroom, and the reconciliation that followed is a rare example of justice pointing towards love. The media would serve us better by exploring this dynamic instead of reminding us to hold on to outrage and reasons not to forgive. Reinhold Niebuhr has it right when he wrote ‘The true situation is that anything short of love cannot be perfect justice.’
This story reveals the power of the Christian worldview. Forgiveness is central. Christ is the normative example of human goodness. I fall short of this standard. As Christ forgave me and reconciled me to God, so I’m able to forgive and reconcile to others. Modern secular culture can’t offer this. Sam Harris may wish for a society that can forgive and restore, but his worldview can’t take us there.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. Amber Guyger is going to jail. But Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness and reconciliation, made possible by his faith in Christ, shows us what we can be.
Unfortunately, this satire is well deserved.