By now everyone has seen the viral video of Brandt Jean in the courtroom tearfully forgiving and hugging Amber Guyger, the police officer convicted of murdering his brother, Botham. The video has been met with mixed reaction and understandably so. For many people, it was an inspiring moment of grace. For others, it was a mockery of justice, an outrage.
Perhaps we may make sense of Brandt’s action if we see it in the light of Jesus’ own outrageous behaviour as recounted in the Gospels. Jesus, outrageous? Well, let’s have a look.
The problem is that we read the Bible from our modern ‘enlightened’ perspective, and this leads us inevitably to misread the Gospel narratives. We tend to see Jesus as a romantic rebel opposing a legalistically stifling and unjust society. We misinterpret his constant confrontations with the Pharisees as someone speaking truth to power. The fact is, the poor Pharisees have got a bad rap. They were merely upholding the law.
But if we look at Jesus’ conduct in the context of his own time and place – a patriarchal, tribal society in which women were regarded as property, first of their fathers and then their husbands – we quickly realise how outrageous and scandalous Jesus was.
Take, for example, the woman caught in adultery who is about to receive the standard legal punishment of being stoned to death. From our modern perspective we view such a punishment as both unmerited and barbaric and therefore see Jesus’ enigmatic intervention (he does not say she should not be stoned, only that he who is without sin should cast the first stone) as saving the poor woman from an unfair and grisly death. But the fact is that most members of that society would have seen the punishment as perfectly appropriate and just. Why does Jesus not join them? Even his closest disciples often found his behaviour disturbing.
And look at some of the parables. A shepherd who is going to leave 99 of his flock unguarded to find one lost lamb? In an agrarian society this is sheer madness. Not to mention that the ‘good’ Samaritan was a thoughtless fool. And worst of all is the besotted father killing the fatted calf for his younger son who wasted all his inheritance. No wonder the older son was blue vex.
So why is Jesus so outrageous? Because he is teaching and showing unconditional love and mercy, and we simply cannot wrap our heads around that, because unconditional mercy violates all the precepts that underlie a human society based on justice, order and fairness. And before Jesus, there were all these crazy Hebrew prophets preaching the same message.
Now, we know that mercy begins where justice ends. But on those occasions when as a society we extend mercy, it too is always conditional: ‘oh, there were mitigating circumstances’, or ‘the woman was abused by her husband for years before she decided to kill him’, or ‘the poor, young man came out of a poverty-stricken environment’. But these are all contingent. Jesus’ mercy is unconditional, and that is why it is so outrageous.
Most Christians struggle faithfully, even if with difficulty, to live a life in accordance with the scriptures. But when it comes to unconditional love and compassion, we stumble and fall short. That’s why we’re all sinners. Christianity may be simple (love God and love your neighbour), but it’s not easy.
But let’s get back to this 18-year-old young man, Brandt Jean. What is the context of his action in forgiving the woman who murdered his brother, Botham?
Simply put, she killed Botham for being black in his own home. How many people believe that if she had mistakenly entered the apartment of a white man and found him eating a bowl of ice cream she would have killed him? There would have been a moment of temporary confusion, followed by embarrassment and an apology and she would have left without even drawing her gun. But she had been conditioned by her society, her culture and her professional training to equate a black male with life-threatening danger. Her immediate response: shoot to kill. And she did. Justice demanded she got at least 20 years.
Brandt’s forgiveness of her, his unconditional mercy, symbolised in that tearful hug that went around the world, was truly Christ-like: it was both outrageous and a moment of grace.
(Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)