Forgiving the Enemy
The brother of an innocent man murdered in cold blood has reminded the world of the “scandal” of the Gospel.
Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, was gunned down in September 2018 as he sat on the couch in his Dallas apartment, eating ice cream. His killer was Amber Guyger, a 30-year-old off-duty police officer who says she mistakenly entered Jean’s apartment, thinking it was her own, and then opened fire after taking Jean for an intruder.
Guyger has offered as excuses that she was exhausted after a long shift, and that Jean’s apartment was in the same location as her own, but one floor up.
It’s hard to grasp the horror of what happened that night: a good, and innocent man, shot and killed as he sat peacefully in his own apartment. Regardless of the validity of Guyger’s excuses, if Jean’s loved ones displayed nothing but fury when facing the woman who murdered their beloved son and brother, we would all understand.
Instead, last week, Jean’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt, showed the world another way.
You’ve probably already seen the video. And if you haven’t, you must. The video was shot in the courtroom, moments after Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Brandt then takes the stand, to deliver a victim impact statement. But instead of telling Guyger one more time just how much she stole from Jean’s family, Brandt instead offers words of gentleness, kindness…forgiveness.
“I love you just like anyone else,” he told Guyger. “I personally want the best for you. … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want for you. Give your life to Christ.”
And then Brandt did the unthinkable. Turning to the judge, he asked if he could give Guyger a hug. The judge paused, knowing that the request violated every court protocol, but then granted permission. At this point you can hear the sobs filling the courtroom. Brandt and Guyger embraced, while Guyger wept on his shoulder. And then the judge, Judge Tammy Kemp, also hugged Guyger, gave her a Bible, and pointed to John 3:16, telling her: “This is where you begin.”
A Christian Imperative
Video of Brandt’s gesture immediately went viral. Most who saw the video were astonished, but also deeply moved. “Now that’s a true Christian,” was the essence of many of the comments posted on social media.
Some, however, reacted with anger and disbelief, accusing Brandt of letting his brother’s killer off the hook, of displaying weakness, of putting on a “show” for the cameras, and of hurting the fight for racial equality and justice. “I was sick to my stomach,” wrote one author on a progressive website. One black Christian leader even accused Brandt of displaying “post traumatic SLAVERY syndrome.” Meanwhile, a prominent atheist group promptly did what atheist groups do, filing a complaint against Judge Kemp for sharing her faith, accusing her of an “egregious abuse of power.”
Truth be told, many of these reactions are perfectly understandable. There is something in our nature that recoils in the face of radical forgiveness of this sort. There is something in our nature that clamors for justice…for revenge. “If that was my brother,” we think to ourselves, “I wouldn’t be able to do that. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t want to do that. I would want her to pay for what she did. And she would deserve to pay. That would be just.”
And you know what? From one perspective that might be perfectly true. Guyger may well deserve to pay harshly for her crime. Maybe she doesn’t deserve forgiveness. Maybe she deserves to rot in prison, unforgiven, abandoned, unredeemable. Eye for an eye. Blood for blood.
But then, in the midst of these thoughts, we remember. We remember a day, just over 2000 years ago, when the most innocent human being who has ever walked the face of the planet was cruelly beaten with whips until His flesh was torn in shreds; who was then forced to drag the means of His own execution on his back up a high hill; and who was then nailed, one wrist at a time, one foot at a time, to a piece of wood, and suspended in the air for the passing crowds to jeer and mock at, until He expired in horrible agony.
And we remember the words that He spoke. Looking down upon the men who had just perpetrated this unspeakable crime against Him, He prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Pro-Life Cause and Forgiveness
Those of us in the midst of the culture wars face great evils on a daily basis: abortionists who murder thousands of unborn – and sometimes, born – babies, without a sign of remorse; politicians who claim the Christian faith but who then betray the innocent and the vulnerable, voting for grave evils; progressive activists who would gladly demolish our freedoms, and who deliberately target our children with their filth.
And yet, though we certainly have a duty to oppose the evils these people promote with all our might, Christ has left us crystal clear instructions about how we are to treat the people themselves: “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” And again: “If you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Notice here that Christ does not introduce this commandment as optional. It is a command. If we are to call ourselves Christians, this is how we must act!
One famous 20th century Orthodox monk, St. Silouan the Athonite, believed that the surest and only reliable proof that someone’s spiritual experiences are authentic is that he grows in love for his enemies. The reason is obvious: to truly love our enemies is so far beyond the capacities of our fallen nature, that it is only possible if we allow God’s grace to come into our souls, so that we come to love with His love, as He loves. “The Holy Spirit is love,” said St. Silouan, “and He gives the soul strength to love her enemies. And he who does not love his enemies does not know God.”
St. Silouan’s biographer, Archimandrite Sophrony, laments that even many Christians “are afraid of acting towards their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, trump.”
Are there any of us who have not, at some time, had temptations along these lines? Have we not all sometimes worried that by loving our enemies, by feeling compassion for their very lostness, or that by truly desiring their good, by extending them kindness and forgiveness, we might unintentionally give them the opportunity they need to gain the upper hand? Have we not all wondered whether in order to “win” this battle we must act as mercilessly as our enemies do? And have we not all been tempted to think that our ideological opponents simply “deserve” whatever punishment comes their way?
Sophrony, however, eloquently repudiated this argument:
The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course, they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.
This is a profound teaching. But it is also the constant teaching of the saints and is borne out by the witness of their lives. A single saint, consumed by love of God, has greater power to bring the Kingdom of God to earth, than a thousand brilliant activists who lack love. Think of the example of the great contemplatives and mystics – above all Our Blessed Mother and St. Joseph – who lived hidden lives, but who set the world on fire with love. “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love,” said St. Paul, “I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”
The love of a Christian is a flaming sword. Contrary to the claims of his critics, Brandt Jean’s decision to forgive Amber Guyger was no sign of weakness. Far from it. It took enormous strength of character – and the grace of God – for Brandt to stand up and embrace the woman who killed the brother he loved. But by doing so, Brandt crushed, and transcended the endless human cycle of injustice and revenge. With that heroic gesture, he carved out space for healing, for reconciliation, for forgiveness…for redemption. That is true strength. Indeed, it is, quite literally, the strength of Christ.
We have a duty to pray for the same grace of forgiveness and love, and to extend this love to even the worst of our enemies. This does not mean giving up even an inch in our fight against evil (quite the contrary). But it does require that we recall that there is not one of us who has not deserved condemnation for his sins; and yet Christ died on the cross in order to wipe out our sins, and the sins of every human being. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Jesus taught us to pray. And again, “Go, and do likewise.”