Forgiveness is a powerful emotional and spiritual quality. Psychologists and ethicists alike define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve it. Forgiveness is important because it releases the victimized to live without rancor.
It was my solemn opportunity and great privilege to attend the funeral for South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pickney in June 2015. Sen. Pickney was a rising political and moral leader for his state. Unfortunately, before the nation witnessed his genius for overcoming relational barriers to find common ground, racism took its toll. Dylan Roof, a confirmed racist, murdered Sen. Pickney along with eight other innocent parishioners gathered for Bible Study/Prayer Meeting in the basement of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killings galvanized the nation around race and racism.
In what quickly became a legendary act of forgiveness, some family members of the brutally murdered victims publicly forgave Roof during the preliminary hearing. While each of the family members talked of the pain that Roof had caused them, they decided to absolve themselves of hatred by the courageous act of forgiveness. That tragedy and the heroic response of the family became an important impetus for South Carolina to finally remove the confederate flag from public spaces.
Recently, forgiveness has again been a topic of discussion. Amber Guyger, a white Dallas police officer, shot and killed Botham Jean, a reputable young African American, as he ate ice cream in his own apartment. Guyger admitted that she aimed to kill out of fear after entering the wrong apartment by mistake because she was tired from a long shift. After a trial and examination of the evidence, jurors decided it was murder.
The victim’s brother embraced the convicted murderer during her sentencing hearing and forgave her. Importantly, after the sentencing hearing, the presiding judge in the case embraced the defendant. Judge Tammy Kemp, still in her judicial robe, walked over to Guyger to give her a Bible and a hug. Together, they then prayed. This was after one of the courtroom officers stroked the defendant’s hair. The officer’s sentence of 10 years with the possibility of parole after five years is a very light sentence under the circumstances.
While some lauded the brother’s embrace as well as the judge’s action as commendable, it was appalling to many, myself included. My problem is that the in-court action of the brother and the judge sent the wrong signal as it relates to justice. Why was the act of the family members of the nine who died in Charleston so moving and appreciated, while the embrace of the police officer is being widely criticized, particularly within the African American community?
It goes to the nature of how authentic forgiveness operates. On my return trip from the funeral of Sen. Pickney, I stopped through Atlanta to attend a church service led by the esteemed Rev. William Whatley, Senior Pastor at St. Phillip AME Church, a sister church to Mother Emanuel. With the killings in Charleston fresh on everyone’s mind, the Rev. Whatley’s sermon was profound in its simplicity and entitled “Forgiveness, what it is and what it isn’t.”
Functional forgiveness, according to Whatley and others, has the following considerations: Forgiveness is not forgetting. The phrase “forgive and forget” is not reality. Secondly, forgiveness does not mean you no longer feel the pain of the offense. Forgiving someone who has sinned against you doesn’t mean you cease longing for justice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing the harm done to you or making up with the person who caused the harm. Forgiveness does not mean you are to make it easy for the offender to hurt you again. Finally, forgiveness is rarely a one-time, climactic event.
Under this formulation, one can see a stark difference between the heart-moving forgiveness offered by family members of those killed in Charleston and what I, and many others, consider to be the disturbing actions of the brother of the deceased and the judge during the sentencing hearing of Officer Guyger.
The third listed tenet of what forgiveness is not, is the proposition that forgiveness does not mean that you cease longing for justice. When Botham Jean’s brother requested permission to give defendant Guyger a hug during the sentencing hearing, he inappropriately and perhaps inadvertently, stepped in the path of justice for his brother’s killer. For the brother to do his act of public forgiveness during the middle of the sentencing hearing and while the jury was considering a sentence may have served to lessen the justice of an appropriate jail term. (Editor’s note: Jean’s brother requested permission to hug Guyger after her sentence was handed down.)
The judge’s action tended to diminish the excessiveness of the police officer’s action to a watching community. Justice is supposed to be blind but to those observing this spectacle it was a jarring and mitigating contrast to the treatment of so many African Americans by the justice system. The actions on behalf of Guyger are consistent with the supportive treatment of police officers in cases of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and multiple other cases involving the killing of African Americans. The officers in many of these cases did not even stand trial. Importantly, around the same time of this sentencing debacle, another judge sentenced a young African American juror to two weeks in jail for oversleeping and being late for a trial.
Lady Justice is supposed to be blind, but she somehow manages to peek around her mask to have sympathy when police have perpetrated injustice against African Americans and little empathy when people of color are defendants. For this, we cannot and must not forgive.