Brandt Jean’s call for forgiveness set off a few alarms. We should listen.
Consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit.” — Audre Lorde
Brandt Jean, brother of 26-year-old Botham Jean who was shot dead in his own apartment, extended nothing less than amazing grace to the officer who killed his brother.
Jean not only forgave Amber Guyger. He expressed love for Guyger. And then he asked permission to embrace her, which he did a very long time.
It was astonishing and beautiful in its authenticity.
Yet, I couldn’t share it. Couldn’t like it, love it, be sad or angry about it.
There are no emoticons for moments that reveal our deepest, fullest humanity. Especially when our country has a history that continues to haunt us.
No need for a history lesson. We already have too many fresh reminders like Garner, Brown, Bland, Rice, Jean and many others to believe that the next death of an innocent black or brown citizen will end in justice: a sentence that is equally meted out, regardless of race.
But when a white defendant is remorseful, admits error, and is female, the handwriting on the courtroom wall becomes more convoluted. Before sentencing, it appeared to read: This verdict ain’t gonna satisfy nobody.
As I scrolled through my feed after Guyger’s sentence — accompanied by footage of Jean’s statement and the long embrace, followed by the judge hugging Guyger (which I still can’t wrap my head around) — I realized that this verdict would please a lot of people.
And that’s a problem.
Shouldn’t We Try a Little Tenderness?
Brandt Jean’s actions embodied the best of what is humanly possible. The problem is not his humanity.
“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” — Audre Lorde
The problem is that this miraculously tender moment gone viral encourages illusions that make us (especially white people) feel better. It sparks hope that if this can happen, things aren’t really all that bad and maybe they are getting better.
Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted that “racism and white supremacist ideology can’t be ‘hugged out.’” The Rev. Michael W. Waters, Dallas pastor and activist, expressed deep concern about how acts of forgiveness (as were extended by members of the historically black Charleston church in 2015) “have been weaponized to thwart our work for justice in this nation.”
Brandt’s actions should not be mistaken as a feel-good indicator that our legacy of racism is fading or ending, that we don’t have to pay as much attention or work quite as hard to combat inequalities, or (gulp) that black people are becoming more tender toward their oppressors.
If we make that mistake, we are fools.
If we are vilify Guyger, we are fools.
If we take up for her, we are fools.
The False Dichotomies Between and Within Us
“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.” — Audre Lorde
None of us — within any race, ethnicity, or gender group — is alike. We nod in understanding the dangers of stereotyping, yet if we know two or three Indians or Israelis, for example, we’re tempted to generalize those people’s traits and behaviors to entire cultures.
Black Americans can be equally foreign to white people who say they have black friends, but most often have superficial exchanges or no relationships with them. In fact, most white Americans have no black friends. No wonder why so many Americans actually don’t see — as Lorde put it decades ago — others’ meaningful whole, as other aspects of them are ignored or denied.
This is why it’s so important not to see Brandt Jean only as a black Christian man. Yes, he’s a paragon of grace and agape.
But he’s not the black guy who “gets” white folk.
He’s not giving this country a pass.
He probably struggles with mercy and justice. Just like everyone.
Justice and Mercy
Not between groups, but within each individual exists our greatest differences. And each person is infinitely more complex than hundreds of assessments, surveys or even our autobiographies could possibly reveal about us.
Take the popular Myers-Briggs Temperament Sorter. One of its forced-choice questions is What do you value more: justice or mercy? I don’t like that question. My context-specific head wants to know: to whom and what situation, exactly, would this question apply? There is no box for it depends.
Mercy is compassion shown to someone who is powerless or to someone with no right or claim to receive kindness. And justice is guided by truth, reason, and fairness with the aim of being righteous, equitable, or moral.
Which is more important?
In a perfectly equal and equitable world, no one would need mercy and we’d be guided by justice that works for everyone.
But we do need mercy. Not only because our religion, ideology or spirit might urge us to. But because we don’t have justice for all.
Mercy is tenderness. And tenderness can be much harder to give than justice. Especially for people who rarely receive either. And particularly for people like Brandt Jean who offered mercy to someone who represents the power behind and within an unjust system.
Of course, I don’t know thoughts or emotions that Jean might have wrestled with before deciding to publicly forgive Guyger. It seems he would agree with Audre Lorde: that the risk was worth it.
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” — Audre Lorde
Listening at the Intersection of Mercy and Justice
We are entrenched in the same systems of inequality, inequity, and political polarization. Because the systems affect us very differently, we must listen to one another. And especially when we don’t like or agree with what’s said, to remember:
“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” — Audre Lorde
Speakers need listeners.
Last week, over 500 registered American voters were invited to spend a weekend outside Dallas to prove that there might be a better way to disagree. (Amazingly, as tension in Washington was building over the possible impeachment of the president, Trump’s name barely came up.)
Put a diverse group of people in a room…and they’re likely to mute their harshest views and wrestle more deeply with rebuttals. They become more informed, even more empathetic… not just relying on sound bites and tribal cues. — The Upshot, New York Times
If you want to listen locally, Better Angels is an organization run by citizens that unites red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America. My experience with a Better Angels workshop helped me understand several republicans’ views (and those views were surprisingly diverse). It also empowered me to ask questions about the whys behind those views.
Sometimes just asking questions creates space for people to question their own beliefs.
And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.” — Audre Lorde
We can choose to answer the call (and all the alarms) by speaking up. Even when we’re afraid. And we can listen to others who, like us, also get afraid.
Let’s not allow Brandt Jean’s words and gestures to be swallowed in the syrup of the internet, only to become a soon-forgotten meme. Or worse, provide maudlin evidence that all is well.
Audrey Lorde’s body of work is proof that we can stand strong for justice and keep our hearts tender.